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Better Athletes Make Better Hockey Players

By Drew Herron, 05/02/23, 12:30PM CDT


When at Edina High School, Anders Lee, now captain of the New York Islanders and 10-year NHL veteran, wore a few different helmets. An all-state quarterback with Division I offers and an all-state pitcher in baseball, Lee didn’t choose hockey exclusively until he had to as a young adult.

Paul Martin, before he led the Gophers to back-to-back national championships and played 870 games in the NHL, played football, basketball, baseball and hockey at Elk River.

Wayne Gretzky thrived at baseball and lacrosse. MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine was drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Kings.

What do they have in common?

Diversified athleticism, high compete, and in-game problem-solving skills drove them to pro careers. 

A Better Athlete Makes for a Better Hockey Player 

Multi-sport hockey players have long intrigued NHL and college scouts. USA Hockey, Minnesota Hockey, and high school coaches have loudly encouraged it, believing diversification can lead to a better athlete, a better person, and then a better hockey player. 

“NHL and college coaches want those guys that are overall athletes, not just hockey players, but athletes,” says Jay Hardwick, Warroad boys’ varsity hockey and golf coach. “As an athlete, when you get thrown into different situations that you haven’t experienced hockey-wise, it forces you to grow and learn to adapt a little better.”

Some recent studies report that only between 10-15 percent of NCAA and NHL players specialized in the sport before the age of 12. Most didn’t specialize until they were 15. 

Participating in multiple sports allows young and developing athletes to learn a variety of motor skills and forces their bodies to respond to different kinds of challenges, both physically and in terms of critical thinking. Hand-eye coordination, development of different muscle groups and range of movement improve. It also leads to kinesthetic diversity and the prevention of overuse, decreasing the risk of injury. That can be important for young and developing bodies.

Moreover, athleticism and different skill development carry over to the ice rather quickly.

“It all translates,” says Ricky Saintey, head boys’ hockey and soccer coach at Rosemount High School. “The footwork, the hand-eye coordination and the mindset are improved along with the agility and explosiveness. Those things are super beneficial to the overall athleticism of anybody.”

Step Back, Come Back Hungry

There used to be a time when sports would change with the seasons. Today, the seasons don’t transition as easily, as there is overlap or oversaturation from the winter into the other parts of the year. Being able to get away from it to a certain degree can help a hockey player mentally. Especially if they are developing athleticism or skill in another area while staying active.

“It’s important for our players to do something else and get away from hockey for a little while,” Hardwick says. “When you go and play a spring sport like baseball or a fall sport like football, then when hockey season rolls around, you get that renewed joy of playing hockey and a sense of hunger for it.”

If kids are playing hockey year-round, the grind of the activity can creep up and become monotonous, making it feel like more of a job. That can lead to burnout.

“If you look at NHL players, the reason most of them got there is because they played multiple sports growing up and weren’t stuck in one,” Saintey said. “It’s a huge benefit for them because it forced them to stay hungry.”

Reconsider Hockey FOMO

Whether we like to admit it or not, the fear of missing out is real. When peers sign up for different offseason teams, camps or clinics, players notice. Financial and time restraints don’t allow a player to do everything, nor should they.

There is a fear of falling behind, but Hardwick urges caution.

“It’s a real concern because people feel like they need to keep up,” Hardwick says. “You look around and see this guy is doing this, and that guy is doing that. It gets to a point where you can’t do everything. And if you try to do everything, it ends up hurting you.
“Some of the summer (hockey) stuff is important, but you don’t have to do it all,” he added. “And you're not going to fall behind, especially if you are active doing something else. Don’t take three months off to lay on the couch, because then you are falling behind. But if you are playing another sport, you are still active and developing as an athlete. You’re working on things that will likely, in the long run, make you a better hockey player and a better teammate.”

Play What You Can, While You Can

Hardwick figures a handful of his hockey players are three-sport athletes at Warroad, while about 75 percent of them play at least two sports.

Like Hardwick, who played four seasons at UMD and six seasons of professional hockey, Saintey leads his alma mater in multiple sports. He too sees a fair amount of crossover between hockey and soccer, as well as other sports, and says most coaches will want to work with each other on any overlap of a season, or even going out for two sports in the same season. 

One day, competitive sports will come to an end for everyone, Saintey says, so it’s important for young athletes to seize the opportunities before they’re gone.   

“Kids need to do what they love,” Saintey says. “So, if they love one sport, they can play one sport. That’s OK. But the benefits of playing multiple sports and doing what you love, whether it’s baseball, tennis, or golf, go do those things because you only get one chance at it before it’s gone.”

Small Schools Depend on Multi-Sport Athletes
Playing more sports provides more opportunities for young athletes to develop physically and socially. And smaller schools like Warroad depend on multi-sport athletes to keep their programs alive.

“In a town like Warroad, we need them,” Hardwick says. “If we don’t have kids playing multiple sports, a lot of our programs are going to go away. Without our hockey players, we might not have a baseball team or a golf team, and our football team would struggle.”

“For our hockey players to be involved in multiple sports, it makes our school better.”

Read More:

Sporty Spartans: Multi-sport athletes power Orono girls’ hockey

Why high-level coaches love multi-sport athletes

7 hockey stars for multi-sport development