Wanted for NHL, all hockey: True athletes! WHL coach Brent Sutter says kids who focus on hockey year-round are stunting their development
Posted by Dean Holden at March 7th, 2013
by Jason Gregor, 3 March 2013
Brent Sutter says his Red Deer Rebels organization is changing the way they scout young players. The WHL team head coach/GM/owner, who’s also a former NHL player and head coach, says his organization is looking for true athletes and not necessarily players that focus on hockey for most if not all of the year.
Photograph by: Dean Bicknell, Calgary Herald
Today, more and more parents are enrolling their kids in hockey 10-12 months of the year, with the hope their children will become better players.
But is it working?
Brent Sutter says he feels that too much hockey, especially for young kids, will hinder them rather than help them.
“You just don’t have as many players today that are as good athletes as they used to be,” Sutter said recently. “Too much today, especially in young players, is focused on hockey 12 months a year. They don’t play soccer, they don’t play baseball or tennis or the other things that people used to do.”
Consider Sutter has won two Stanley Cups as a player, scored 102 points with the New York Islanders in 1985 and played 17 NHL seasons. He coached the WHL Red Deer Rebels from 2000-2007, and then spent five seasons as an NHL head coach in New Jersey and Calgary, and now he’s back coaching the Rebels.
“It is so noticeable on a hockey team that the kids who have played other sports and experienced different things are always the smarter players on your team, and they are able to handle adversity better,” Sutter said. “They deal with adversity better because they are thrown into different environments and they trust their skills that they may have learned elsewhere to get them through certain things.”
And that’s leading Sutter to change the way his WHL team evaluates and scouts young players.
“I’ve really noticed it since leaving (to the NHL) and coming back to the WHL how it has changed,” he said. “We are lacking in areas that we never used to lack in. I want our scouts to look at athletes not just strictly hockey players.”
American author Neale Donald Walsch wrote, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” and I think that rings true when it comes to exposing kids to different sports.
Is spring and summer hockey actually stunting some kids’ overall athletic performance? Your body needs to react differently to succeed on a soccer pitch, baseball diamond and football field compared to skating on a sheet of ice, and all of them are played at different speeds and require a different thought process.
Sutter says players who focus on only one sport too earlier in their development can end up being limited in their overall athletic awareness.
“You really notice the guys who are true athletes and the ones who are not,” he said. “The ones you can take … and play baseball or soccer with them and they get it. This is noticeable even at the NHL level. The true athletes are a little bit further ahead.
“There is so much offered now to be just a hockey player, and it starts at a young age. However, they don’t need to play hockey 12 months a year to be a good hockey player.
“What happens with a lot of kids now who play hockey year round is they wear out. The fire in their bellies by the time they are 19, 20 or 21 isn’t the same as it was when they were 12 because they’ve been doing it every month for six, seven and eight years, and eventually, it wears them down. These kids need to do other activities, experiment in other sports and have other friends outside of hockey.
“That is just my opinion, and I’m not saying I’m right, but it is very noticeable now that I’m back in junior hockey. I even noticed it from kids coming out of junior and into the pro ranks, who was a true athlete and who was strictly a hockey player. There is a big difference.”
Sutter also isn’t a believer in burdening young players with learning systems. He encourages young coaches to devote some practice time to simple, unstructured fun.
“When was the last time minor coaches just threw the puck on the ice during practice and just let their kids play river hockey. Talk to guys like Sidney Crosby, and he will tell you that is when their skills flourished. They were able to just go play and not worry about being in this spot or that spot. What happens with system play at a young age is that kids become very robotic. Until you get to bantam or midget, the game should be about skills and letting their skills flourish.
“Kids can always improve their puck-handling and skating skills. It is important to know that your job as a coach is never done until you’ve got the best out of kids. At a young age, it is about teaching and allowing them to grow their skills.”