For all the time you spend at the rink, maybe the thought crosses your mind about what type of player your child is going to develop into.
Will he or she be a scorer? A defender? A playmaker?
For Roger Grillo, New England’s American Development Model Regional Manager, broad-based learning is more important than specializing on one skill in youth hockey. Ask him to make a choice between a player who had played every position or mastered one, and there’s no hesitation in his answer.
“The goal at the younger ages is just to allow kids to experience as much as they can,” he says. “That’s going to allow them to have more success the older they get in hockey. To have the experiences of playing multiple positions, the mental decision-making piece, the physical requirements, they’re all critical in developing the best hockey player.”
Working on the journey from an early age is more important than working on a destination. The sport offers few guarantees, and there’s no formula for gaming the system or becoming a scorer, defender or playmaker without sampling from and building on each heavily.
“That’s the reason why we feel the cross-ice model at 8-and-Under is critical,” says Grillo. “There are no positions. Go get the puck and go try to score it. Don’t worry about positional play. “
To some, it might seem counterintuitive to send a young son or daughter who might be excelling in what appears to be a natural single position and instead keep rotating him or her away from that position. Grillo, especially when considering the youngest ages, disagrees.
“To have a kid play a position that they’ve already figured out and one you know they’ll have success in is not necessarily a great development model,” says Grillo, who played forward throughout youth hockey but moved to defense in high school and beyond. “I think the biggest thing, especially for our more naturally gifted young athletes, is if a kid has some natural ability, you want to challenge him or her a little bit so they continue to develop. You don’t keep them in their comfort zone 24/7. You want to have some success and give them some confidence, but it’s that fine line. I think kids want to be challenged. They want to experience different things. Sometimes, as adults, we try to overprotect them. But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t allow them to have success later on in their athletic lives.”
It’s a key point for USA Hockey and the ADM, that specializing is more likely to ensure a cap on long-term development than to foster it.
“We do it in every other aspect of the kid’s life,” Grillo points out. “If the kid is good at math, you don’t have him sit around and work on math all day. He takes English, History and Physical Education. You don’t choose a different course of study until you’re 19 or 20. Before that, it’s broad-based. The same thing is true in athleticism. You experience as much as you can at a young age and put it to your passion at an older age.”
And what is that older age?
“(Ages) 13, 14, 15,” says Grillo. “That’s the range where kids have passion and are tying to take the next step and get after it. You will start to specialize more at that age.”
When the time comes, the players with passion and ability will continue to hone their skills on the ice. And some of them will become goal-scorers. But there remains no more sought-after quality than the ability to make quick decisions as a matter of generating chances.
“That’s why cross-ice is so critical,” says Grillo. “Scenarios, touches and scoring scenarios happen way more often. What’s kind of gone away is the unstructured pond hockey. Growing up, it was all about trying to score, trying to walk a guy, make a great move. That’s kind of gone away, so we have to make sure that we’re now practicing to allow for some of that creativity to happen naturally. What we want is for scoring to take place. If scoring isn’t happening, at least scoring opportunities happen more often.”
Grillo would like to remind parents and coaches and administrators that they need not force the issue of creating a player with a single skill. Instead, create an environment to learn, to develop, and maybe to fail a little.
“The number one thing is to be patient,” he says. “Don’t put adult culture on little kids. Let kids be kids. Fun isn’t a bad thing. There’s a reason why the guys you watch playing for the Bruins, 99 percent of them love the game, and they would play it for a lot less than they’re getting. Be patient and have some fun with it.”
Someday, you may wind up with a scorer on your hands.
When the time comes for specialization, between the ages of 13-15, here are some tips to help you decide what type of player you’ll be.
Massachusetts Hockey: What are some of the markers of a scorer? What do the instincts look like for a scorer?
Roger Grillo: To me, there are three things that allow a kid to be a successful hockey player, especially offensively. The first is effort and competitiveness. Then you have to have good decision-making. You have to read where the openings are. You have to be like a version of Tom Brady. You might not be the most athletic, but mentally he’s playing a different game. Read plays, read where the puck is going to go, anticipate. And the third is you have to have skills. If my stick stills aren't sufficient, then I’m going to struggle to score.
If I have a player who works hard, has great decision-making instincts and has good-to-great stick skills, then I have a really high-end player.
MH: Scoring doesn’t happen by accident, so are there innate elements of being a scorer?
RG: It’s making good decisions with the puck and great decisions without it. It’s creativity. It’s a willingness to go to the front of the net and get a second opportunity. It’s not easy to score outside the top of the circle anymore because goaltenders are that much better.
MH: What does it look like to have an innate sense of defensive ability?
RG: It’s also effort. It’s working. It’s winning space. It’s beating people to where they want to go. It’s taking away space. It’s angles. It’s great-decision making without the puck.
To me, you play defense solely for the purpose of getting back possession of the puck. It’s not about knocking people into the wall. How am I going to make sure that when we get it back we’re going to keep it?
MH: Can you draw that out of a player? How can a player’s best skills be brought out of him or her?
RG: That mentality doesn’t take place until the kid is older. If you watch an NHL game, the best players do everything now. You can’t be a specialist in the game of ice hockey anymore. You have to be able to defend, but also to make a play. The guys that are specialists rarely see the ice at the higher levels.
That’s why playing multiple positions is so critical. If I’m going to have success at a higher end, I have to be a well-rounded athlete. You take a guy like Zdeno Chara, and if he had grown up in a different culture, because of his size and his build, “Hey, you just take the puck and chip it up off the wall.” You can tell he was allowed to do some things with the puck.
That’s to the credit of the environment he grew up in that was focused on the development of the best hockey player, not necessarily the best defender.
MH: So many of us appreciate the idea of making a play. How is it that a player looks like a playmaker to you? What does a playmaker do that a scorer may lack a little?
RG: I’ll take 25 playmakers over anything else because they see the ice. They’re going to make the right decision nine times out of 10. Great decision-making without the puck is the game of hockey. It separates the good players from the great players.
There are a lot of guys who can skate. There are a lot of guys who have decent wheels. Johnny Gaudreau is a perfect example of a kid who’s not very big, not super strong, but, mentally, he sees things that other people don’t see. And it allows him to separate himself from the rest of the pack to be an elite player. Mentally, he’s playing at a much faster pace than his body.
MH: Can you teach any of this?
RG: The hardest thing to teach is hockey sense. There’s no magic pill. It’s really a difficult thing, and it has to be experienced. It has to be that, “As a player, I tried something and it didn’t work, so maybe I shouldn’t try it in that situation again.” As I said before, the pond and street hockey were so critical because that’s where you learned that stuff. We put so much structure and we over-coach when the kids are little.
MH: When things set in that you are becoming a certain type of player or want to become a certain type of player, how can that manifest itself?
RG: Passion for it, desire for it, or a role model or player you emulate. There are million differing factors. That’s why it’s so critical at the younger levels not to pigeonhole players. Make them do other things. Make them do other stuff that will make them more athletic and to draw upon those experiences.