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3-on-3 allows young players in Barrie to develop other skills

 DAVID MANN, Special to the Examiner

Six-year-old Ocean Dinel of the Bears pushes past Ben Fraser of the Predators during the recent Three on Three Christmas Tournament at National Training Rinks in south-end Barrie. MARK WANZEL/PHOTO

Six-year-old Ocean Dinel of the Bears pushes past Ben Fraser of the Predators during the recent Three on Three Christmas Tournament at National Training Rinks in south-end Barrie. MARK WANZEL/PHOTO

In just the NHL’s second season of 3-on-3 overtime, the new format is beginning to change the game of hockey as we know it.

Even though it’s limited to five-minute intervals, the open ice created in 3-on-3 is proving to do more than just prevent regular-season games from ending in shootouts.

Take Auston Matthews, for instance. The Leafs star rookie grew up playing hockey in Scottsdale, Ariz., on small sheets of ice and with few players.

“It helps in every aspect of your game,” said National Training Rinks co-owner and NHL Hall of Famer Mike Gartner. “It teaches quick transition, quick thinking, quick passing, and it’s a lot of fun.”

It would be fair to say Matthews excels in all these aspects of hockey, as does San Jose Sharks defenceman and Barrie native Brent Burns, Philadelphia Flyers defender Michael Del Zotto and the Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos.

It’s not by coincidence these players share these skills, especially considering they all grew up playing 3-on-3 hockey at some capacity.

Even Gartner, whose resume includes more than 700 goals, jokes that had 3-on-3 been implemented in the league when he was a player, it might have helped his game.

“I think one thing that it would have done is help me with my hands a little bit,” Gartner said. “I had pretty good hands, but I was always a really good skater.

“I’ve always said, ‘my hands didn’t catch up to my legs until about my third year playing pro’, so maybe it would have been sooner,” he added.

National Training Rinks Barrie, located on Big Bay Point Road in the city’s south end, recently held 3-on-3 tournaments for kids born between 2006 and 2010.

The three NTR rinks -- in Barrie, Newmarket and Richmond Hill -- have been offering specialized hockey training programs for over 20 years and the 3-on-3 concept is nothing new.

In the same way that soccer players develop skills by playing futsal on smaller surfaces and with a smaller ball, so do hockey players.

Dave Patriquin, general manager at the NTR Barrie facility, says what he likes most about this style of hockey is the high pace.

“I like it’s just kind of non-stop,” he added. “You’re always in the play, you get more puck touches, it’s quicker, lots of offensive chances, 2-on-1s, breakaways. There’s a lot of skating.

“Conditioning has to be up, but you don’t have to skate so hard as in 5-on-5; you’re always sort of involved,” Patriquin said.

Even if you wanted to escape the flow of the game, you don’t really have a chance. The Barrie rink’s dimensions are only 130 by 60 feet; that’s almost half the size of an Olympic rink.

“It helps with hockey awareness, skill development, making plays because there are so many more opportunities to make decisions and make plays than in 5-on-5,” Patriquin said. “You may get three shots on net in a game; if you’re a strong player in 3-on-3 you may get eight to 10 shots.”

With less players on the ice at once, there are far more opportunities, so Gartner, who retired in 1998 after 19 seasons, believes 3-on-3 is one of the only ways to punch the seams.

“They’re trying to create space, and they’re trying to create creativity for the players,” he said, explaining the NHL’s reason for bringing in 3-on-3. “The game is so rigidly coached now. They have to come up with something that is hard to defend against.”

As well as managing the NTR Barrie rink, Patriquin also coaches a minor hockey team. The aim of theee 3-on-3 tournaments is to attract players.

“It’s a good break for the kids from their regular competitive season. They get five games in one day,” he said. “They play kids from all different areas, kids they wouldn’t normally play in the season. We put two age groups together, so usually it’s a little more competitive for them.”

After playing in a tournament like this one, the kids usually come away, smiling, exhausted, and, regardless of their skill, they’ll tell their parents that they touched the puck a lot more than usual.

As for the future of 3-on-3 hockey, it likely won’t evolve any further into the NHL or junior professional leagues, but it could trickle down.

“I think you could do it in minor hockey,” Patriquin said. “There’s nothing worse than going somewhere (to a road game) and ending in a tie.”

Whether 3-on-3 takes flight in the minors or not, NTR says it will continue to make it a focus of theirs and it’s clear that this brand of hockey is on the rise. 

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