Wide-open success with 4-on-4 hockey at Kansas City Ice Center

APRIL 2015 – There are two ways to define success in the world of sports business: participation and wins. Or maybe it’s wins and participation.

Either way, the folks at the Kansas City Ice Center can call the switch last spring to a four-on-four competition a success. After years of running a spring season of regular five-on-five leagues, the KCIC switched to a four-on-four competition and it paid off.

“Last year was our first year doing this, and we went from 120 registrations to 250 registrations in the first year,” said Dean Nelson, general manager of the KCIC. “The registrations are at the same level this year.

“There’s a huge demand for it because the kids love it. And not only do the kids love it, but everyone loves to watch the wide-open style of hockey. If you watch NHL overtimes, which is four-on-four, that’s the most fun hockey to watch.”

That’s one side of the success, but Nelson said he’s seen evidence right away that the switch made sense.

“It’s a proven fact the more you put kids in situations like this where they have to think, the better off they are when they return to the more structured game,” he said. “They can’t rely on their teammates; they have to hone their skills. These things set us apart from other youth organizations in the area. This year, we had three teams in the finals for the Missouri Hockey Association. That’s the most we’ve had in the four years I’ve been here. We’re really changing the landscape.”

kcicecenter.comPlaying four-on-four is not only more fun to watch, but it enhances the offensive skills of the players. Nelson said players who might be a bit timid in the more tightly bunched five-on-five game have to, and even need to, take charge more.

“There are a lot of kids who got better skill-wise and made a big leap last year,” he said. “A lot of that had to do with the four-on-four. A lot of that is confidence. At a young age, you get nervous and the tendency is to throw the puck.

“What the four-on-four games did was develop confidence in handling the puck. The four-on-four is a lot of individual battles. If you have confidence that you’re strong enough to win those battles, it goes a long way. That’s all hockey is, winning the individual battles.

“The thing with four-on-four is that in enhances the kids’ creativity. It enhances their ice awareness. It allows kids of every talent level to excel more in their skills. The biggest thing it does is allows all the kids to play. It’s not just for the traveling kids or novices. They all get put on the same teams. It not only enhances their skill level because it’s faster, it allows kids of every level to touch the puck more and shoot more.”

Another advantage to replacing traditional hockey with the four-on-four game is checking is not allowed. That helps the players’ bodies heal from a winter of contact.

“It’s a safety deal,” Nelson said. “As many injuries as happen in hockey, plus the concussions in every sport, it’s a good time to rest the body. Also, in the four-on-four leagues, we’ll take volunteer coaches. The coaches, who coach all year, get to rest too. We get our coaches from the parents who don’t get a chance to coach as much. The coaches get a break too. The four-on-four is less structured, and there’s less coaching. It’s more for fun, it’s rec hockey.”

It is focused on skills-enhancement, more than team competition. They won’t even have playoffs. The structure of the game is a little more fluid too. There are two 27-minute periods with a running clock. There are no stoppages except for off-sides. After an off-sides or a goal, the team converting to offense takes the puck out of its own zone with no resistance until center ice. Every minute, the horn sounds and the teams have line changes on the fly. The only face-off is at the start of the game.

The season is a two-month season beginning in late March and continuing until Memorial Day. There are up to 12 skaters and two goalies per team, so every skater is on the ice every three minutes.

It took a few years for Nelson to convince the management group that four-on-four hockey made sense.

“In Minnesota they do it every spring, and sometimes in the fall as well,” he said. “I asked our management team to do it here. They didn’t go for it at first because it wasn’t what they’d done. When they saw the registrations go from 120 to 250, they knew there was some excitement there.

“It will help when we go to the unification of the area hockey programs in the future. We want to be innovative. We already have programs in place, and we hope the other programs (Independence and Lion Creek, up near the Legends) will join us.”

If the other programs are wise, they’ll recognize the impact that four-on-four hockey has made at the KCIC. Then they’ll incorporate it into their programs. After all, success breeds success.

No matter how you define it.

Camp registrations are open

Camps and clinics at the Kansas City Ice Center begin July 6 and run for six weeks. The first four weeks are clinics for skating, shooting and all-around skills, followed by “battle camp.” The final week is a clinic for new players. The clinics run daily for a week, with each day comprising training from 1-5:30 p.m. It is two hours of on-ice training, followed by off-ice training.

Battle camp is an all-day camp that puts all the skills together in competitions.

“It’s our fourth-annual camp. Sean Fornier, an NHL Stanley Cup winner who is a friend of mine from Minnesota, comes down to help us,” Dean Nelson said. “We tried it to see if it would work in 2012. We sell out the spaces within weeks of opening up registration.”

The first 30 from each age group get into each camp and clinic. For battle camp, the first 70 get in. Four years ago, they had 23 kids involved in two weeks of camps. Last year, they had 350 kids over five weeks. With the extra week of camp this year, they will have more than 400 kids involved.

Registration is open. Go online to kcicecenter.com or call the KC Ice Center at 913 441-3033 for more information.

Article by David Smale

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