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NHL Greats Weigh in on the Developmental Debate in Hockey

The global pandemic has left minor hockey schedules in a state of perpetual unknown. As such, developmental concerns are already beginning to emerge.

The developmental mindset in the game of hockey has never been more skewed. The perception of year-round continual and constant focus on hockey-specific development has become accepted as the norm within hockey. It is important to note that this was not always the case. It might be even more important to note that today, in the face of a global pandemic, where hockey is currently on pause in a lot of places, it certainly shouldn’t be the priority.

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Hockey’s Best Advocate for Variety

The annual development issue has surfaced again because of the inactivity of many hockey players since Covid-19 took over the globe in March. For example, Eric Duhatschek from The Athletic, recently interviewed Hall of Famer Paul Kariya about his youth sport experience. Suffice to say, Kariya was adamant about the benefits of playing any and every sport before he finally chose to pursue hockey in his teen years.

“It’s different now,” said Kariya. He added:

Today, I think it’s gone way too far the other way, where kids are too specialized and too early in their lives, they’re becoming one-sport athletes. And I think that not only hurts them as athletes, it inhibits them as human beings in terms of their growth. I think it’s actually even bad for the sport you’re in.  

This developmental debate is nothing new. Brent Sutter, of the famous Sutter family from Viking, Alberta – a former NHL player and Head Coach, now Owner/General Manager/Head Coach of the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels is a well known supporter of playing different sports rather than focusing on only one, year-round. He feels that playing different sports during childhood, and into adolescence, has a positive effect on long-term sport participation. 

Sutter also points out that early specialization has led to less refined athletes and more instances of burnout and dropout. Ultimately, his underlying multi-sport belief has changed the way the Rebel’s scouting staff evaluate players as they would rather have an athlete as opposed to a person defining themselves only as a hockey player. 

Lastly, the best player to ever play the game – Wayne Gretzky – has also weighed in on this on-going developmental debate within hockey. Even the Great One has credited his participation in multiple sports as a reason for making him into the great player he was. 

My Own Take

In the Kariya/Athletic peice, the following question was taken as an excerpt: “Do you think there will be weaker draft classes 5-10-15 years from now thanks to the impact of the pandemic on minor hockey (missed seasons, parents choosing different sports, etc)?”

Kariya’s response included a positive spin and reiterated how athletes could benefit from some downtime and training variety. He noted that this might be an opportunity for young athletes to recharge and reinvigorate the passion they have for the game.

Personally, I could not agree more.

No Hockey Is Strange, But Not Catastrophic

As a Sport Psychologist dealing with athletes of all different ages, I can say that the fear of stalled development is the biggest source of angst right now. This, of course, is completely valid. Elite athletes slowly become slaves to a schedule – especially as they advance levels. An anxious response is normal. In fact, we could all learn to be more adaptable as seasonal schedules continue to be turned upside down.

The level of anxiety varies from athlete to athlete, but it is especially hard for kids in ‘crucial’ years. For example, U-15 (bantam) players have concerns about what might happen with the annual WHL draft.  Junior players that have reached age 20 are concerned whether they will even get to play out their last season of eligibility.

My advice for those players is simple: control what you can control. The one thing every athlete has control over is there individual development. In fact, there is an underlying lesson in all of this. Being great – athletically, educationally, musically – usually all goes back to personal accountability and in how you get to great. No one else is going to make you great. People can help you along the way, but only the individual decides the eventual effort, strategy, incorporation of feedback, etc.

If that means trying something new and getting outside of your comfort zone – great!

At some point preparedness will again meet with opportunity. Regardless of how long this pandemic lasts it is an opportunity to improve every area of your game. For those players in ‘crucial years’ – you are not the only one. At some point, you will hopefully get another opportunity. As such, your focus and energy should be directed toward being ready when that happens.

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