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Stay in Your Lane? Not in Today’s Game

By Jamie MacDonald, 11/15/23, 3:15PM EST


Positional versatility is key to development

Coach in Chief Paul Moore talks about positions in the modern game of hockey

Coach in Chief Paul Moore

It would be easy enough to say “there was a time” when positional versatility was less important to hockey. And, while, yes, there’s always a time before, the sport’s evolution, as much as anything, has positional versatility to thank for the forward progress building into this current skills-friendly frenzy of hockey.

The more players who can do more on the ice, and in more places across it, the more the game benefits from skill development to skill acquisition to skill implementation.

In a change for the better, it isn’t very often that an elite winger hears “STAY IN YOUR LANE” shouted by an old-school coach from the bench for wandering off the wall far enough to cross an imaginary line through the faceoff dots. The best way to keep those elite players coming is to lean into the practice at the youth levels, too.

USA Hockey Coach-in-Chief for Massachusetts, Paul Moore, whose playing career included success in his native Falmouth, followed by college league titles at what was then Southeastern Massachusetts University, then professional hockey in the International Hockey League and even a few NHL training camps as a defenseman, sure remembers that “stay-in-your-lane” ethos.

“That's how I grew up,” says Moore, who served as a coach in Falmouth Youth Hockey, one of the most stable programs in the state, for years, as well as serving as its president, and as head coach of Falmouth High School since 2013. He also has a Wm. Thayer Tutt Award to his credit from USA Hockey. “And that's what I coached for the first five or six years in the ‘80s.”

Hockey lifers with experience in just about every aspect of the game have a way of noticing the micro and the macro changes over the years.

“We spend all these youth hockey years, around 8U, sending the message to spread out,” Moore says. “But if I took off as a defenseman, oh man. If I got caught below the goal line, oh man. Now you see that in almost every shift at a high level.”

To be a defenseman below the goal line in the offensive zone was once a hockey felony. Not only is it no longer a crime of any kind in the most progressive of environments, but that defenseman might just be looking out in front of the net for his defensive partner crashing in for a shot from the slot. 

“Now, there's less structure,” says Moore. “There are defensemen jumping into plays and odd-man plays. For us, we always want to attack with numbers if we have puck possession. That weak-side defenseman should be going every time. If you don't, you are at a disadvantage.”

The ebbs and flows of hockey are now faster than ever, less like tides and more like cracks of lightning. Gone are the days of coaches looking for chances 200 feet at a time and keeping players – and their versatility – under wraps or in line like rod-hockey players. Turns out, chaos can work for offense, too. And chaos favors the players who have more skills in more places.

Vital among those skills is something other than the game played with the hands and feet. For Moore, it’s the head and “speed of mind.”

“Speed of mind and scanning, reading the ice is a whole other skill set,” he says. “I'm telling my 14U coaches what comes into play with reading and scanning. It’s a skill that a lot of players have a tough time with, and a lot of coaches have a tough time teaching.”

So, how can you teach speed – and versatility – of the mind?

“Well, it's repetition in practice,” says Moore. “Repetition, repetition and reinforcing good habits, whether that’s stopping at the net or not turning your back to the play. I think the things that USA Hockey has been working on feeds right into what we're talking about. A world-class practice is fun, there are a lot of puck touches, there's a lot of conflict and it looks like a game.”

Moore practices what he preaches and encourages his youth hockey coaches in Falmouth to do the same.

“The transition part of the game is something that I can say we work on every single day,” he says. “[As hockey coaches in general] we always do a good job of working on hands and feet, but speed of mind is the ability to think and it’s situational awareness. I believe all the magic happens in practice, learning and forcing kids into game-like situations on a daily basis. The more you do it at a younger age, the more comfortable they get. It almost becomes second nature. It's all about habits.”

Habits don’t just have to be about playing hockey, either. So many activities can teach better hockey. Musical instruments. Academic clubs. Other sports, nearly all of which, from lacrosse to swimming to soccer to basketball to track to tennis to baseball, and on and on.

“You know they're better off,” says Moore of kids playing other sports. “There’s crossover. And I know that the horse is out of the barn here, but I like the seasonal sport thing. That might be my old-school talking, but all of your hockey players are your best athletes. And it's because they did other things. There's nothing really that doesn't translate. I can't think of a downside.”

Being a versatile player is also a sort of two-sided endeavor. One, there is being a player who can bring different things to his or her position, but it’s also being able to play different roles as opportunities or even positional openings arise.

In Falmouth, the idea at the youth levels is to bring something akin to pond (or, near Cape Cod, as is often the case, bog) hockey inside the confines of a hockey rink.

“Positions and systems don't matter,” says Moore. “You can teach offsides in 10 minutes on a locker room white board. As they get a little older, you start introducing systems, if you want to call it that. There are four roles in the game: offense with the puck, offense without the puck, defense on the puck, defense away from the puck. So, those core principles. At 12- and 14-years-old, you want to say, ‘OK, we are on offense and we have the puck here, what are you doing? Where are you going?’ Simple concepts like that help you begin to understand the game overall. I wish I knew some of this stuff 10 or 15 or 20 years ago.”

Every last bit of this, of course, should take into account the assumption that almost none of it is easy for most players. Even Moore admits he “didn’t see the game” until he was a high school player. Introducing players to more chaos theories at a younger age can change the learning curve, but it’s still steep in hockey.

“It's the hardest sport to play, I don’t care what anyone says,” Moore says. “I hear parents screaming, ‘That kid’s a puck hog! That kid’s a puck hog!’ But they don't see the other kid. Their head is down and they have their blinders on. Every person in the building knows there’s a kid wide open next to them, but they aren’t holding onto the puck because they’re a puck hog. They don’t see it yet.”

When they do, the game starts to slow down a little in a player’s mind, and it sets the stage for skill and development and creativity to build a sum greater than their parts. When players get to the point of finding creativity and skill within the chaos, that’s an extremely valuable player. 

“Look at Connor Bedard,” says Moore. “How does someone have the puck on his stick that much as an 18-year-old in the NHL? He goes to the quiet areas of the ice and the puck finds him. He doesn't find the puck. That‘s situational hockey. That's situational awareness. He never stops moving. That speed of mind is a killer. If I knew then what I know now, I feel like I’d barely have to skate.”

As someone who spends so much time with youth hockey programs and, in the case of Falmouth High School, seeing the ripple effects of the program’s youth programs, Moore is in a unique position.

“That's why I'm so passionate about it,” he says. “That's why I love being involved at the younger levels and trying to make a difference. Because it works. We are looking for odd-man rushes and clean entries. If you’re attacking with numbers and you have puck possession, why would you stop? If you turn the puck over in a bad area of the ice, obviously you have to cover for them. But if we can get kids to understand these concepts at all the younger levels, I think that's where it starts. It takes time and patience. It takes skill. There’s skill acquisition to it. There’s hockey sense. Can you teach it? I think you can.