One of the hardest things for a coach to develop in their players is on-ice awareness.
POP QUIZ: Think about the current state of your team. If you blew the whistle during any game would your players be able to answer these questions:
- Where is the puck?
- Where are your teammates?
- Where is the other team?
- Where is there open ice?
Chances are, the players have limited awareness. Most players will able to answer question # 1. Some will be able to correctly answer where one immediate teammate and defender is. Most players will not be able to let you know where most of the players on the ice are and where the open space on the ice is.
Why is it hard for players to answer the 4 questions above fully? Because most players don't practice keeping their head up and scanning the ice. Lots of teams only practice with memorization drills (static drills around a cone) and they do not practice keeping their head up to scan the ice. As a result of this, players play like they practice and only follow the puck.
It is important for coaches to keep this in mind when choosing drills for their practices and maintain a balance between drills that have a pre-determined outcome and ones where the players make the decisions.
At times, a youth hockey game can look like a mob blindly following the puck. But, if you incorprate this concept on a consistent basis, you will start to notice players playing with their heads up, skating to open space with and without the puck, and using verbal and non-verbal communication to work with their teammates.
Below we dive into two simple, yet highly effective games that use "Gates" to help players practice playing with their head up. The game forces players to constantly keep their head up and scan the ice, which will improve their hockey awareness.
These games are great for all age and skill levels. The games can be modified to be easier or tougher depending on your team's skill level. For example, the smaller the Gate, the harder it is to score! At the bottom of this post we will dive into more variations, but for now, let's get to the games!
We would suggest to start with the passing exercise first (Game # 1), before moving onto the 3 vs 3 situation (Game # 2).
1) Gates of Buffalo Passing Game
Objective: The goal of the Gates of Buffalo Passing Game is to pass the puck through the gates as many times as possible before time runs out. You can not pass through the game gate twice in a row! Keep score and challenge groups to compete for the highest score!
2) Gates of Buffalo 3 on 3 Game
Objective: The goal of the Gates of Buffalo 3 on 3 Game is for each team to pass the puck through the gates as many times as possible before time runs out. You can not pass through the game gate twice in a row! Keep score!
Gates Game Variations
- Players: For the passing game you can play with 3, 4, or 5 players at time. For the 3 vs 3 game you can also play 2 vs 2, 4 vs 4 and 5 vs 5.
- Ice Space: Both games can be played on 1/4, 1/2 or full ice.
- Scoring: Keep score between teams to encourage a natural competition. One point for a pass through a gate. Passing through the same gate doesn't count! You can also give players the ability to score points by skating through a gate.
- Goalie: If you have a goalie (for the passing or 3 v 3 game), require 2 or more passes through the gates before players are allowed to take a shot on net. Once a shot is taken, the players need to go back to working on completing 2 passes before they shoot again. This will require the goalie to pay attention. Encourage the goalie to work on tracking the puck during the passing before a shot comes. If your goalie needs help on their Shuffling, or T-Pushes, have them visit our Goalie Development page.
Setup Suggestions for Elite Players
- Make the gates smaller. You can even flip a tire so it is standing up and the players need to shoot through the tire.
- You can add a hockey stick at the bottom of each gate so players must "sauce" through a gate and over the stick for the point.
- Add various obstacles on the ice such as sticks, cones, tires, etc that players must be aware of and need to stickhandle, pass and skate around.
- Require 3 or more passes before they can take a shot on net.
- HEAD UP! Encourage players to keep their head up and scan the ice at all times.
- Get to Open Space: Encourage players to always move to open space on the ice. Do not allow them to stand still and pass the puck back and forth.
- Finding passing lanes when you have the puck and jumping to open space when you don't have the puck so your teammate can pass to you is extremely beneficial during the Gates games (and in real games).
- Verbal & Non-Verbal Communication: Encourage verbal communication (calling teammate by name, saying you are open, etc) and non-verbal communication (good eye contact, showing a passing target, tapping a stick, etc) between teammates.
- Open Up: Encourage players to open up so they can face the puck and the majority of the ice so they are in a position to scan a greater area. If they are only facing the puck and facing the boards, it's hard to know where the open ice and other players are.
- Make Mistakes: Allow players to make mistakes. It will take time to get comfortable with these activities, especially at the younger age levels. But as time goes on you will see them picking their head up to make a decision, which is the goal of these small area games.
Question for the coaches: How else can you use gates in drills or games to require your players to keep their head up and make a pass? The two games above are simple examples but this concept can be built upon with additional creativity from the coaches!
Why do we call these games "Gates of Buffalo" and not just "Gates?"
The game has been called "gates" in the soccer & hockey coaching world. We decided to add Buffalo to it for two fun reasons: First, IHS has strong ties to Buffalo, NY. Secondly, the imagery of a Buffalo can help drive home to your youth players why you are practicing this game. If you do not pick your head up and use your teammates while playing the game of hockey, you run the risk of getting trampled by the other team. This can feel like getting run over by a Buffalo (physically or on the scoreboard). This game helps prevent both of those situations by forcing players to keep their head up while communicating and working with teammates to score goals.
How to Further Develop Awareness
If your players get comfortable with playing Gates, continue to encourage them to play with their head up at all times. Whether it is a scrimmage, a drill, or a small area game, it is important to drive home that players should be practicing with their head up. Yes, at the beginning players will lose the puck while they are stickhandling with their head up, but over time they will get better at using their peripheral vision.
The whole game changes if players can keep their head up to look around before they have the puck, when they have the puck and after they get rid of the puck.
Below are 5 additional activities that will help players develop awareness and jump to open space:
- Run Ragged Small Area Game: A simple, yet effective hockey game that helps players learn how to jump to open space when they do not have the puck so they can become an outlet for their teammate.
- 7 Pass 2 on 1 Hockey Game: A game where two players work to complete 7 (or 5) passes in a row against a defenseman. It is critical for players to keep their head up, protect the puck and jump to space when they don't have the puck.
- Corner to Half Wall 2 on 1: A game where two players work together to complete 4 passes in a row against a defenseman along the corner boards. If they are successful, they get a shot on net! If the defense breaks up the play 2 times, they are awarded a shot on the net!
- Offense to Defense 2 on 2: A 2 on 2 stations where teammates must communicate with each other and keep their head up to be successful.
- Picket Fences (2 on 2 or 3 on 3): A fun small area game setup where the offense tries to score on a goalie while the defense tries to skate the puck through the "fence."
- 80+ Small Area Hockey Games - small area games are great for players to work on keeping their head up and getting to open space.
- 6 Games to Practice Decision Making - a list of 6 games to help players work on their decision-making skills.
- Develop an Off-Ice Stickhandling Routine - spending a few minutes every day off of the ice will help players learn to stickhandle with their head up!