How to Develop a Great Hockey Player: A Natural Love of the Game

This post is the second in a series on How to Develop a Great Hockey Player.

As a hockey parent I have always tried to figure out what the formula is on how to develop a great hockey player. By “great” I don’t mean an NHL or college player, I am just referring to playing at a very high level of hockey at the youth level. And if there is one thing I have figured out, it is that to be great at hockey, just like anything else, you to love what you are doing. and have a natural love of the game. Jerry Seinfeld best describes it here in an interview with Howard Stern.  

The conversation I have had several times with my kids is after I ask them: “Do you want to be a hockey player or someone who plays hockey?”. Just like any other interest or hobby, as kids move through each age group it becomes more and more apparent which kids just like to play hockey (which is just fine) and who really wants to become a hockey player.

How Much Love?

I have put together my own non-scientific method to dimensionalize a hockey player’s passion for the game. It is a five level scale from lowest to highest.  Which level best describes your player? Every kid is different and your mileage may vary:

Level 1 – Low Passion:

  • Lack of dedicated commitment on or off the ice
  • Consistently shows up late to practice and is last on the ice
  • During practice lines up at the back of the line for drills
  • Does not appear to have fun during games or scrimmages
  • Is not having fun
  • Behaviors show that the player probably doesn’t want to be at the rink

Level 2 – Passing interest:

  • Misses several practices or games
  • Takes some shifts off due to lack of focus
  • Occasionally attends optional practices/skill sessions
  • Picks and chooses which feedback to listen to
  • Struggles with consistency
  • Won’t train outside of team’s scheduled events

Level 3 – Likes to play:

  • Always shows up to practice and games
  • Tries hard most of the time
  • Wants to get better and learns from mistakes
  • Picks and chooses optional practices/skills sessions
  • Spending time with friends is as important as hockey
  • Once in a while trains on own

Level 4 –Passionate Player:

  • Plays hockey at almost every opportunity
  • Happily trains with coaches or friends
  • Wants to keep playing even when tired
  • Opts-in to extra training sessions
  • Will wake up extra early /stay late to go to optional practice
  • Occasionally works on skill development on their own in the garage or backyard
  • Listens to feedback
  • Will train on own if given structured guidance

Level 5 – Off the Charts:

  • Eat sleep drink hockey (e.g. sleeps with their stick)
  • Ultra-competitive at everything
  • Goes out in the driveway, backyard, garage and plays hockey consistently on their own
  • First on/last off the ice
  • Plays with intensity on every shift
  • Always looking to get better
  • Fire in the belly
  • Hates to lose

For Most Kids Their Passion Tends to Grow Over Time

Most kids I knew or coached at U8 (Mites) or U10 (Squirts/Atom) who continued on to play at a high level of hockey (AA or AAA) were Level 3 or 4 at that young age. Only a handful of kids started at Level 4.  Level 5 is pretty rare, and those are the Sidney Crosby or Ryan O’Reilly’s of the world who were just genetically programmed to want to be a hockey player from Day 1. You know these players, the ones where there are multiple childhood videos of them in diapers holding a hockey stick, skating on the ice before they can ride a bike and blowing out candles on their hockey birthday cakes each year.

In my opinion, a great player should be moving up these levels as your child ages. They do not need to start at level 1. Hopefully their love of the game will increase as they move from U8 to U10 to U12 etc.

Being a Fanatic Hockey Player is Rare

I can tell you this, those Level 5 behaviors to this day still do not resemble my kids, even at the U14 (Bantam level). My kids now love hockey, but they certainly don’t have OCD about playing it. They also didn’t start out that way. My daughter started playing hockey when she was 8 years old when she didn’t like sitting in the rink lobby while her younger brother was on the ice. My son has always liked hockey, but he has and continues to play several other sports, but prefers hockey to all the others. It is only now that they reached their teenage years, that they are starting to narrow their focus on hockey and reducing the other sports they are playing. So, over time they have been moving up the levels to Level 4 these days.

Next Up: Ice Time

While a love of hockey is necessary to become a great hockey player. It isn’t sufficient. Next, I will discuss my perspective another critical ingredient to achieve hockey greatness: TOI (Time on Ice).

This post is the second in a series on How to Develop a Great Hockey Player (Intro).