At the moment, the Michigan hockey team is only allowed to practice on the ice for four hours a week.

Compound that with COVID-19 restrictions not allowing more than 10 players on the ice at a time, and the situation is less than ideal. With uncertainty around when games will begin and the unlikelihood of exhibition games, teams will have a tough time getting game-ready for the start of the season — whenever that may be.

But the Wolverines have found a creative way around that.

Every Saturday since practices began at the beginning of September, Michigan has used its optional skate time to hold 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 tournaments.

“You want to be in game-like situations and you want to create that,” associate coach Bill Muckalt said. “Even though you can tell that it’s, you know, a scrimmage, it has turned into a competitive (game). They really push each other. And I think that’s what we want to do. We want to simulate. 

“They want to play in games in an environment. So I think if it’s, you know, whether it’s 3-on-3 or 4-on-4, it gives our players an opportunity to make plays and to, you know, create time and space.”

3-on-3 and 4-on-4 hockey are different animals from the standard 5-on-5. With fewer players on the ice, there is significantly more time and space, making it a little easier to control the puck. It’s in no way a substitute for 5-on-5.

Even though the Wolverines can’t fully replicate 5-on-5 hockey in these tournaments, playing at 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 is still beneficial.

“(The biggest benefit) for me, just simulating a game style,” junior defenseman Nick Blankenburg said. “Especially Big Ten we play 3-on-3 overtime after the first five minutes so I think a lot of guys can work on a lot of different things that will pay off for teams in the playoffs. Winning a 3-on-3 overtime can give you that extra point.”

Each week, six players are picked as captains for the tournaments and the captains pick their teams from the rest of the roster. The teams are different each week, allowing players to develop chemistry with more than just a small group of teammates. The greatest beneficiary of the team variation has been the freshmen, who have been able to learn the playing styles of their new teammates and get a feel for the college game, even if it is just a scrimmage.

“It might be a little intimidating for those new guys to come in and kind of, you know, gel with the group right away,” junior forward Jimmy Lambert said. “So it’s definitely nice every Saturday to break up into groups of four or three and allow the freshmen to express their opinion or us to hear their voice a little bit more.”

While the tournaments have helped the team from a hockey standpoint, what the players like most about them is that they’re fun. With the strict COVID rules that the team put in place, there isn’t much else for them to do.

“It’s definitely fun to get out with the guys on a Saturday morning,” Blankenburg said. “Just kind of have a little fun and let loose.” 

Starting this Saturday, Michigan will be allowed to practice 20 hours a week, and might not be able to hold the tournaments anymore. 

But for the first month of the school year, they have been a highlight for the Wolverines.

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