By Melissa Walsh
“Mini-mites, it’s as good as it gets,” said a veteran hockey dad to a mini- mites dad. Overhearing this, I couldn’t help but to nod in agreement. This was about two years ago. I was seated in rink bleachers enjoying five- and six-year olds playing a cross-ice scrimmage. My youngest son was among them.
There’s nothing cuter. Fearlessly, these tiny skaters chase the puck like little terriers after a ball. Bunched up in a pack, they manage to gain control of the puck, then take it to the net — hustling, falling down, getting up again, and sometimes even passing. The coaches look on smiling. No systems. All instinct. No swearing or fighting, and usually no penalties. The mini-mite experience is innocent fun and a pure love for playing a game. For organized, indoor hockey, it’s the closest thing to the freedom of kids playing on the pond.
And mini-mite parenting is so simple. You get them dressed in the gear, find a spot in the bleachers, sit back, and smile. That’s all you have to do to nurture a mini mite’s love for the game.
At a local hockey camp one summer, I heard a pee wee ask Florida Panther David Booth what the most important thing is for making it in the NHL. Booth said, “Never lose your love for the game.” I think about Booth’s comment as I watch the little mini mites play. For them, hockey is just another game, and the love for it is just taking root.
Unfortunately, however, I occasionally observe a mini-mite parent uprooting a child’s love for hockey. Whether they’re scolding their little one for making a “mistake” on the ice or for just not “trying hard enough,” I think to myself, “That poor kid doesn’t have a chance. He’s going to lose his love for the game before mites.”
While hockey players of yesterday developed instincts and a love for the game on the pond, today’s youngsters are expected to develop this passion in a structured, adult-controlled environment. If we’re not careful, we’ll over-manage potential hockey players into stressed out kids who play hockey.
Trenton Youth Hockey’s Frank Murphy, a nationally recognized pioneer of instructional hockey for little kids, insists that hockey skills must be developed in a “fun-filled environment.” In a USA Hockey Magazine profile in 2004, Murphy said that to be a more effective hockey teacher, he had to learn how to get into the heads of mini-mites. They have short attention spans, they process what you say literally, and between drills they like to talk to the coach about kid stuff, like birthday parties and cartoons. I concluded from the article that Murphy’s great success at Trenton was grounded in treating five and six years olds like they’re five and six. This requires patience, kindness, and acting a little zany as needed to keep their attention.
Mini-mites is a non-competitive level, designed for FUNdamental development in learning and loving the game of hockey. If you have a mini-mite, I recommend letting him pack his favorite stuffed animal in his hockey bag. Let him brag to team mates about losing his first tooth. Let him act a little silly with his little buddies at the rink. Smile a lot. Cheer them along. Never scream at a mini-mite (or at a mini-mite coach or ref), even from behind the glass. And don’t discuss your mini-mite’s performance during the car ride home. To assess your mini-mite’s development, my advise is simply to ask him, “Are you having fun playing hockey?”