Hockey is the ultimate game when it comes to needing to enjoy the process, the grind, the experience, working through disappointments and continuing to push through. None of this can be done without wanting to learn from each experience and grow from it. This type of internal drive for self-improvement becomes more and more important as players get older, and you compete at higher & higher levels of play.
I have had the privilege to be part of the CCM High Performance (“HP”) program as an evaluator the last several years, and this spring I served on the coaching staff of the District 3 HP Boys 14 Spring Festival team. For those of you not familiar with the Spring HP programs, the idea is simple: Get the best players in each district on the ice together to compete for a spot on a festival roster, with the goal of advancing to a development camp with the best players in the state. (Starting at age 15, players have a chance to advance to a National Development Camp!)
Out of roughly 3,000 boys in each birth year across the state, about 500 kids try out for a district HP team, 240 play in the HP 14 Spring Festival and 120 advance to the final camp. Even smaller percentages advance at the older age groups. So why go through this?
- It is a great opportunity to get a sense for where you stand relative to others in the district and state.
- You get exposure to different coaches, players, drills, and experiences.
- You meet players from other communities that you would otherwise not meet during a regular season. Friendships get developed, which is one of the best parts of this game!
- It is a program that is recognized by junior and college programs as a place for them to get a good look at the up-and-coming talent within the state all at one time.
Every player that steps on the ice during these camps should have the goal to make it as far in the process as they possibly can, but it’s also important to understand every player has things to learn from going through the process regardless of how far they advance.
So the question is, what can you learn from your experience? Here are a couple of takeaways for you to consider, as well as some perspective from my experiences as an evaluator this year and in years past.
- If you did not advance as far as you had hoped, that is not a reflection of your potential. There were simply other players that are further along in their development at this point. Casey Mittelstadt and Blake Wheeler were both cut from district teams at age 15. They used it as motivation, and three years later, they were top 10 picks in the NHL Draft. Remember, this is a long-term process. Do not get discouraged and keep working hard.
- Reflect on your performance. How do you feel about your performance during the tryouts? As a player, what stood out to you when you think about how you matched up with kids you see moving on? That is the best feedback you can have and something you can now build upon. What can you do to improve during the summer and next season that could get you further in the process? Again, believe in and enjoy the process of development.
- What did I see, as an evaluator, as key differences between those who moved on in each stage?
- Skating Fundamentals: As an evaluator, it is very apparent who has good edgework, stride fundamentals, north-south speed, and good lateral movement. Foot speed and quickness is something that catches my eye, especially in small-area games. Lesson: Never stop working on fundamentals and it’s time to start training agility and explosiveness off-ice if you haven’t already!
- Puck handling ability: Just like skating, players with the best puck skills stand out easily, but it’s not just the highlight reel plays that evaluators are looking for. Do you have good control of the puck in small areas and under pressure? Are skating with you head up, and making smart plays when the puck is on your stick? How is your shot release and are you moving the puck well? Lesson: Practice shooting and puck handling with intent and push your comfort zone!
- Play away from the puck: Almost all players reach a point during the HP process where sheer skill is no longer enough to separate themselves from other players. What are you doing away from the puck? You have the puck on your stick for less than 5% of the time, so what you are doing away from the puck is important. Are you supporting the puck? Are you finding ways to open passing lanes? Are you communicating? Are you anticipating? Are you winning battles and puck races, using a good stick, good gaps, etc.? The list of details goes on and on, and they all matter. Lesson: Be a student of the entire game and don’t solely focus on individual skills!
- Attitude & Effort: How you respond to a mistake is more important than the mistake made. This game is about recovery, and you need to show that you can bounce back and correct a mistake or adjust to a teammate’s mistake. Are you quitting on a play, slowing your feet down on a forecheck, or not back-checking? Are you making sure you are a positive influence on the ice and does your body language and communication reflect that? It all counts. Lesson: Be positive and let your positivity show!
Remember, no goal worth achieving can be reached without going through the process, overcoming adversity, and learning. So, enjoy the journey and not just the destination when reached.
As a former goaltender growing up in the Detroit, MI area, Antonenko finished his high school hockey in Thief River Falls, MN, and got his coaching start with East Grand Forks Green Wave High School in 1991 while attending the University of North Dakota. He is a USA Hockey Level 4 Coach, USA Hockey Level 1 Official, Former Hockey Development Director for Armstrong/Cooper Youth Hockey, Former Coaches Board Chair for Orono Youth Hockey, and has coached teams of all ages and skill levels since 1991, girls and boys, from Mites through high school throughout the upper Midwest. He is the father of 3 girls and 2 boys who have all played through various levels of competitive hockey including the Girls Tier I Elite League outside of Minnesota, Minnesota High School Hockey, and juniors in the USPHL Premier League. He is currently involved as a non-parent coach in the Orono-Westonka Warriors girls hockey program.
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