Hermantown’s Joey Pierce had a choice to make this past summer in Amherst, N.Y.
He could continue at the 2019 Boys Select 17 Player Development Camp as a forward, a position he had only just begun a year prior in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League, or he could help out his injury-riddled team as a defenseman, a position he grew up playing.
“I went through the (High Performance) process in Minnesota as a forward, and I made national camp as a forward,” said Pierce, who was a force on the backend from the time he was 3 up until a position switch his sophomore year. “In our first game at national camp, we had more injuries, and they had asked if anyone had played defense. I had, and I hadn’t been playing as good as I had hoped, so I stepped forward and said I’ll play D. I did that and stuck with it.”
Pierce concluded camp as a defenseman, making the all-star team as such.
(More to come on Pierce in the December issue of Minnesota Hockey Journal)
He is the type of player USA Hockey director of youth hockey Kenny Rausch wishes he saw more of.
Let’s Talk About Ice Time
“A guy or girl that can play both positions is huge, especially as you get to the older age groups when you’re limited in [roster] sizes and how many players get in to the game,” said Rausch. “You have a guy like Brent Burns or Dustin Byfuglien that can play D and they can play forward, it’s like having an extra roster spot or extra player on your team.”
And that’s just the start of the lengthy list of reasons being a versatile player is beneficial. Another example is in tryout situations when most players vying for limited spots all play the same key positions on their hometown team.
“Parents like to think, ‘oh my son’s a natural born center’ or my daughter’s a this or that,” Rausch said. “OK, so we have 100 forwards at our Select 17 camp, what percentage do you think are quote-unquote ‘centers?’ It’s about 75 percent.
“You want to make the Hlinka team, or college or the pros and you show up and there’s already six centers there at select camp, are you sure you want to play center or do you want to play something else?”
Rausch points to the age-old mindset of, “that’s the way it was done before so it’s how we need to continue to do it” as to why coaches, players and parents think you need to identify with one position early on.
“It’s the way it was always done, and I get that,” explained Rausch. “But the game as a whole has changed too much. We don’t want players who are labeled as left defenseman to stay on the left side and skate up to the blue line and that be it. That’s not the direction the game or our players are going.”
Instead, today’s game is built on battles, as showcased best in small-area games and cross-ice practices. Players learning to win 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 battles are learning how to create and deny offense.
“Watch an NHL game nowadays, hit pause when the play is in the offensive zone and you’re going to see, potentially, 11 grown men in 1/6th of the ice,” said Rausch. “You have 11 grown men, counting the goalie, that are trying to make a play in the small area. They’re not playing center, left wing or right defense — they’re playing hockey and winning a battle.”
On the Defense
New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban is as much of an offensive threat as he is on the blue line. It’s not just a part of his game, but it’s the way he thinks the game in general is played: when your team has the puck, everyone’s on offense; when your team doesn’t have the puck, everyone is on defense.
“We all know that kids get caught in different spots on the ice, not necessarily different positions, and let’s say they’re leading a rush; what are mom and dad screaming at defensemen? ‘Get back!’” Rausch said. “But kids need to be able to be prepared to know what do to in all situations. Whether they line up at left wing or line up at D for the faceoff doesn’t matter, you need to be prepared to play in every situation on the ice.”
There is a method to the cross-ice and small-area madness. Players put in those small-game situations are never placed into one sole position.
At 8U, as any parent watching can attest to, it’s a lot of puck chasing where it really is as simple as offensive and defensive waves. As players get older, offense is sectioned into offense on the puck and offense away from the puck, the same with defending on and away from the puck.
Rausch calls those segmented times, the four roles of hockey.
“I think people get bent out of shape when we call it position-less hockey,” said Rausch. “We should just say that kids need to learn all four roles of hockey.”
When to Decide
Rausch said players can start position selecting at ages 13 and 14, when cognitive thinking and decision-making becomes more prevalent.
But still, Rausch emphasizes no player should ever put too much stock into being a one-position player.
“For a 10-year-old to be able to tell you this is what he or she wants to do, that’s usually coming from mom and dad,” he said. “I’ve coached all age groups, and I’ve actually had 13-year-olds tell them they’re more comfortable on D, and I’m like, that’s great, but once we start playing the game, there will be times you’re down below the goal line in the offensive zone and you will need to play defense.
“If they feel comfortable lining up in the position or calling themselves one thing or another, that’s absolutely OK. Once you get playing, they’re on offense or defense. We’re all in it together.”