Have you been paying attention to the Minnesota Wild this year? Any chance you have recognized the number of line combinations, and different positions that each player on the Wild played? Even during the playoffs last year, when the stakes were the highest, you saw different combinations of forwards who may have played center in one period, and suddenly were playing their off-wing the next period (or even the next shift).
Why do I point this out? There is an important message for young players, their parents and youth coaches: Focus on being a hockey player, not playing a specific position when you are young!
Several years ago, I was coaching a Peewee B1 team and one of the players on my team had been a good squirt A player the year before. He had scored plenty of goals, and frankly, he was able to do what he wanted to. One year later, the game was a little faster, the kids were bigger, there was less time and space, and suddenly, the ‘success’ that he had just seven months earlier was not showing up as quick or easy as he expected. What was obvious, however, was that he understood the game, had good vision, and almost always made the right decision with the puck when he had an extra second. His quickness in the corners, and his puck control was just not quite up to the same speed as others at the next level, leading to frustration on his part.
So, understanding that he had some other skills, needed some confidence, and could help the team, I moved him to defense about four weeks into the season.
The response from him and his parents was dismay. After all, he was a ‘scoring machine’ in Squirts, and he was a forward, not a defenseman. I explained my rationale to the player and the parents, and while there was skepticism from them, they were open to the possibility and let it play itself out.
Now, the player is playing high school hockey as a defenseman, and I ultimately believe he is a better overall hockey player because he sees the game from a different lens. I have no doubt that if/when he ends up being moved to a forward position again, if that is what the team/coach needs, he will be able to execute, pick up the role and play it well, because he was not pigeon-holed both physically and mentally when he was younger.
My son was another example, providing me with an experience on the receiving end of a position decision as a parent. During his Bantam A season, he was moved to a forward position after playing on the point for the last several years. I was looking out at the high school roster and felt he could add some depth to the D during his sophomore year so I was not thrilled with the decision. At the same time, I also recognized what the team was needing at that time, and it really was not my decision anyway.
He ultimately played forward in high school, but he also knew he could step on the ice and play a defensive role as a forward or even move to the point if the need was there. Most importantly, he found that he really loved playing forward, specifically as a wing. He really enjoyed the heavy forecheck and grind in the corners. This is the role which helped him achieve his goal of playing at the junior level.
Fast forward to his first year of junior hockey. About six games into the season, the defensive core was riddled with injuries, and he told his coach that he played D a few years ago and could help. Sure enough, he ended up playing 10-15 games as a defenseman, and when the core was healthy again, he moved back up to the forward position. He literally played every position during the season with his junior team (LW, C, RW, RD, LD).
The moral of the story: As a parent, do not feed into the belief that because your son/daughter is good at one position when they are 9, 10, 11 years old that they should stay there. Ultimately, they will end up gravitating to a specific position and will develop some position-specific skills. But, the best advice is to allow them the opportunity to try different positions, get different looks, and have some fun while doing it. I would encourage more parents (and coaches) to ensure their young players are playing different positions throughout their youth experience. The fact is the best hockey players at every level are willing and able to play any position when called upon. You will not know where they will be needed to help the team at any point, so support their development and prepare them to play the game, not just a position.
The View From Center Ice Blog
As a former goaltender growing up in the Detroit, MI area, finishing his High School Hockey in Thief River Falls, MN, and getting his coaching start with East Grand Forks Green Wave High School in 1991 while attending the University of North Dakota, Paul Antonenko is a lifelong advocate for the game of hockey. 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, as an evaluator for the District 3 High Performance Program and is on the coaching staff of the District 3 Fall Tier I – U15 Boys Team in the MN Hockey Fall Tier I league.