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Too Much of a Good Thing?

By Scott Harrington, 04/24/19, 2:15PM EDT


Weekend Tournaments Producing Diminishing Returns

Having worked in pro and junior hockey, I am familiar with the “three-in-three” concept.  When teams are trying to maximize attendance, or must consider players’ schooling, lots of games are crammed into weekends.

I can also tell you that the third game in three days tends to be $&%@ hockey…

So, what about the long-standing tradition of in-season high school hockey tournaments where teams routinely play four games in three days? – less than three days, really, when you consider the first is generally payed Friday night and the fourth is played Sunday morning.  Sometimes the championship tilt can be a good match-up, but how about those Sunday 8:00 a.m. seventh-place games?

It is difficult to measure the quality of a hockey game, but I don’t think many hockey players, parents or coaches would challenge the assertion that tired hockey players make for bad hockey games. 

The high school hockey culture is no different than youth hockey in that in tends to over-value the number of games young players cram into their schedule.  More games do not necessarily mean better development or better hockey.  There is something to be said for practice and rest.

Pat McKendry was the head coach at Walsh Jesuit from 2009-2019, where the Warriors host three tournaments per year at KSU Ice Arena.

McKendry had a problem with the standard high school tournament format, so he decided to change it up.  At each of the tournaments Walsh hosted during the 2018-19 season, teams played just once on Saturday.  To make up for some of the lost playing time, all tournament games consisted of three 17-minute periods instead of the OHSAA’s standard 15-minute periods.

The concept is less is more, or quality over quantity, when it comes to varsity competition.

“I always thought that playing two games in one day was a bit crazy and not very productive,” said McKendry.  “When talking with a few other coaches, we essentially came up with the same discussion points: #1 – it is to many games in a short amount of time, #2 – the second game on Saturday always has problems, and #3 – Playing 17-minute periods you don't lose much game time and the games are of a higher quality.  Truthfully it is a winning combination all around.”

While the quality of any given hockey game may be subjective, there are data points that can be collected on individual players through physical testing that compare how they perform in different environments.

To back his theory up with data, McKendry points to the research of Ken Martel, technical director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model.  With over 25 years of experience in player development, and a long history as a coach with USA Hockey, Martel is charged with helping to provide a framework for optimal athlete development for associations nationwide to follow.

Martel’s master’s thesis at Eastern Michigan University researched the T1EHL showcase setups, and our National U18 and U17 Teams, using the same technology that is being deployed in the NHL and others in high performance sports.

The full thesis paper, “Quantifying Changes in Accelerations and Heart Rate Indicative of Fatigue During Condensed Competitions in Elite Youth Ice Hockey Players” is available here for your reading enjoyment:

Ken Martel, technical director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model

What Martel found was that playing two games in a day resulted in significant levels of fatigue, effecting performance.

“My thesis just went to prove water is wet so to speak,” said Martel.  “As most people would assume players become more fatigued playing two games in a day. We just tried to quantify how much.”

The value of Martel’s research is that it quantifies the physical effects of playing two games in a day even when discussing elite players in highly-competitive leagues.

“For players ages 15 to 18, playing two games in a day resulted in significant levels of fatigue and shift-to-shift capacity was greatly reduced - up to an 8% decrement in power output, which for a sport like hockey that requires sprinting is significant,” Martel said.  “Keep in mind that a 2% drop in Accelerations (ACC) will definitely show up in who wins loose puck races, etc.”

Although Martel didn’t study the increased risk of injury due to playing a competitive contact sport while fatigued, that is also something that concerns many coaches and parents.

“We didn’t look at injuries specifically,” Martel admitted.  “But it is generally accepted that fatigue increases the potential for injury, so this is also a consideration.”


"We get grief from players and those in the golf world for having college golfers play 36 holes in one day, I cannot imagine having high school kids play two competitive hockey games in one day, that just cannot be good for anyone.  How is that even allowed?"

--- Hall of Fame College Golf Coach Herb Page of Kent State


“I feel with the way our country has become insane with youth competitive sports that high school hockey is in danger of becoming extinct in the next 20 years.”

--- Sylvania Northview head coach Steve Elliott

McKendry received positive reviews when he decided to buck the traditional wisdom, and culture, around weekend tournaments.

“Both players and parents alike have enjoyed the concept and truly embraced it,” McKendry stated.  “From the parents’ perspective, they love only having to come to the rink once in a day and not having the entire day spent around a hockey rink.  The same can be said for the players.  If you ask any of them, the second game in the day is always a tough one.  

There might not be as much push-back to this concept at the OHSAA level as you might think.

“I prefer one game per day,” said Shaker Heights head coach Matt Bartley.  “During the second game in a day, fatigue can lead to an increased risk of injury which can also carry over to the fourth game of the weekend.”

Bartel and the Red Raiders experienced the alternate format at the Walsh Thanksgiving Tournament and were scheduled to do so again at the Cleveland Jesuit Classic over the MLK Weekend, but severe weather only allowed them to get two games in.

“If you have depth, run four lines, six defensemen, use two goaltenders and possibly rotate some people in and out of the lineup it makes a big difference,” Bartley said.  “However, most teams are not in the position to do this.  I prefer one game per day with 17-minute periods.”

Sylvania Northview participated in the Greg Shupe Memorial Warrior Shootout over the holidays, and head coach Steve Elliott liked the format, but also sees a larger issue.

“We try to play all four lines and three pairings of defense throughout the regular season – especially non-league games – as a way of player development,” said Elliott.  “For that reason, we feel that we can handle the three or four weekends throughout the year that we play more than three games in a weekend.”

Elliott sees the number of games played as an issue with player retention – especially for programs in Northwest Ohio with the Michigan AAA scene so close.

“Doing what's best for our players as far as safety and competitive games is a huge factor and will always be at the top of our concerns, but player retention and keeping a competitive program as a public school is also in our thoughts,” said Elliott.  “With such a short window for our season we have heard from top players that they want a longer season, they want to play more games, and they want strong competition.”

Limited to a maximum of 35 games, including league post-season tournaments, some Ohio high school coaches may be hesitant to drop their game count.

“Playing three games maximum per weekend really makes it almost impossible for us to play more than 27-30 games,” Elliott said.  “I personally think that's plenty, but when prospective players see us leave 5-8 games unfilled it does become a conversation.”

It is part of a larger cultural issue in the country that sees younger and younger kids specializing in competition and parents spending more and more time and money on year-round training in one sport.

“I feel with the way our country has become insane with youth competitive sports that high school hockey is in danger of becoming extinct in the next 20 years,” Elliott warned.

Many coaches do not have the luxury of a deep roster.  Holy Name head coach Tim Sullivan only dressed 16 skaters for most games this season.  Many programs around the state suit up fewer than that. 

The Green Wave, Cleveland Cup champions out of the Great Lakes Hockey League, competed at both the Walsh Thanksgiving Tournament and the Cleveland Jesuit Classic this past season.

“I like the format for the fact that the second game on Saturday seems to breed bad habits when fatigue sets in,” Sullivan observed.  “With three longer games, we can test our late-game conditioning, but don't have to create bad habits for the duration of the game or tournament.”

McKendry would like to see more OHSAA programs move away from scheduling two games per day for tournaments that they host but, despite his positive reviews, knows it represents a disruption to the status quo.

“Everyone I've talked to likes the idea and agrees with it for the most part,” McKendry reported.  “But you always get a few people that question change, and it can take time in some people’s minds.”


--- Scott Harrington for Ohio Hockey Digest


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