Splitting ice time: We can. But should we?
Posted by Dean Holden at January 31st, 2014
by Patrick Johnston, 5 December 2013
Should you dole out ice time to your minor hockey players just like you would in the NHL, Major Junior or the NCAA?
The big boy teams have first line players and fourth line players. Should minor hockey teams think of their minor hockey players in similar terms?
Sundher was always at the leading edge of his group, possessed with a natural scoring ability. It’s players like him who coaches instinctively throw ice time at, knowing that they are more likely to succeed than fail.
But that’s a bad approach, he says.
“You have to build a team concept, especially at younger ages,” he said. “I realize it more now, looking back.”
“You go to summer hockey tournaments, you see kids, seven, eight years old, I don’t see how you can develop them if they are stapled to the bench. I’m 21 years old now, you have to spend time on the bench at my age and at my level – it’s not much fun. It’s definitely not fun when you are a little kid.”
“In general, you’ve got to play guys, let them develop,” he insists. “You don’t know who’s going to end up where when they’re young.”
Sundher knows first hand how growth spurts and the like affect the development of young players.
“The top guys at 10 or 12 years old, they’re not necessarily always going to be the best. I tell my younger family members [who are playing hockey] to go to a team where they’ll get ice time,” he says.
Hockey Canada’s Corey McNabb suggests thinking of the question like it was about public school.
“There’s not a parent out there who’d put up with a teacher giving attention to only four kids – why tolerate that in our minor hockey coaches?” he asks.
“When you emphasize only a few players, you’re not going to do yourself any favours down the road,” he says. “Your team is only as good as its weakest link.”
Teams don’t become united if players don’t feel like they’re contributing, McNabb points out. And everyone knows skilled teams that aren’t united don’t go as far as skilled teams that are.
Building team unity comes from players that have roles where they feel like they are contributing.
“Not everyone is going to be on a first or second unit power play, but they can kill penalties,” McNabb points out.
“Everyone knows who your best skill guys are; it’s giving your other players chances to succeed that delivers the long-term results.”
“Coaches talk about teaching life skills – well, over time, it really takes a toll when kids don’t feel like they contribute.”
The Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) is the largest minor hockey organization in the world. It’s filled with teams of all stripes and approaches. There are clubs that focus only on the elite end and others on house league competition. Development is always a talking point on all parts of the spectrum.
One of the clubs that’s looking to balance elite competition with player development is the Don Mills Flyers.
Members proudly tell you that the club’s motto – ‘development is the name of the game’ – remains as strong as it was when the club was founded in 1960.
The Flyers enter teams in every age category at the GTHL’s AAA level. These players are competing at the highest standard of hockey, with many going on to professional careers in the NHL and abroad.
NHLers like Trevor Daley, Kris Draper, the Moore brothers, Jamal Mayers, John Madden, Scott Mellanby, Anson Carter, Larry Murphy, Kirk McLean and Manny Legace have come through the Don Mills ranks, and all the while, Flyers organizers say teams have remained focused on developing players throughout the lineup.
“When we sign up players, our philosophy is to try to be fair to all of them,” says Don Mills general manager Gus Stathopoulos. “Of course, we are AAA level, the coach does have some discretion, but overall we try to push through all our players.”
Like McNabb and Sundher, Stathopoulos says the focus always needs to be on how you develop all your players, not just your top-end talent.
“If you don’t play the kids, they aren’t going to develop,” he says.
This may seem like an obvious practice, but it requires constant reminders and maintenance. Players who show talent early on will likely continue to do so. It’s the other players who need the most attention.
The NHL is filled with examples of players who were not the best players on the team growing up – take a pair of defencemen as an example.
Both the Canucks’ Chris Tanev and the Flames’ T.J. Brodie are players who were far from the top end of their teams when they were in minor hockey.
For most of his youth, Tanev was a skilled but very undersized defenceman. He played in the GTHL for the Toronto Red Wings, alongside Sam Gagner, who most felt had NHL potential from a very early age. But by age 15, Tanev still hadn’t grown so he left the team.
There didn’t seem to be a spot for a player who many said had skills but lacked size. He played high school hockey, which is definitely not a conventional stop along the way to an NHL career.
Tanev truly fits the argument that the best players at age 10 or 12 don’t always pan out the same way once puberty kicks in. He fell behind. But he stuck with it. He found a place where he got ice time.
He ended up playing college hockey for a season and started drawing NHL attention. He wasn’t just noticed by the Canucks, who ended up with his name on a contract, but also by the Sharks, the Senators and the Blue Jackets.
Dreams don’t have to die – just imagine how much all those coaches who’d passed on him when he was deemed “too small” must have kicked themselves later on. If he had been given the ice time and some loyalty, it’s pretty obvious that Tanev would have paid off for some Major Junior team.
T.J. Brodie has a similar story. He didn’t make the full-time jump to the OHL right away as a 16-year-old; he only played 20 games for Saginaw. Instead, he spent most of the year in Junior B.
“I had to work to get there,” he said last season. “I was never in any all star teams.”
Now he’s playing top-four minutes on the Flames blueline.
These are the kind of stories that Stathopoulos says the Flyers value. His own son, Mike, made the London Knights as a 17-year-old, played four years of Major Junior, a season a the University of Western Ontario and then two years in the ECHL. Not making Major Junior right out of Major Bantam wasn’t a disaster – he got the time to develop as a player and didn’t give up on his dream.
The Flyers philosophy of balanced ice time worked for him.
“At the end of the day, you want to bring your bottom rung to be closer to your talent,” the senior Stathopoulos said.
“It’s been our philosophy from our founders, fifty-some years ago.”
But pressure from parents can be a hard challenge to face. Some parents of top-level players are worried that if their kids don’t get enough ice time, they won’t get the exposure needed to make the immediate leap to Junior.
It’s not unreasonable that parents are so on edge, given how much money is forked over, says Burnaby Minor Hockey Bantam AAA coach Guido Lamberti-Charles.
“Ice time is a big deal, not just here but also in Europe. At every level you have a different approach,” he says.
Born in Germany, Lamberti-Charles came up in the German system.
“I look at my Junior time, I was always the smallest player. I had to work very hard,” he said. He eventually played professional hockey in Germany.
That work ethic is something he tries to impart on his players.
“To play, they have to earn their ice time,” he says. “I watch for mistakes.”
He’s a coach that is looking to set his players up to succeed. Mistakes work counter to what all coaches should be working towards, he says. You want to build confidence in your players. That means giving them opportunities to succeed.
“If he works hard for it, that makes him feel better,” he explains.
Building in-game confidence comes from spending time in practice. Canadian kids, despite all the efforts to change the culture of the season, are still playing too many games. It’s because parents are paying so much for their kids to play, he says.
“I get it, they’re working their butts off to pay for kids to play,” he begins. “But if you really want the kids to develop and make the next level, just let them get on the ice and have some fun.”
Having fun comes hand-in-hand with a feeling of contribution – something that is echoed by everyone in the game, not just the likes of Lamberti-Charles, Sundher, McNabb or Stathopoulos.
But because there’s so much emphasis on game time, he feels that players pick up bad habits and take shortcuts.
“In a game you learn to compete and get game experience. To make your kids better you need to change the approach to ice time,” he says.
Lamberti-Charles is also coaching at Iowa State University, where things are just as competitive.
“We have 28 players on the ice, everyone is battling for a spot, everyone wants to make the trip, but we can’t take them all,” he says.
It’s that competition in practice that makes them better players in the games. Dividing up ice at that level is easier to do.
But at Bantam AAA, which he admits is the most challenging level of hockey for balancing development and success, it’s just not the same equation.
In a perfect world, the players would just show up to the rink. The parents wouldn’t have to worry that their kid wasn’t getting enough ice time. There wouldn’t be endless fretting by coaches that the parents were going to turn on them.
And even if it’s not like that, it doesn’t mean that parents and players can’t step back and say, “wait, the system will end up finding the best talent – if I’ve got the talent, I’ll be found.”
Maybe that’s the biggest lesson in all this – if you’re good and you work hard, you’ll get where you want to get.