My first year as a first-time ice youth hockey coach

My first year as a first-time ice youth hockey coach

This blog post was authored for FTLOH by Alex Stein, a hockey dad and a youth hockey coach for the Bedford Bears in New York. 

How I got here

Hockey has always been my favorite sport. I started playing after falling in love with the game during the New York Rangers Cup run in 1994. As a 40 year old man, I still play beer league hockey and couldn’t have been more excited when my son wanted to start ice skating. At 3 years old, he started ‘parent and me’ learn to skate class and flew through four different levels of Snow Plow Sam, every week asking when he could start “real” hockey. 

I spent a lot of time researching every hockey organization in the area and eventually landed on the Bedford Bears, which prided themselves on teaching the kids to love the sport while focusing on teamwork, gratitude and perseverance; not just developing hockey players but developing good people.

During his first Spring Clinic Season Garrett worked tirelessly with a U16 team member who became a mentor and role model. His first mini-mite U6 season was an incredible experience. And then, as his second season was about to begin, his team needed more parents to volunteer as coaches and Garrett wanted nothing more than me to be his coach.

Challenges and solutions

Our U6 team has 23 players. This is incredible, so many young kids wanting to get out on the ice and learn the sport! HOWEVER, they range in ability from a five year old who does crossovers, mohawks and picks corners on every shot to a 6 year old who falls down every time the puck approaches them.

The coaching staff needs to develop a program that challenges and keeps the top players engaged, while not discouraging the newer players and ensuring they continue to progress and keep up. This problem is paired with needing to keep Kindergarten and first graders focused and paying attention sometimes coming from soccer and baseball and other times at 7am.

Finally we are trying to walk the tightrope of encouraging battling for the puck and being aggressive; while keeping kids from letting the aggression turn into fighting or behaving dangerously. 

Learning the ropes

I have always paid very close attention to my son’s lessons. Mostly because I like picking up little tips to clean up my own game and being able to have thoughtful and engaging conversations about things he finds challenging. This made me think I had a great list of drills that my little guy has enjoyed and helped him progress.

The USA Hockey coaching program was eye opening as to how to clearly explain how to complete a drill, why we do the drill, and how to demonstrate it all in a way that resonates with a mini mite audience.

Finally, the Head Coach of the team had been working with the program and this age group for three seasons and happily took the lead.

The keys to success: Limit the time waiting in a line, always have someone setting up for the next drill while the team is doing the previous activity, and change what they are working on every 10 minutes. Ten minutes sounds quick - but it is six drills in an hour, three fun: sharks and minnows, foxtails, keep it up, soccer…etc. and three more focused: skating, puck control, passing, shooting…etc.

On bonding and developing leadership

Every practice we end with a simple tradition. One player gets awarded the “Player of the Day” Shield (it may be a Captain America toy). The key, though, is this doesn’t go to the player who scores the most during the scrimmage or skates the fastest in a race; it goes to the player who works hard, helps someone, does an act of kindness.

They get to skate a lap showing off the shield to the parents and then lead the team in a cheer. 3, 2, 1, BEARS. And everyone is pumped.

Game Day energy 

At this age, we are not solely focused on wins during game day. We are trying to roll lines that are relatively even. We are encouraging good spacing, passing the puck and making smart plays. We cheer for our teammates and encourage them throughout the game. We also are constantly reinforcing concepts we taught during practices on the bench as we can see them in action. Everything is kept upbeat and positive.

At the end of the game, everyone hugs the goalie and everyone is nothing but kind during the handshake line. Win or lose the shield is going to the hard worker.

Last Saturday, one of our players scored six goals, his linemate who is a weaker skater worked his butt off and played great D and got apples on a couple of those scores. That effort earns the shield. The locker room conversation is all about the fun and lessons and tweaks are all handled as part of the next practice’s drills.

Final thoughts

I got into this for more time with my son, more ice time for myself and the opportunity to teach a few more kids an incredible sport. I’ve learned it's harder to coach your own kids than other peoples’.

I’ve learned that having a strong team and organization around you is beyond important.

I’ve learned a whistle is needed or you’ll lose your voice every weekend.

I’ve also learned that seeing the smiles when a skater scores their first goal, when they master a new skill or start to feel confident on their edges is beyond rewarding.

One warmup suit in team colors is not a lot of pay for 2 practices and at least one game a week for 26 weeks, but it’s beyond worth it. Next season my son will move up and I may hand him off to the next set of parent coaches, but that’s because his little sister will need me to lead the next generation of Mini Mites.

Let’s Go Bears!


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