I get asked this question quite a bit: “What is the advantage of a small ice surface?” It is a simple question, with a complicated answer. I’ve heard other peoples’ answers to this question, and have heard other people speak eloquently about the advantages of a small ice surface. But I want to give my personal answer here. There is an old saying about hockey: “The game teaches itself”. I believe playing 3v3 on a small rink, aides in that “teaching”. Here is what I mean:
I grew up in the metro Detroit area. And I had the opportunity to learn, experiment, and figure hockey out on my own for much of the time; on frozen lakes and ponds, and in parking lots on inline skates. If I played with the older kids on the pond or lake, I was forced to move my feet to get open, or I’d never get the puck passed to me, and I’d just be standing there...freezing. Once I figured out I had to move my feet to get the puck, the next thing I learned is “if an older kid passed me the puck, and I couldn’t pass it back, he’d never pass me the puck...ever again”. So I learned to move to get open, and to look to pass the puck back, after I received it.
After moving to Carmel, I had the privilege of coaching the Carmel Icehounds Gold Team; first as an Assistant Coach to Jack Manard (while I was in law school), and then as Head Coach (after I graduated).. During that time, I had some great players to coach; kids who were big, fast, could handle the puck, and had great shots. However, at times, those players struggled with “playing as a team”.
I’d tell people (and I firmly believe): “if you put white jerseys on our kids, and on the Compuware Midget AAA team, and had the players skate through 4 cones and shoot, you probably couldn’t tell which players played for the Icehounds and which players played for Compuware. However, if we played the Compuware team in a game...we’d lose 14-0.”
Hockey is a constantly changing game. When your team has the puck, you have to move your feet to get open; to “get away from the other team’s players. Then, if your team loses possession, or there is a “question of control of the puck”, you have to transition from offense (moving away from their players) to defense (finding a player and making sure he doesn’t get between you and your net).
Hockey is a game of “transitions”. And those transitions happen quickly. Players have to recognize the transition from offense to defense and back to offense again, depending on which team has possession of the puck. And those transitions happen quickly. The ability to recognize those transitions, anticipate them, and react to them, is what separates hockey players of similar skill levels.
On a small rink, those transitions happen even more quickly than on a bigger ice sheet. Learning to transition quickly, in a small area, makes playing on a bigger ice sheet seem easy (with more time and space) by comparison.
Having addressed the advantages of playing on a small rink, in teaching kids to play hockey, I’ll now move to the advantages of playing 3v3.
When playing 5 on 5, players have the ability to take “parts of shifts off”. For example, if a player is a Left Defenseman, and his team’s Forwards are battling for the puck in the corner in the offensive zone to the right of the opposing net, the Left Defenseman can (wrongly) stand still in an unathletic position (with his stick in the air) waiting to see who wins that puck battle.
However, playing 3v3, there are no “positions” and players do not have the luxury of taking “parts of shifts off”. First, as I stated above, transitions happen much more quickly on a small rink. Players must constantly be in motion, looking to jump into space if their team has the puck, and then looking to quickly transition to defensive posture if the puck is turned over to the other team. Second, if a player on your team has the puck in 3v3 hockey, he only has two “options” for players to pass to. If his teammates are standing still, and not moving to get open, the puck carrier is screwed. A player CANNOT stand still on a small rink playing 3v3. If he does, he will never receive the puck, and instead will constantly be helping his goalie dig pucks out of their net.
By playing 3v3 on a small rink, players are inherently learning to move their feet to get open (when on offense), and to move their feet and “find a guy” (when on defense). And they are learning to recognize and make those transitions more quickly, than they would playing 5 on 5, on a larger ice surface.
The other advantage of playing on a small rink, is it teaches players to make “hockey plays”. All too often a good, young player will be allowed to get the puck (on a full-sized rink) and carry the puck wide, out of his zone and into the offensive zone. Which is fine when that player is 8-10 years old. However, as that player gets older, and other players “catch up”, the player discovers “carrying the puck wide” doesn’t work anymore. But that player never actually learned how to “play hockey”; how to move quickly into space, receive a pass, and then make a pass to a teammate.
On a small rink, “carrying the puck wide” or “doing it all yourself” doesn’t work. The rink is too small. Players MUST move their feet, make passes, receive passes, and work together. The small rink forces players to learn how to play hockey.