Coach Nielsen's Ice Hockey Drills

Small Area Games Part IV


Every small-area game is governed by a number of conditions and rules that dictate how the game will be played and which skills and concepts will be highlighted. Conditions and rules must be closely followed; otherwise the game may not help players accomplish the predetermined goals.

Conditions and rules are what separate and distinguish one small-area game from another. Coaches must feel free to use their imagination and understand the needs of their team when designing a game. The only limit on the number or type of games is the coach’s creativity. Here are just a few of the important considerations to make when applying conditions and rules to small-area games:

The placement and number of nets. Where the nets are placed and how many nets are used may the most important consideration a coach can make when implementing a small-area game in a practice. The most common mistake made by coaches when placing nets in small-area game is to simply place the nets against the boards when playing cross-ice. Small-area games are used as a means of replicating real game situations and the nets are not placed against the boards during a real game. Unless there is a purpose for placing the nets against the boards, move them out and give players space to operate behind the net.

Another consideration revolves around the number of goaltenders that will be involved in the practice session. Many youth teams may only have one goaltender available at any given practice session. In these situations, implementing drills that only require one goaltender and/or having a quality net cover available for the second net would be advisable. Many high school or college programs, as well as youth teams sharing practice ice, may have three or more goaltenders on the ice at any given time. Again, the coach must plan ahead to ensure that each goaltender receives and adequate amount of work.

Increase or decrease the area of play. Expanding or reducing the area of play will have a tremendous impact on any small-area game. Reducing the area of play will require players to focus on puck protection, lateral movement, stops and starts and puck support in addition to many other skills. Increasing the area of play will free up the ice, allowing players to carry the puck more, make and receive more passes and reach higher skating speeds while still having to function in a limited space.

Add support players. Many of the games illustrated in this manual allow for the addition of support players. Support players are typically added to create odd-man situations and opportunities in an even strength game. Support players can play for one or both teams and are typically confined to specific spots on the rink. Coaches can choose to have support players perform certain functions and may also choose to limit what support players may do, such as not allowing them to shoot the puck.

Increase or decrease the number of participants. A simple way to change the look and feel of a small-area game is to increase or decrease the number of participants. Adding players to a game will immediately decrease the amount of available space on the ice. Conversely, decreasing the number of players will open up the ice and allow for more free-flowing movement.

Confine players to specific areas. Restricting players to a certain area on the ice is an easy way to create mandatory odd-man situations for the offensive team. Players can be confined to one end of the ice, be forced to stay above the face-off circles or below the goal line, behind the net, in a corner or placed in a stationary position at any given location. Different rules and conditions may be applied to these players than are placed on other players in order to affect the flow of the game and target specific skills.

Require a certain number of passes or puck touches. Requiring each team or player to make a certain number of passes or touch the puck a number of times before attempting a shot on net is an easy way to work a number of skills including passing, receiving a pass, puck support, creating time and space and a better ability to read the ice. Placing these types of conditions into a small-area games force offensive players to work harder than usual to find open ice as defensive players are aware that a shot cannot be taken until the requisite numbers of passes or puck touches are made. Defensive players are more likely to play the man aggressively in these situations.


In the opening section of this guide to small-area games, we took at look at the current paradigm of American hockey practices. Hopefully, as you’ve begun to study small-area games and what they can do for your players and teams, you’ve experienced the beginnings of a paradigm shift.

As you introduce small-area games into your practices, I ask that you stick with them for a while. In the initial few practices in which you use small-area games, the games are sure to look like organized chaos. Most players, due to their lack of overall hockey sense and decision-making skills, will not know how to react to the play taking place around them. However, when given a chance to develop, these same players will begin to make plays, get themselves into position and display skills that were not visible only days or weeks earlier.

I encourage you to create your own games and implement them into your practices. Know your team, know your players, be responsive to their needs and have fun!

One area that I have not addressed in this guide is the amount of practice time that should be devoted to small-area games. I intentionally ignored this subject because I believe that it is unique to each coach and his or her team. Some coaches use one game per practice while others practice almost exclusively with small-area games.

I truly believe that small-area games should be the cornerstone of your practice plans. At this point, if you still haven’t experienced a true “paradigm shift”, begin slowly by implementing one small-area game per practice in place of your traditional conditioning drills. Experience tells me that you’ll soon be using this wonderful teaching tool as a much larger part of your daily practice regimen.

Beyond that, I wish the best of luck to all hockey coaches. Have fun teaching this great game and enjoy the young men and women you have the privilege to work with. You are a part of their lives and they will remember you. Make those memories special.

Filed under: General, Small Area Games, Systems, , , , ,

2 Responses

  1. Tom J says:

    Coach–I’m so glad I found your website. Thanks for all the great ideas, articles and drills. While I have been using some of the methodologies you discuss, I’ve found many great new ideas. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing. We find the small game drills very valuable.

  2. Jeremy Weiss says:

    Once again – great work on this small games series… I loved reading it. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

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