Imagine this scene: Time is running out in a tied game, in a youth hockey season where wins have been rare. As the chances of winning shrink with each tick off the clock, should the bench shrink with it? Should a team send out only its best players in an effort to win while any perceived “weak links” remain on the bench?
The answer? No.
And in the eyes of Massachusetts native and USA Hockey Assistant Executive Director of Membership Development Pat Kelleher, it should never be an option, nor ever be considered.
“It seems so crazy to me that the importance of winning a single hockey game is more important than kids experiencing youth hockey,” he says. “Honestly, I can’t grasp that.”
Not only is Kelleher charged with growth and retention initiatives out at the Colorado Springs headquarters of USA Hockey, where he has worked since 2000, but he’s also a hockey father and coach. The Brown University alum, with two daughters and a son active in youth hockey, spends almost as much time on the ice or behind a bench during the week as he does at the office.
Considerable experience – Kelleher is the oldest of five boys, four of whom played college hockey, while their father, Dan, spent 40 years coaching hockey in Belmont and is in the Massachusetts Hockey Hall of Fame – has made him a firm believer that no child should be deprived of a regular shift on the ice.
“Winning has become way too important in a lot of cases in youth hockey,” he concedes. “But there’s so much evidence, so much research, that kids want to play on a team, and winning or losing is not as important to the kids. It’s not why they play. It’s about experience and participation.”
If a young player isn’t participating, experiences are being missed, traded in favor of giving that experience to a player who might already have been there and done that. While the term “player development” is so often thought of as a skill-based measurement, it’s also about developing a comfort level on the ice.
“If the kid is sitting next to you on the bench, there’s no opportunity to teach,” says Kelleher. “In some ways, it's good that we have such a long season in youth hockey because it should allow a coach to have all kids get different opportunities to play and different opportunities to be on the ice at critical junctures. If a kid’s sitting next to you, you can’t say, ‘Next time, I should put you on the ice, then go do it this way.’”
Sitting can be a crushing experience for a youth player.
“It’s extremely negative,” Kelleher says. “Then you put doubt in a kid’s mind, and you can erode confidence, which is what we’re all trying to build up. We want them to be confident people, never mind hockey players.”
Still, there are times where tweaking a lineup can be tempting. Kelleher even gave it a quick try on a power play with a minute to go in a scoreless Bantam B game earlier this year. For the first time all season, he put out what could have been construed as a power play line. And that line promptly gave up a shorthanded goal.
The lessons don’t just apply to Bantam B teams, either.
Kelleher passes along a story from the National Team Development Program, where head coach Don Granato ignored an opportunity to shorten his bench with his team clinging to a two-goal lead in high-scoring affair that seemed ripe for more goals. As the NTDP has room for only the very best 16- and 17-year-old players in the nation, these are elite talents. And here was Granato, rolling lines when the situation could have called for protecting the win.
“That’s exactly the lesson that youth coaches should take a listen to,” says Kelleher. “If that’s happening with the best 16- or 17-year-olds in this country, why isn’t it happening with every single 12-year-old in this country?”
If there’s any debate about where USA Hockey believes the focus should be when it comes to creating life experiences vs. creating hockey stars, such an example favors the former without it coming at the expense of the latter. Youth players don’t have to compromise their goals, and the concept isn’t about enabling compromised hockey.
Players mature at different rates, and there’s no reason a team’s ninth forward in 2015-16 can’t be the team’s fifth forward in 2016-17. For Kelleher, the point is to get that player to 2016-17 so he or she can be rewarded the same way so many of us were by the benefits of playing the game for a long time.
“I think every kid wants to be the best that they can be,” Kelleher says. “You want to help them be the best that they can be. If you do that, I think they’re going to come back. You never want to be a kid’s last coach. That’s most important, that kids come back and play. If we help kids get better and have a positive experience in a positive environment, they’re going to come back.”
In the end, playing hockey is just as much about a life experience as it is a hockey or a sports experience. Not every young player is going to the NHL or college hockey. But every young player can have the kind of experience that leads to lifelong memories, relationships and life lessons to go along with even the biggest of dreams.
Equal time and opportunity works to accommodate both.
“That should always be the idea in youth hockey,” says Kelleher. “Everything we talk about is recreational level hokey. There may be Tier I or Tier II, but it’s still youth hockey. It’s still kids playing hockey. The concept should be that every kid plays an equal amount. And that includes having the game on their stick or protecting a one-goal lead with 30 seconds left in the game. If a kid doesn’t get that opportunity as a squirt of peewee, how will they feel comfortable in bantam or high school?”