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Too small for big ice

Faced with player burnout, youth hockey programs try easing up

At the John A. Ryan Skating Arena in Watertown last Friday night, the air was loud with the sounds of coaches shouting, skates shaving ice, and pucks thunking against the boards. The few dozen skaters, nearly unrecognizable in cage helmets and bulky padding, are the smallest of hockey players. Some learned to walk only a few years ago.

“You got it!’’ yelled Bill Kelly, one of the coaches, as a player lobbed the puck in the general direction of the net. “Nice job. Next!’’

In some hockey programs, these young skaters would already be playing on the full length of ice, 200 feet long, the same as TD Garden, home to the NHL’s Boston Bruins. The littlest players might have dozens of games each season - stretching through much of the year - and spend hours traveling to their opponents’ rinks. In warmer months, their parents might spend hundreds of dollars for hockey camps.

But the youngest players at the Watertown rink are on the front lines of a new philosophy of how best to teach hockey: Ease up a bit.

These Watertown skaters, ages 5 to 9, practice more than they play games, and the games for the smaller ones use one-third of the rink’s surface, giving each player more time with the puck.

“Imagine taking your 4-year-old or your 5-year-old on a full sheet of ice and say, ‘Go play hockey,’ ’’ said Jan Wolff, coach for some of the youngest Watertown players. “That’s a pretty daunting experience for a tiny little kid.’’

Wolff and some other hockey coaches are echoing concern about the diminishing number of hockey stars produced in Massachusetts. The lament has been voiced often this month, with the US hockey team at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver including just a single player from Massachusetts, a significant decline from past years.

At Boston University this winter, only three players come from Massachusetts; a decade ago, the number would have been about 15, said coach Jack Parker.

“There are more recruitable players from the state of Texas and the state of California than from the state of Massachusetts,’’ Parker said. “That is unbelievable.’’

He is among the coaches and enthusiasts who say the dwindling numbers of homegrown hockey stars can be blamed in part on rigorous team schedules, with too many games and too little practice.

“I know kids who are 12 years old and are playing 100 games a year,’’ Parker said. “It’s absolutely insane.’’

Many players, especially the youngest, are dropping out of hockey programs. Over the last five years in Massachusetts, about 16,000 youngsters quit before they turned 8, according to Roger Grillo, regional manager for USA Hockey’s developmental program. “The research shows that it’s burnout,’’ Grillo, a former hockey coach at Brown University, said of the declining participation. “It’s too serious too soon.’’

The national organization issued a new set of age-appropriate guidelines, dubbed the American Development Model, for this season that encourage coaches to make hockey more fun for players, placing less emphasis on games and winning and more emphasis on learning the sport.

During a hockey game, Grillo said, even the best player might only touch the puck for a total of about 90 seconds. During practice, however, players spend much more time handling the puck and, therefore, learning to play, he said.

Other states have already started to change their ways. In Minnesota, youngsters don’t play full-ice hockey or join traveling teams until they are at least 9, Grillo said. Two years ago, Vermont also banned full-scale hockey games for players 8 and under.

Rob Barletta, a director of the Northeast Elite Hockey developmental league in Walpole, said he also believes players need to focus more on practice than on games. His teams practice three times and play one game each week. But he disagrees with the idea that younger players should not play games on the full length of ice.

“I think the rewards for the kids is playing the game and playing the real game and actually learning at a young age,’’ he said. In Watertown, coaches are trying to adhere to the new USA Hockey model. During Friday night’s session, the players were divided into four groups, each one taking a corner of the rink to practice such skills as skating backwards or passing the puck. The skaters regularly slipped onto the ice, limbs sprawling, then scrambled up again quickly.

This was a practice session with Watertown, Arlington, and Belmont players, part of an informal collaboration between coaches from the three communities. Ice time, the major cost for hockey programs, is expensive, and sharing means players can practice more. This night there was a special guest: Karson Gillespie, a former Boston University goalie. He lauded the approach to make hockey more fun, including the push to help players become well-rounded athletes.

“I think with hockey now, you’re looking at kids getting burned out at an early age,’’ he said after the practice. This happens especially, he said, “when you’re playing hockey all year round and . . . your other buddies are out playing baseball and you really want to be that kid playing baseball with your buddies but your parents want you to play hockey.’’

Some of the fault, hockey coaches say, lies with overeager parents pushing their children to focus on hockey, sometimes to the exclusion of other sports. Ice time and equipment are expensive, and parents sometimes want to see results for their money in the form of school scholarships, if not a pro career.

Jay Hughes, president of Watertown Youth Hockey, said parents can easily spend thousands of dollars - per child, per season - and the investment makes them want results. They want their child to play more of the year, Hughes said, and make the most of their equipment, and they can get seduced by off-season hockey camps.

Ron Crook, whose 6-year-old son plays in the Watertown program, is a football coach at Harvard, and said his son fell in love with hockey when he watched games at the university.

“Any sport, I think you want to have a positive experience so they want to continue,’’ Crook said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at .