Whether it’s from watching an older sibling, the local high school team or their favorite player on TV, many kids start forming an idea of what hockey position they want to play at a young age.
Yet, one of the keys to helping every player reach his or her potential is delaying the focus on a single position.
“With USA Hockey’s push towards long term athlete development, we’re trying to build hockey players as opposed to building a center or right wing or a defenseman,” said Josh Hicks, Coach-in-Chief for Minnesota’s District 3. “The skill sets are going to mirror each other quite a bit.”
Even the highest levels of hockey are filled with players who’ve shown how easily skills transfer from position to position by the success they’ve had in different roles.
Two of the best examples are Minnesota natives Dustin Byfuglien and Gigi Marvin. Byfuglien grew up in Roseau playing defense and was drafted into the NHL as a defenseman. Yet, he was switched to wing by the Chicago Blackhawks and scored 11 goals in 22 playoff games to help them win the Stanley Cup in 2010.
Marvin, being from Warroad, naturally did the opposite of Byfuglien. She racked up 195 points in four seasons as a forward for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and helped the U.S. Women’s Olympic team win a silver medal as a forward in 2010. Then, she switched to defense in 2012 and helped anchor the blue line en route to another silver medal with Team USA at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Building a Foundation
One of the main reasons certain players are able to perform at a high level, regardless of position, is they have a great foundation of fundamental hockey skills.
“There are some things as you get older into the higher ranks that can be considered position specific, but you’re standard skills are going to be used anywhere and everywhere on the ice,” said Hicks.
Skating, passing, shooting and handling the puck are critical skills every hockey player needs to spend time developing.
“You take a look at a transition, where we commonly think of a defenseman to have to make a [backwards to] forward transition join the rush,” said Hicks. “That’s pretty much the same movement a forward is going to use for a pass on the breakout.”
This is even true for players who want to be goaltenders. USA Hockey encourages future goalies to wait until they are at least 12 or 13 years old to become full time goaltenders. Teams with multiple goalies should also encourage the backup goalie to skate out for games so they can continue to work on skating and puck handling skills while staying involved in the game and having more fun.
Learning by Doing
The transfer of skills from position to position goes far beyond the basics though. In fact, one of the most important benefits of playing multiple positions is how it enables players to learn the game through their experiences.
“Being able to see the rink from a different perspective can only help you,” said Hicks. “If you look at the way the game is played now, it’s not the same as it was 15 years ago.”
Defensemen are now encouraged to be aggressive and join the rush, and forwards are being given even more responsibility in their own zone. One of the best ways to show players how to do those things, which may be outside their comfort zone, is to have them play a position where they get more repetitions in those scenarios.
“For a defenseman to move up front, first and foremost, I think it gives them a chance to get into the attack mentality,” said Hicks. “They have to make plays or cause plays to happen through action.”
Eventually, players will also start to notice the nuances of the game.
“Say a player typically plays up front or plays a forward position,” stated Hicks. “When they can step back and play on the blue line and see how plays develop in front of them, it helps them to read plays when they go back up to the forward position.”
Encouraging by Example
Convincing young players that trying a new position will be good for them isn’t always easy though. Hicks notes the hesitation typically comes from the little bit of fear when players are forced outside their comfort zone. The best way to approach those situations is by instilling confidence in the player at his or her new position.
“Maybe point out a few examples from some higher level players they’re watching on television,” suggested Hicks. “[Tell them] you do a great job really protecting the puck like Zach Parise so it might be a good switch to be a winger. Or you’re really patient with the puck like a Ryan Suter so I think you would be really good on the back end helping us get out of the zone.”
The Best Teacher
One of the many benefits of playing cross-ice, half-ice or small area games is how those type of games expose players to all positions without them realizing it.
“When you’re playing in a small area game or you’re playing a cross-ice 3-on-3, everyone’s responsible for everything,” emphasized Hicks. “It forces everyone playing on the ice into every situation whether it’s offense, defense, with or without the puck.”
“You can see some pretty high end forwards at a young age get exposed defensively and you can see some pretty high end defensive kids get exposed when they have to go play offense. It’s a great way to learn the game.”
Perhaps most importantly, small area games speed up the learning process by maximizing the number of repetitions and making it fun.