As the head coach of Lake Superior State, Damon Whitten spends the majority of his time working with NCAA Division 1 college hockey players.
Twice a week, however, Whitten coaches an incredibly different type of player.
He works as an instructor for a Learn To Play program in Sault Ste. Marie.
Whether it’s coaching his future professional hockey players or coaching his future pee wees, however, Whitten – a Michigan State alum - likes to shrink down the playing surface. For the Lakers, small-area games offer opportunities to refine their skills. For the little ones, a smaller surface for practices and games means they’re maximizing their ice time and building a strong foundation to grow with the game.
“I’m helping out with Learn-To-Play up here in the Soo, my son is 5…it’s been an interesting perspective seeing it from that side,” said Whitten, who has also coached at Michigan State, Wayne State, Alaska Anchorage and Michigan Tech. “Small-area games, we do that multiple times per practice with the Lakers, with our college guys, and there’s a ton of value at that age. With my son, and the Learn-To-Play hockey, it’s just getting all those areas – having them react and learn quickly in those tight settings is really important for them.
“The thing I like best about it for the young guys is the multiple pucks – they’re getting a lot more puck touches and a lot more development within those practices, versus all that space and time when they’re doing those bigger drills.”
With a sized-down playing surface and station-based drills, kids stay engaged.
“We’re on twice a week with our Learn-To-Play in the Soo, and you do some of those bigger things and there are kids that aren’t involved at all, they’re floating way off and lost a little bit,” the Brighton native said. “When you can break down into small areas and smaller ice, they seem to have more fun, and you’re getting a lot more of the fundamentals in.
“The change of pace, where they have to skate in quicker and smaller areas, helping them with their skating ability and their agility is important and again, just having fun with multiple pucks and playing those games, they’re having a blast out there, they’re really enjoying it, as opposed to when you go into bigger areas, it’s a little bit like baseball where they’re out in left field picking flowers or hanging out.”
As Whitten points out, USA Hockey’s American Development Model can be incorporated into even the highest levels of play. His Lakers squad utilizes small-area games frequently in practice to replicate game situations.
“For me, and I’ve been at a lot of different schools here, too, I think we’re always trying to teach hockey knowledge and reads, going to good areas, how to teach goal-scoring or being around the net to score goals, putting yourself in good position,” Whitten said. “I think what we all find and what’s been proven out watching NHLers and watching the highest levels and what the ADM has put in place is that small-area games are the best way to do that. They have to react extremely quickly in those situations, they have to learn to go to good areas, to be good defensively, to shut things down, but also on the offensive side, it’s split seconds where they have to react to go to good spots and create offense and create goal-scoring habits. For us, that’s what we’re trying to mimic - how to make those lightning-quick reactions that you see in the game. You might have it one time in a game, or maybe the best players at our level, they might have two or three situations in a game where they have a chance to show that offense or that goal-scoring ability. In a small-area game in practice, you can replicate that and make that happen 10 to 15 times and really the best way the best way to try to get those habits into place.”
For young hockey players and their parents, Whitten stresses the importance of building a strong hockey skillset, and not worrying so much about the results on the ice.
“I think, coaching at our level, even as we’re recruiting guys, whether they’re 15 or 19, we’re still looking and saying hey this kid has something special offensively or skating ability or a unique skill set that separates him from other guys,” Whitten said. “Goal-scoring, stick skills, skating ability – we still feel like at 18 or 19, we can teach them how to play away from the puck, we can teach them a forecheck system, a structure. That’s not important, but he has to have that skating ability, that stick skill or that unique skill set that can make him a Division 1 hockey player.
“Certainly when you’re going down to youth hockey, that’s what it’s all about. You have to be able to skate in today’s game. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t even have pucks with our Learn-to-Play – we would just skate the whole time, because it’s so important in today’s game. That other stuff can certainly wait, and can be taught at a much later progression.”
Whitten understands the drive for success; as he pointed out, his job’s on the line when it comes to wins and losses. But that shouldn’t be a driving force for hockey parents as their children grow through the game.
“I guess just try to listen to the NHL coaches talking about it, college coaches talking about it. We live it every day, and obviously our job is on the line a little bit with wins and losses, so we get it and see some of that, but it’s not about that. If the little ones are going to have a chance, it’s going to be their skill set. It’s their skating, it’s their stick ability, it’s having fun at this point so they love the game and want to continue to work and get better. Wins and losses definitely don’t mean anything. We recruit guys from all different players and programs, but it’s unique skill sets that we’re looking at to get into our program.”