Youth hockey coaches have numerous roles and responsibilities, many of which involve making countless decisions.
Some of the most frequent, and the most controversial, decisions coaches make are related to playing time. Determining who will play which positions, the lines, specialty situations and addressing discipline issues are nearly never-ending during the season and require evaluating the impact on each individual as well as the team as a whole.
Then, of course, there is the universal desire to win games, which can lead to the passionate topic of whether or not the more skilled players should receive additional ice time.
East Grand Forks High School coach Tyler Palmiscno has encountered all of these situations numerous times during his ten years behind the bench and helping guide their youth program. For him, the key for youth coaches is focusing on the long-term view of helping every kid get better.
“The only way for kids to get better is to play,” said Palmiscno, who led the Green Wave to back-to-back Class A State titles in 2014 and 2015. “At the youth level especially, if you take a kid on your team, it is your obligation as a coach in a program to make sure that we develop all of our players.”
“Even at the high school level, one of the things I’ve learned is to play three lines and as many defensemen as you possibly can early in the year. The only way for a kid to have confidence in playing is for them to play.”
Palmiscno recognizes the challenges coaches face and feels at older age groups playing time doesn’t necessarily need to be 100% equal. Examples of those situations include special teams or critical moments late in important games, but he doesn’t mince words when it comes to coaches’ responsibilities to find ways to expose their players to all situations too.
“For the majority of games, we owe it to all players to play throughout the season,” said Palmiscno. “It’s important for all players to get opportunities to play in different situations.”
“That is a lot easier said than done. There is no doubt. I understand it as a coach. Even all of the players on the team and the bench, they want to win games. Throughout the course of the season, there are enough situations where you’re winning the game by a comfortable margin or losing, and you can give kids opportunities in different situations.”
One area Palmiscno believes hockey associations across Minnesota could improve in terms of player development is reducing roster sizes so every kid sees more ice time. An added benefit of that philosophy is the topic of playing time or shortening the bench becomes much less of an issue.
“Somewhere along the way we have gotten in this mindset where we have to have nine forwards and six defensemen on every team,” said Palmiscno. “I think that causes the vast majority of our issues with ice time at a youth level.”
“When possible, 12 to 13 is your perfect number of players on a youth team. Even at the Peewee and Bantam level, I think that’s a good number. It gives you ultimate flexibility as a coach when you have those numbers. Yeah, your kids may get tired at times but very rarely have I heard a kid complain about playing too much.”
At the Squirt level this season, East Grand Forks had just under 40 skaters, and rather than doing three teams with 13-14 skaters, they created four teams, where the maximum number of skaters is 10 on a team.
“We need to get to a point where we start examining roster size,” said Palmiscno. “Is it better for the 14th player in your peewee program to be the 14th player on the Peewee A team or is it better for that player to be number one on the Peewee B team?”
Ultimately, playing time decisions boil down to being committed to an emphasis on long term development over short terms results, which is something East Grand Forks has focused heavily on in recent years by enhancing their practice environment too.
“At the 10 & Under level, our primary focus has been on what we’re doing in practice: the amount of puck touches, the amount of time they’re moving, skill development,” said Palmiscno. “Even our half-ice games at 8U and 10U, we have eight players on a team and play four on four. They’re going every other shift. That makes it so all kids are getting equal ice time, and all kids have the opportunity to develop at that 10U level. We’re slowly starting to see some of the benefits of that.”
That approach may look a little different at the Peewee/12U or Bantam/15U age groups, but the core mission and mindset remains the same.
“It’s important you develop depth throughout your team or your program,” said Palmiscno. “As kids get older, they all develop physically and mentally at different ages. You never know who is going to hit their peak at a later age.”
“It’s your obligation to develop them and make sure they are all better going into the following season.”