Don't Switch Teams -- Switch Your Style of Play
As our fourth season of travel hockey gets underway, there's a trend I've noticed.
The team's best player always leaves.
For both of my sons' teams, without fail, the "best" player on the team has moved on to another program.
Every. Single. Time.
Maybe it's a case of "the grass is greener on the other side" and they just switch programs chasing something different?
I'm even guilty of proclaiming that you never, ever, want your child to be the best player on the team.
Maybe that's the reason behind it? I can't fault them for that.
Or perhaps they're recruited away due to their talent?
For real, that happens for kids as young as 7-years old. I can confirm that.
From a personal standpoint, it's a little perplexing but also quite flattering too that someone out there thinks your kid is stud.
But... I do have a better explanation -- one that I think is the most common reason behind the top end players at the youth levels moving on...
Looking back on it, and hindsight is always 20/20, it's never been the player's choice but their parent's instead.
Of course, all parents want what's best for their children. That makes total sense.
But I've found that the parents of these players are generally of the mind that their child's talent is being stifled or wasted and also think (and voice) that the coaching staff's decisions are terrible.
And in certain situations, sure, that can certainly be the case.
I mean, I've never witnessed that firsthand but there are certainly bad coaches out there.
Further, playing on a team far below your own talent level is, while confidence boosting, always detrimental to development.
Been there, done that, lesson learned.
But from my own experience these past few seasons, every single player I've seen switch teams under these circumstances ends up switching teams again the following season.
Taking that route is not a path to success. Dollars to donuts, a majority of them are pretty much done with hockey by the time they're peewees.
While I hope I'm wrong, time will tell.
Simply put, though, and I know I've said it over and over in the archives, they peak at ten years old.
And then it's over. Hockey is done.
And it's a real shame too cause, right from the get go, these kids are really REALLY talented players.
So what's the reason?
There's one thing they've all had in common -- they're selfish puck hogs.
Every single one of them.
And in far too many cases, the parents (or even the coaches) encourage it.
Look, I get it, if you son or daughter is bigger or faster than anyone else on the team (as well as the opponent), there's a huge sense of pride attached to watching your kid go end-to-end, toe-drag past helpless defenders, deke the goalie out of the crease, and then go bar down on an empty net.
Totally get that.
But when they do that 7 times per game, unassisted...ehhhh, there's a problem there.
No, it doesn't mean they should play up.
Instead, it showcases that they're NOT hockey players.
Re-read that last line. If your kid is scoring a ton of goals all by themself, they're NOT a good hockey player.
Now, I know a couple of those parents have extra lofty expectations and see their child as a prodigy -- the next Sidney Crosby or whatever -- as they ring up over 100 goals in a single season.
And, yeah, that's awesome. Dream big, right?
As a parent, I'm admittedly jealous as my kid only scores one or two per season -- absolutely. Yes, I'm jealous that my son hasn't developed that skill set yet.
And I'm sure the argument could be made that Sidney Crosby very likely did the same thing as a 9 year old goal scoring machine.
But I'd bet that with his 100 goals, he had 300 assists as well.
That's precisely why he's in the NHL.
It wasn't a me, me, me thing. It was a team thing.
Win as a team. Lose as a team.
A cheesy cliche, sure, but it's so, so, so important to get players in that mindset early.
It's even more important to get the players showing selfish tendencies to break those habits because those are the players that have the best opportunity to be exceptional hockey players later on.
One of the reasons these kids, instead, end up out of hockey before they're even teenagers is because none of their teammates like playing with them.
None of them.
Makes the social aspect in the locker room not so fun when nobody really likes you.
(Makes a little more sense why they change teams every season now, doesn't it?)
As those kids get older, and the games get more competitive, teams learn how to shut that one guy down.
One of my sons has been on a team where that single player certainly won games for us, all by himself...and, yes, all of the wins made it 'seem' fun for everybody on the team.
The wins, though, were masking the underlying problem -- the elephant in the room.
When we'd play those teams a second time and the opposing team would collapse on that player, he'd *still* try to weave through 5 players -- completely ignoring his 4 wide open teammates.
That's not a winning strategy.
The so-called "best" player was actually the achilles heel of the entire team.
It's a 180 degree shift...and it happens fast.
The elephant can't be ignored forever.
Plain and simple, though, the VERY BEST hockey players make everyone on their team better.
They can still be the leading goal scorer...but they should also be the assist leader as well. And they shouldn't cherry pick either. That's how teams win games.
Any opponent can shut down a player or two. That's easy -- my sons' teams shadow skilled players on the opposing team all the time and it's a great recipe for success.
The player being shadowed usually *still* tries to do it all by themselves which, of course, never works beyond mites. And more often than not, they get frustrated and take bad penalties when they find the game a lot harder to play than they're used to.
Can't score when you're in the penalty box, can you?
(On that note, ever notice how the "best" player often has the most penalty minutes too?)
On my oldest son's team, they can't ever fall victim to that kind of strategy -- the puck hogs have either left the program or been reconditioned to be team players. Really skilled team players.
Shut one kid down, if you can even isolate one to be a target, and we've got 13 more that are just as good and just as confident in their own abilities...but smart enough to pass it to the teammate, ANY teammate, with the better scoring opportunity.
It's the exact same in the NHL as it should be for mites.
When NHL coaches are asked how they plan to slow down an opposition superstar, they always reply with something along the lines of "It's not just Crosby, it's their whole team. It's not just Ovechkin, it's their whole team."
And then you look at the current state, past two seasons, anyway, of the Edmonton Oilers where it's been Connor McDavid, and that’s it...
You don’t need a degree in analytics to realize a one-man offence on a 20-man team is kind of a problem.
The NHL is loaded with clubs that can play smothering defence and they all concentrate their efforts on containing McDavid, knowing that until the rest of the Oilers prove otherwise, stopping him is pretty much stopping the entire team.
Now, Connor McDavid is anything but a selfish player but I'm using this example to showcase how ONE player can not do it alone.
Ice hockey is a possession game. The team with the puck on their stick the most usually wins the game and it's a lot easier to play keep-away with four other people helping you out than trying to do it all by yourself.
That's how a "team" wins games.
As a parent of a really skilled mite or squirt aged hockey player, if you don't comprehend that and still think it's all about scoring the most goals, individually, and you promote or incentivise that type of play, the joys of youth hockey will sadly end sooner than it should for you and your player.
If you're looking to leave a program because you feel the coach is putting a leash on your player or making them play defense when they clearly have a nose for the net -- take a step back and think long term.
Any bonehead coach can send their fastest players out there, double shifted, to win games by themselves.
Great coaches, though, teach those players how to make everyone good.
It might feel like that's holding your player back but, trust me, it'll pay off in the future.
That season Wayne Gretzky had 215 points in a single season, well, 163 of those were assists. That's what a hockey player should strive for. The Oilers of the 1980's dominated not because of Gretzky's own scoring prowess but because he made every single player on the roster a scoring threat.
So, just to reiterate it again, the issue is three-fold.
First, the selfish player alienates themselves from their teammates. No one wants to be on a line or paired with a puck hog. No one. Think back to when you were in grade school...would kick ball have been fun at all if you never ever got to step up to the plate? Or pitch, even? Absolutely not. Everyone wants to touch the puck and on a great team, everyone does.
Conventional wisdom aside, it's only a half-truth that every one likes the "best" player cause they lead the team to victory. People only like the best player when the best player makes it fun for everyone. Otherwise, they're almost a villian.
If you jump teams a few times by the time you're a peewee, suddenly, there are 60+ players in your geographic area that would prefer to NOT be on your team.
Second, for the team that a selfish player plays for -- they're a HUGE liability on the ice. Any opponent can shut down or take advantage of a single player. You see it all the time. And as kids get older, it's not the less skilled players that are the liability (like it sometimes appears as mites and squirts) -- it's the guys who still think they can do it all by themselves.
And third, when it comes time to try out for a peewee team, coaches at that level *will* notice you're not a team player. Actually, hockey is a pretty small world -- they'll more than likely know your kid's reputation before they even step on the ice. Good coaches recognize selfish play as a weakness and they won't select you -- regardless of how great your skating or your shot is.
Might not be at the squirt level. Might not even be at the peewee level. But it'll happen.
If you can't, err, refuse to pass, or backcheck, you can't play hockey.
So, from a parent's standpoint, if your son or daughter is that type of player -- try not to think a coach is off their rocker for not setting your player loose out there to ring up multiple goals with ease.
And please, please, please, for heaven's sake, don't tell them in the car or locker room to just take it themselves and score...despite what the coach is teaching.
Ten times out of ten, it's not the kid that's the issue -- it's the way the parents are coaching them.
Guilty as charged, right here. My kids got better the moment I stopped giving them hand signals from the bleachers. True story.
The coach is doing your player a HUGE favor by benching them when they don't pass.
Or when they take the puck from their own teammates.
Or when they don't play their position.
Or when the put in zero effort on a defensive play.
Or when they perform over the top celebrations after their SEVENTH goal of the game.
The coach is trying to teach your kid to be a complete hockey player.
Still not buying it?
Well, sometimes these types of players do manage to sneak their way on to NHL rosters simply because they're outrageously skilled at the offensive end. It happens -- but their shortcomings don't go unnoticed...and they don't last in the league long either.
I can name names...and you'll likely just counter by asking "who?" or brushing them off as players that just weren't "good" enough but there are dozens upon dozens of players with NHL level skill that are taken in the first couple rounds of the draft each year...that can't play hockey. And teams quickly figure it out and those players quickly tumble down the depth chart and out of hockey.
Every single first round "bust" is one of those guys.
During the disastrous 2017-18 Detroit Red Wings season, captain Henrik Zetterberg openly chastized his team in the media.
“There’s too much poke-and-hope on a lot of players,” Zetterberg told the Detroit Free Press. “If you want to be a solid, good player in this league, and if you want to win something, you have to learn to play the right way.
“Poke-and-hope might get you 25-30 goals, but you will never win anything.”
“You have to play defence first,” Zetterberg said. “We have guys in here who have enough skill to create chances and get enough chances. You can’t force and gamble all the time. You have to do it right and eventually you will get chances. It’s not often you get chances when you cheat. Sometimes you will get rewarded but not in the long run.”
Zetterberg was asked how long it takes a young player to learn that lesson and replied, "some longer than others."
Head coach Jeff Blashill agreed with Zetterberg's assessment.
“Poke-and-hope hockey is called 50-50 hockey,” Blashill said. “It’s a way to lose tons of games. To me it’s a young mistake and we had enough young guys do it for sure. You basically poke and you hope that you get it and if you don’t get it they’re going to get a chance. Well, that’s not the way you win. You want to create chances without giving up chances. When you play poke-and-hope hockey you’re done."
Hmmmmm... I'd bet those guys were selfish players as mites and squirts too.
Zetterberg hits the nail on the head. I mean, it's almost like he's talking about mite level hockey, no?
Highly skilled players that force and gamble may get a lot of goals...but never win.
Defense should be the top priority.
And then an NHL coach validates it -- when you play that me-me-me style...you're done.
Point is -- if your son or daughter is ringing up goals left and right but not including any of their teammates, switching teams or leagues likely isn't the solution because it's not the team that's the problem, it's the player's individual style of play.
And while it might feel like they're being held back or that their advanced skill set is being wasted or diminished, just remember that the best stickhandler in the world can't consistently stick handle through 5 benders that play mens' league every Tuesday. They can't.
Complete hockey players are far more valuable to a team than incredibly skilled, but selfish, players.
A good team player at age 8 will be an exceptionally skilled team player at age 15, without fail.
A selfish player at age 8 will likely be out of hockey opportunities at 15 if they don't correct it.
Hockey is a team sport and a team game and you need everybody to win.
At the mite and squirt level, it may not be as apparent as there are often players that can "win" games all by themselves but believe me, as the kids age, those exact same players are the ones losing games all by themselves.
Think long term.
And maybe re-think switching programs.
Well, unless, of course, the coaching sucks...or the grass really is greener!
» A Connecticut youth hockey program you should consider playing for
» Dirty Players: Can we stop with all the Slashing?
» Puck Hogs: Don't Switch Teams -- Switch Your Style of Play
» Youth Hockey: Should You Play "Up"?
» Youth Hockey Nutrition
Agree? Disagree? Let me know -- I love the feedback from all angles!