Over the years, I’ve participated in dozens of ice sessions, both as an official and as an instructor. The primary purpose of ice sessions is to give officials the opportunity to practice their skills outside of a game situation. While there is certainly no substitute for game experience, ice session drills develop officials’ technical skills and allow instructors to draw attention to details that might be overlooked in a formal supervision or shadow game. Having said that, ice sessions are difficult to run well, regardless of your experience as an official. Unless you’re with a very good organization, it’s very rare that there is training for instructors. And if you’re like me, who didn’t attend an ice session until I had been officiating for three years and wasn’t regularly supervised until my seventh season, you are probably a very good official and you have no idea how you got to be so good; which makes it difficult to go back and teach and mentor younger officials. With this in mind, here are five tips (learned the hard way) that will make any ice session easier for you to run and more meaningful for the participants.
1. Start on time
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how few ice sessions actually start on time. Officials will drift on to the ice over a period of 5 or 10 minutes, then they go through a 5 to 10 minute warm-up skate, and only then does the ice session properly begin. The problem is that if you’re running a 75-minute session, you’ve just used 20% of your ice time and you haven’t even started on the drills; not an effective use of your time or theirs. Make it clear that everybody needs to be on the ice on time, go through a brisk warm-up, and then launch right into your first drill.
2. Have a plan
In my time as an official and as an instructor, I’ve seen countless instructors (both novices, and experienced instructors who should know better) walk into an ice session thinking they can “wing it” and I have never seen that approach work out well. Just as teachers have lesson plans and coaches have practice plans, an instructor must have an ice session plan. Secondly (and equally important), write your plan down on paper; both drawing the drills on a rink diagram and jotting down some key points. Keeping a plan in your head ranks is almost as bad an idea as not having a plan at all.
Writing your plan down will give you practice explaining your drills so that you can communicate with your fellow instructors as well as the officials attending the session. The written plan will also serve as a reminder for you when it comes time to actually conduct the drill; it’s easy to remember the drills and their order when you’re sitting at home, but when you’re out on the ice, it’s surprisingly easy to forget.
3. Drills have to be applicable in a game situation
Another obvious one! But it isn’t as self-evident as you might think. For every drill an official participates in, they have to be practicing a skill that will be useful in a game situation. Further to this point, not every drill is applicable to every official; wherever possible, instructors should attempt to separate officials based on their level of experience. For example, a basic end-zone positioning drill where the official goes through the three positions of the piston system will be extremely beneficial for a first-year official who is still learning the fundamentals of officiating; however, the same drill would likely have little or no benefit for an official with three or four years of experience.
As an instructor planning your drills, you should have a very clear idea of how the official’s skills will be improved by participating and be able to explain it to the officials, as well as your fellow instructors. The best way to do this is to put it down on paper (see Tip #2); if you can’t explain the overall purpose of the drill in one sentence, either think harder, ask for help, or change the drill.
4. Communicate the key aspects and the in-game application of each drill
It’s easy to forget that officials won’t necessarily recognize the key aspects or in-game application of a drill; especially in the case of less experienced officials. For example, when participating in a drill in which officials skate around the centre-ice circle, instructors simulate penalties, and the officials then make the call, officials often fixate on correctly identifying the penalty. Obviously, identification of penalties is an important duty of an official, however it is only a very small part of the drill as a whole. Instructors should be more focused on the officials’ penalty procedure (demeanour, signals, vocals) than the infraction itself.
Before each ice session, all the instructors should meet and discuss the drills that will be covered, as well as the key aspects and applications of each drill. This can be done ahead of time or just at the rink, prior to the ice session. While different instructors may be leading certain drills, every instructor should be intimately familiar with every drill. Then 5-10 minutes prior to the ice session, conduct the exact same meeting with all the officials who will be participating in the ice session. Each drill should be drawn up and explained to the officials, as well as the key aspects and in-game applications. The drills will still have to be explained again, immediately before they are conducted, however it is much easier to communicate with people sitting in a room than standing out on the ice; an explanation in the room will likely save you two on the ice.
5. Ice sessions must be fast-paced
A typical ice session can have anywhere from 10 to 30 officials in attendance and the ice gets crowded very quickly. Chances are that officials will start goofing off if they aren’t occupied, especially when it comes to younger officials. This isn’t because they’re disinterested per se, but because they’re out on the ice with their friends and that’s what kids do; the same thing happens in hockey practices or classrooms. The good news is that there are simple ways to counteract this and make sure your session is paced to within an inch of its life.
a) Explain the drills to the officials in the room before the ice session (See Tip #4) – minimize the amount of ice time spent talking, wherever possible.
b) Split the officials up into smaller groups – most drills can be done at both ends of the ice. This decreases the amount of time officials spend standing in line waiting for their turn.
c) Have officials skate “one hard lap” (or two) in between drills. This is especially important when drills are done at 50-75% speed (in order to focus on technical aspects) because officials should break a sweat on the ice. It also has the added benefit of giving the instructors time to prepare for the next drill.
d) No leaning on the boards or hands-in-pockets – if an official is caught violating either of these rules, everybody skates one hard lap. I used to be unclear on the point behind this, but I now realize its about keeping the officials engaged. Having one’s hands in their pockets is the functional equivalent of texting in class, and leaning on the boards is the equivalent of sleeping in class; if an official is doing either of these, I guarantee they’re not paying attention. The added benefit is that once everybody has skated a couple of hard laps, the officials will police themselves and make sure nobody else leans on the boards.
Ice sessions are an extremely valuable tool in developing officials and are a lot of fun to instruct but, like anything else, require practice to plan and execute well. Adopting these five simple tips will go a long way to improving the quality of your ice session for the officials and make it easier for you and your fellow instructors.
Dan is a Level IV Hockey Canada referee, officiating in the PJHL, BCIHL, and BCMML. Since 2011, he has been serving as the Director of Officials Development and as the Assistant Referee-in-Chief at the Vancouver Thunderbird Minor Hockey Association; in this time, he has instructed over forty on-ice instructional sessions. He has also had the privilege of instructing at two BC Hockey Summer Schools and has been a HCOP Course Conductor since 2013.