Opportunity to Play Up? Tread Lightly.
So, since day one of travel hockey, my oldest son has played up. He's a 2009 birth year and for his first season of travel hockey, he played on a 2007 birth year team.
It's not something to brag about.
The picture over there is from day one. Just remember that look.
Four seasons on a 2008 birth year team followed with...mixed success.
He enjoyed it, I guess.
He says that he did, anyway.
At the root of it all, that's all that matters.
At the same time, though, I knew full well that he was perpetually near the bottom of the depth chart on his teams and that that, alone, wasn't fair to him and would likely lead to him not wanting to play at all.
I'd originally anticipated that he'd play 3 years at the mite level (U8) where his third season would be his breakout year because he'd have that extra advantage of, you know, having it done it already once (or twice) before.
There wasn't a skill appropriate team in our area for him so...he moved up to squirt with his teammates.
Okay, I thought, I guess we'll play squirt (u10) for three seasons.
Not ideal...but, he's hanging in there.
I mean, he's not a liability but...not an impact player either.
And then, before we knew it, we were playing peewee for familiar reasons.
The youth hockey journey happens fast -- enjoy those first few seasons as much as you can. I cannot stress that enough.
So, same deal, we couldn't find a 2009 birth year team that suited him.
I mean, there were certainly options available and pitches were made by other programs in our region, but we always circled back to the fact that his 'adopted' 2008 birth year team was the best fit.
His first season of peewee went...okay.
Again, he wasn't a liability defensively but he also wasn't getting, in my opinion, many opportunities to showcase what he was capable of.
Like, he wasn't ever short shifted or anything but, well, he had more in his wheelhouse that never saw the light of day...like his uncanny success rate on penalty shots.
Defenseman that stay back and, you know, play defense don't get breakaways very often. That type of thing.
And while he doesn't have cannon from the blue line, his power and accuracy from between the circles is better than most -- he just never had the puck on his stick in those areas and his teammates would never feed him the puck there even if he was open because he was widely regarded as a lower end player -- a hole so deep he couldn't really ever dig himself out of.
And I get that.
I saw that.
And anytime I'd overhear a snide remark from another parent, I'd think but never vocalize, "You know what? Your kid wouldn't even be a spare part if they played up cause they wouldn't even make the team."
After 3 seasons of pitching in less than a handful of goals -- three goals as a squirt and two as a peewee -- I knew he was better than that but I'm certain that he didn't think he was better than that.
And that was a problem.
Confidence, in any walk of life, is 80% of the battle.
He wasn't confident in his own abilities because he so frequently found himself competing against kids that were 6 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier.
That's a tall task.
In short, he had the talent to hang with them but, in all fairness, really shouldn't have been expected to play with them.
Call that an excuse, if you please...
I'll disagree with you -- size may not be everything but it certainly matters in youth sports...
Duncan's not undersized -- maybe slightly smaller than the average 11 year old -- but the picture over there is him and his d-partner for the better part of the last two seasons.
That should help you visualize the type of physical challenge he's been up against year-over-year.
Now, granted, that kid is pretty big...but he's actually 3rd or 4th in line on the current roster when it comes to size. The "playing up" routine was looking more and more dire.
During the tryouts for the current season we're in now, while ensuring the 2009 team would have a coach, a perfect coach for this unique situation, we made the decision to have him play with his proper birth year.
It was overdue.
It was tough, though, socially, for him as he'd been with the same kids for 4+ seasons. Most of his teammates didn't realize he was a year (or two) younger and I know it was awkward for him to NOT be on the ice with 'his' team -- but another team of players he just barely knew -- during the tryouts.
And, really, a year or two doesn't sound like a big deal but some of his former teammates are going into high school and growing wispy moustaches while he's just entering 6th grade and still getting used to not having recess anymore.
His first year of mites, a majority of the kids on his team were 25% older than he was.
So, yeah, when you think about it that way -- or just look at the freakin' pictures -- he was never on a level playing field, err, ice surface.
Such a disservice to my son.
That's on me.
So, on his new age appropriate team, the first two games of the season, a goofy summer tournament before we'd even had a team practice, were shutout losses.
He looked...okay...but it really felt like a continuation of what his style of play, and place on the depth chart, had looked like for years.
Was I concerned I'd made an error?
You bet I was.
The next game was against a more competitive club -- one in our league -- and he had an assist on the only goal in a tough 2-1 loss.
As a defenseman, going +1 with an assist in a 2-1 loss is a solid game.
Even in defeat, that game energized him, as that assist came after he'd picked the puck up behind his own next, stickhandled past one forechecker, carried through the neutral zone, entered the o-zone wide before feeding the puck to a wing that buried it.
In previous seasons, he'd have picked that puck up and banked it off the wall the moment the first forechecker approached him.
Now, suddenly, err, finally, he was using the skills he's had in his back pocket for years but rarely ever used.
In the following game, with this newfound confidence in his skillset, did he attempt an ill-advised coast-to-coast rush?
Yep. He did.
Did he get back in time to cover for his terrible decision?
Yeah, he did. Thankfully.
I do fear that he does a total 180 turn and becomes the dreaded puck hog.
Anyway, in the third period, the game was tied at two and the opponent had all of the momentum. His team just couldn't maintain puck possession -- they'd get a rush here and there but they very looked like a team that had never practiced together.
They get an o-zone faceoff following an icing and win the draw. His D partner fires a shot from beyond the circle and it hits someone in front. Some ticky-tocky non-possession puck movement and then it squirts out to Duncan at the top of the left circle.
He backpedals wider towards the boards to get a better shooting lane as there's a ton of traffic in front and fires the puck towards the net.
He knew it was in the net the moment he took the shot -- a shot he's sniped thousands of times practicing at home in the garage -- arm in the air and his seldom heard throaty "Yeah!" goal exclamation.
Hugs all around -- first lead of the season for this team.
Kids were excited.
I was excited too -- the kid that usually waits until February to contribute anything offensively already has a goal.
Uncharted territory for us.
Having the lead, as it often does, boosted the entire team and, aside from a last second frenzy pinned in their own zone, the other team never really recovered.
That goal, in a tournament where we'd finish in like 8th place, was HUGE for my son.
The very next practice -- the FIRST practice -- he was a new player.
A confident player.
The type of player that genuinely believes that they can be a difference maker.
Two years ago? A year ago? He was just that kid doing his best anxiously hoping that thing went his way because he'd just been physically beat down by bigger, strong, and older players over and over and over.
Now, every practice for the past three weeks, he walks in expecting to be dominant.
He didn't get any better. Or bigger. Or stronger.
He's the exact same player he was 8 months ago.
He's just confident in his own abilities now.
And, sure, it kills me that, well, maybe I should have done this sooner?
You know, provide him a more fair opportunity to succeed but, honestly, this was the perfect time.
His coach, as I kind of alluded to earlier, is going to hold him to high expectations.
He'll get called out every time he doesn't meet those expectations. I love that.
Good coaching is of the utmost importance in youth hockey.
Tons of articles on this site regarding that sole topic.
The days of "blending in" as the 11th or 12th guy down the depth chart are over -- you need to show up.
You need to contribute.
And here's the thing that I've tried to explain to him -- this season will be the reward.
You didn't get demoted.
You didn't get cut.
This is not a negative -- you're playing with and against the age group you always should have been playing with and against.
In the first game of the regular season -- a 10-1 blowout loss -- he was triple shifted on the blue line a few times.
You could tell he was gassed. Like, done. DONE.
He even went to the door for a change during one of the looooooong shifts and was waved off. You need to stay out there.
That's never happened to him before. I mean, he's found himself waiting on the bench due to a selfish teammate's eternity shifts before but never, ever, sent out there and told to stay out there when it was already apparent that he was struggling to move.
It's a new responsibility and something, afterwards, I could tell that he was proud of -- he got the nod to be one of the players that played down the stretch.
He didn't exactly execute it perfectly, no, but he was still proud that he was allotted more ice time than he could physically handle at the coaching staff's discretion.
Further, I've let on that second chances don't come around very often -- this is your second chance at playing as a first-year peewee. Make the most of it.
He had 10 points over 63 games the first time around.
Pretty certain he'll eclipse that total in less than a month.
Well, provided the upcoming games aren't also 10-1 blowout losses, of course.
Regarding second chances...
So, I was a pretty elite distance runner in high school.
I took it pretty seriously back then, or so I thought at the time, and managed to finish 19th in New England for Cross Country.
Staring at the trophy right now -- still proud.
Not kidding. It's on a shelf above my desk...almost 30 years later.
And, I know, I know, 19th place doesn't really sound very impressive in the hockey community.
Like, seriously, there was a trophy for 19th place?
Yes. Yes, there was.
But Cross Country is essentially a solo sport so, equating it to hockey, the 19th highest scoring player during the 2019-20 NHL season was Mitch Marner.
18th place went to Alex Ovechkin.
So, yeah, a dude like Alex Ovechkin finished a half-second ahead of me.
I was a pretty big deal, just sayin...
So, after high school, I go to university in Canada and find myself so far behind academically (they have an additional year of high school in most of Canada) that I enroll myself in the local high school the following year...while I'm also a university student.
It was as awkward and as humbling as it sounds. I can't deny that.
So, being that I was still age-eligible to compete in high school athletics in Ontario, I joined the high school cross country team...
That was my athletic do-over.
I vividly remember my final lap around a track as a high school athlete in the States and how, deep down, I knew it was my LAST lap and sprinted the whole thing.
The end was, well, anticlimactic and kinda sad.
Fast forward a year and a half later, in another country, and I'm at the starting line for my first cross country meet against a field of runners that I've never even seen before.
And that's when it hit me -- this is an opportunity to do something most people don't get another shot at.
No one here knew me. I really had nothing to prove. And I had nothing to lose either.
So, I went with it -- I was all-in.
This unexpected opportunity to relive the "glory days" was a gift.
I won that race.
Like, it wasn't even close.
Mentally, no one was going to beat me that day.
I'd convinced myself of it before the gun fired.
And sure, I was a university level athlete running in a high school race but, by age, I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
In that manner, it directly relates to my son's situation.
I remember our coach, he was like a 9th grade science teacher or something, asking me afterwards, "Where are you from again?" kind of in shock by my commitment and effort to win.
I think I was confirming, right before his eyes, that high school athletics in the States are as insane as some television shows make them seem.
But, honestly, had I had that kind of commitment and effort during my first run through high school, I could have been so much better. So much better.
So, yeah, after that, I was all-in.
I got the school t-shirt.
I wore a cross country jacket to my university classes.
I even let the girls put the little blue paw print, a school spirit thing, on my cheek for the rest of the season and really pushed my teammates, and anyone else in listening distance, to put everything they had into each race.
And I'll never forget at an OFSAA event (like a State level meet), I was in 4th place coming into the final mile or so and I caught up to the kid in third and he was huffing and puffing. We still had visual contact of the leaders.
I turned and said, "Stay with me -- we've got this. Stay with me!"
In distance running, you don't hear that very often. And certainly not from non-teammates.
I knew he found it weird but I suppose I shamed him and he picked up the pace and hung on my shoulder as we reeled in the kid in second...and then the kid in first.
Final stretch, where all the coaches and non-competing runners are hanging out -- really, the only crowded part of the course -- and I'm out front turning my head yelling at the kid to "Stay with me!".
My coach, afterwards, and the girl’s team which had already run, were like, "What was that all about?"
So, I finish first and the kid that had essentially convinced himself that he'd finish fourth finished a second or two behind me. Kids in third and fourth are still confused about what just happened.
So, we get our silly ribbons and that kid thanks me for pushing him. His team's coach thanks me too.
Six years later, that kid goes on to win Olympic gold in the triathlon for Canada at the 2000 Sydney Olympics by cutting the field down, one-by-one, in the foot race.
Do I think he was hearing my voice in his head saying, "Stay with me!" during that event?
Probably not. Really unlikely, actually...
But I do like to think I had a tiny something to do with his mental running strategy -- something nearly all triathletes are terrible at.
What can't any triathletes run?
So, what's my stance on playing up these days?
Well, just like I was 4 (or 5) seasons ago, I'm still against playing up.
It's not a great idea.
Eh, I shouldn't say that, how about this?
It's a risky idea.
I say that because the potential was very real for Duncan, my oldest, to just be done with hockey entirely...because it was just too hard all the time and, well, it's not really a whole lot of fun to continually be regarded as one of the worst players on the roster.
The upside is that, if your player can carry that weight on their back without being overly discouraged, their skillset really does develop beyond their age-appropriate peers...even when it doesn't feel or look like it at all.
It's a risk.
One more year with the older players and he'd have quit. He would have. No doubt in my mind.
I'm certain that my son is playing EXACTLY where he needs to be playing this season - cause this, what he's experiencing right now, is the reward.
And the coaches involved are so, so, so important for it to work out well.
His coaches while he played up never cut him slack due to his age -- he was expected to keep up.
His current coach knows where he came from and holds him accountable and has a high expectation for him -- my kid might have tons more experience than a majority of his teammates with a d-zone breakout but he's getting called out over EVERY mistake.
Player/Coach wise, it's a perfect situation where, even though he's near the top of the depth chart now, he won't get a moment to rest on his laurels in practice -- which sounds awful but it really isn't.
I think Duncan is actually thankful he's had to do countless push-ups in past seasons -- 25 of them isn't that big of a deal any more. All of that "practice" over the years is paying off.
So, yeah, scroll back up and take a look at the picture at the top of the article and then this one down here at the bottom.
Stark contrast, right?
Same kid but, in one shot, he's very obviously just barely hanging on and in the other shot, nothing is going to stop him.
The kid down here is going to score on you. And he'll run you into the boards if you try to beat him outside. Because he knows he can.
So if playing up is in the cards for your son or daughter, keep in mind that self confidence is far more valuable than an endless uphill battle.
And the coaching should be a huge factor as well.
As always, the quality of the coach outweighs the quality of the full roster.
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