Every hockey team has a fastest skater, sharpest shooter, strongest defender and most respected leader. Excelling in a particular aspect of the game is absolutely a positive and can help a player stand out from the crowd.
However, most coaches agree that having players who can do many things well versus just one thing great may be far more valuable for the team. Striving to be a Swiss Army knife type of player can pay big dividends over the long term, toward both individual and team success.
“A player that is versatile typically is a player that will get more ice time, as the coach will trust this player,” said Wade Chiodo, head coach of the Grand Rapids High School boys’ hockey team. “I had a kid who was playing on my top two lines as a forward. I knew this player had played defense in past years, and during a critical time of year, I called his number to play defense on a penalty kill knowing he had the experience and understanding of the position. Versatility builds dependability.”
Chiodo, who played for Bemidji State University and coached at Bemidji High School before joining Grand Rapids in 2019, shared his thoughts on the value of versatility.
A versatile player is ready to jump into any situation with confidence.
“Versatility embodies a player who is able to play in all situations and in all three zones,” Chiodo said. “For example, it could be faceoff situations, end of games, 6-on-5 situation, 5-on-6 situations, penalty kill or power play. Individually, it’s a player that can play in tight areas, can fight through checks, plays well away from the puck, is willing to accept their role, can play the fast game, can play the skill game, can play with energy, can play on the rail, etc.”
Versatility is valued everywhere: on the ice, in the classroom, social situations, life skills, jobs, careers, etc.
“Off-ice versatility is important as well,” Chiodo added. “Doing the right things, being a good person, making smart decisions, being involved with other sports. It’s an invaluable character trait.”
Playing Different Positions
Learning how to play every position in different situations helps players see the game from all angles, and it will give them an edge over time. A center taking shifts at defense may realize how important it is to back-check and provide puck support for the defensemen. Defensemen taking shifts at wing will provide new perspectives on the breakout and provide more opportunities to create offense.
Simply put, playing different positions builds hockey sense, says Chiodo:
“Trying other positions will help a kid become a more educated hockey player, thus increasing their rink awareness and hockey IQ. It helps the player understand all facets of the game. I also think all players should put the goalie gear on at the younger levels, particularly at the Mite/Mini-Mite age group.
“Hockey is a read and react game. A versatile player is one who will be more consistent in every game because they know how to adapt to the different style each game brings and the different needs each position requires.”
Patience and Perspective
It won’t be easy at first. There are bound to be mistakes, errors, turnovers and goals allowed. But it is up to coaches and players to take initiative and step outside their comfort zones.
Long-term development requires opportunity and patience.
“Players should be willing to go outside their comfort zone, accept new challenges that might not be something they are familiar with and understand the importance of playing their role,” Chiodo said. “Coaches can emphasize the importance of becoming a versatile player by teaching athletes to adjust and adapt to different situations. Coaches need to focus more on hockey habits than systems or who will score goals. If coaches worry about habits on the ice and correcting the bad ones, their athletes will better understand the importance of adaptability.”
Keep an Open Mind
As kids get older, the competition gets harder and the stakes get higher. There will be a time for players to really focus on the finer points of their position, but the door should never be shut on other opportunities to earn playing time.
Case in point: Nate Schmidt was recruited by the Gophers as a forward. After struggling to crack the lineup, they tried him at defense, and he’s now played over 470 games in the NHL as a defenseman.
“I would say that by the end of the 10th grade year, you should really hone in on the position you are going to play long term,” Chiodo said. “By that point, the athlete should have a good perspective of the game and coaches should know their skill set to help make them the best player possible.
“But, there has to be an understanding that this could change. Kids develop at different rates and as a coach, you should always be mindful of this to bring out the best in your players.”