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Late Bloomers: Perception vs. Reality

By Steve Mann, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 05/20/19, 11:00AM CDT

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Q&A with College Hockey Inc. Executive Director Mike Snee

Speed is such a critical component of today’s game.

But when it comes to player development and preparing for the next levels of hockey, rushing through the process isn’t always best. In fact, that’s more like anti-development.

In Minnesota, the community-based youth and high school hockey cultures is what makes this state a hockey hotbed – an incubator for well-rounded, athletic, talented, smart and passionate players. While the rise of the Keeping Up with the Joneses mentality has swept the youth sports landscape, the data tells a different story.

It turns out, players that fine-tune their skills and athleticism through their senior year of high school, with a year or two (or even three) of junior hockey, and potentially college hockey, have thrived under a more patient process to realizing their full potential.

According to Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey Inc., it is vitally important for players to stay the course in development, and not take the next step in their careers until they are truly ready.

Snee shared his thoughts with Minnesota Hockey:

Minnesota Hockey: With increased media attention of early college commitments and 18 year olds breaking into the NHL, there seems to be a growing perception that earlier and faster is better. What have you seen in your role?

Mike Snee: We recently completed an extensive project that evaluated the commitment dates of the 1,671 men that played NCAA Division I hockey in 2018-19. The average age that a Division I player committed to school was 18.9 – much later than might be expected given the attention paid to the handful of players that verbally commit at a very young age. Most people assume the average age of commitment is 16 or 17.   

I do think we use the term ‘late bloomers’ incorrectly. The players that we commonly call ‘late bloomers’ should be considered normal bloomers. Incorrect perceptions frequently lead to parents and players feeling like they are way behind in the process and ultimately, this can lead to poor decisions made based off of this incorrect information.

Editor's Note: Similar trends occur at the NHL level. A high degree of media attention on 18, 19 and 20 year old superstars create the perception that players should be cracking an NHL roster within a couple years of being drafted. However, in 2018-19, the average age of an NHL Rookie was actually 23.1 years of age, five years after players' first year of draft eligibility. 

Minnesota Hockey: Is there a stigma about being "too old" for college hockey?

Snee: I don’t think so. Some players come in as 18-year-old freshmen and others as 21-year-old freshmen. There are plenty of examples of both working well. I’ve heard many times of players leaving too early but I’ve rarely heard of a player staying too long. Most athlete development experts suggest that it’s much better to move at the correct pace in your development process and not try to artificially speed it up. 

Minnesota Hockey: How important is it to stay the course in development and not move up at any level if you aren't truly ready?

Snee: It is vitally important, and it’s not just juniors to college, it’s all levels. There are far too many examples of players leaving Bantams too early for high school, or high school too early for juniors, or college players leaving too early for pro hockey. When leaving early appears to work, it gets a lot of attention.  However, when the results of leaving early aren’t the intended outcome (which is most often the case), it gets forgotten so our perception ends up being so far off from the reality. For example, 70 percent of all NHL players that played college hockey played at least three years of college hockey. However, many people think most NHLers that played college hockey only played one or two years of college hockey. The numbers certainly support the notion that taking the appropriate time is best. 

Minnesota Hockey: Are there examples of Minnesotans who have developed in juniors and then gone on to great college/pro careers?  

Snee: There are many examples. Two that come to mind are Anders Lee and Jimmy Schuldt. Anders played high school hockey through his senior year and then played a season in the USHL. He then played three seasons at Notre Dame. Jimmy Schuldt similarly played high school through his senior year, then two years in the USHL and just concluded a storied college career at St. Cloud State. What stands out to me is both players were always impact players. They could have left high school early or skipped juniors altogether or left college hockey earlier than they did. But leaving early makes it much more likely they would have slowed their development, or worse yet, completely derailed their development. The statistics and data overwhelmingly bear this out. Unfortunately, there are a lot of untold stories of hockey development gone bad because a player was too eager to move to the next level in an effort to speed things up.

Minnesota Hockey: What example can this set for 8U/10U/12U families who may think that they need to speed everything up and play year-round to make it to the next level? 

Snee: I don’t know if it is as much setting an example as it is educating. We need to continue to provide information and data that demonstrates the dangers of too much, too soon. The data absolutely support this notion. USA Hockey and Minnesota Hockey should be commended for their efforts in this area.

Minnesota Hockey: Some might think the grass is greener outside of the Minnesota community-based and high school hockey model … 

Snee: My role with College Hockey Inc. has afforded me the opportunity to get to know what the environment is like for young hockey players and their families in the rest of North America.

The data proves that the community and high school model in Minnesota leads to more output of the most skilled players. Minnesota has far more NHL players, men’s college players and women’s college players than any other state. However, what doesn’t get much attention and is harder to quantify is how much more affordable it is to play hockey in Minnesota than elsewhere. Travel is very limited, which not only keeps costs down, but minimizes the time commitment, too. Because of all of this the sport is so much more affordable and accessible in Minnesota – people just may not be aware of this. I hope people are aware of how important it is to keep hockey in Minnesota more community and less commercial.

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