Player Development Skating Women's Hockey

What does it take to be a truly elite player?

The Player Development Hierarchy

In past posts, I have discussed what it takes to become a great hockey player.  To keep it simple, I would say that those posts describe the path to becoming a true AAA-level player.  At every age group, there are roughly 150-200 AAA level teams for boys and 75-100 AAA teams for girls across the US and Canada.  That means that means there are over 1000 great hockey players at every age level. 

So what does a player who is the best-of-the-best look like?

Over the past couple of years I have watched many of the top teams and players on both sides of the border and have come up with a simple framework on the hierarchy of attributes that these top players possess.

The following diagram shows how these attributes build on each other and, when done in combination, display a top-level of excellence in hockey players.

Level 1: Fundamental Skills

Hockey requires a range of fundamental skills, including skating (e.g. speed and agility), stickhandling, shooting and passing. These are the essential capabilities a player must have in order to get to the elite level.  Clearly, becoming elite at one of the skills helps get you closer to becoming an overall top-level player, but it isn’t sufficient.

Level 2:  Good Habits

There are several on-ice habits that hockey players need to develop and demonstrate on every shift.  These include technical behaviors like shoulder-checking and staying between the dots if you are a D.  Or sticking with your man or going hard to the net and stopping at the goalie if you are a forward. Quite frankly, for every position there is a long list of good habits a player needs to learn and continually maintain.  More broadly, here are some of the other good habits that separate the elite from the rest. 

  1. Hustle: Hockey is a fast-paced game that requires players to move quickly and efficiently. Players who hustle and work hard on the ice are more likely to make plays and create scoring opportunities for their team. Scouts notice which players hustle every shift versus those that take some shifts off during a game.
  2. Communication: In a game, players need to communicate with their teammates on the ice, using clear and concise language to call for passes, provide direction, and coordinate defensive strategies.
  3. Positioning:  Being in the right place at the right time is critical to elite players. Knowing where and when to move to the right areas of the ice separates top players from the rest of their peers.
  4. Anticipation: Anticipation is the ability to read the game and predict what will happen next. Players who are able to anticipate their opponents’ movements and read the play effectively are more likely to make plays and create scoring opportunities for their team.
  5. Discipline: Discipline is important in hockey, both in terms of  staying out of the penalty box and maintaining good habits on the ice.

By developing these good on-ice habits, hockey players can have a strong foundation to play at the elite level.

Level 3: Decision Making

To become an elite player, decision making is a critical skill that must be constantly developed and honed.  Specifically, decision making spans multiple dimensions and situation for players:

  1. Reading the Play: Hockey players must be able to read the play and make decisions based on what they see on the ice. This involves being aware of the positions of teammates and opponents, predicting where the puck will go, and anticipating the movements of other players.
  2. Puck Management: Puck management is an essential aspect of decision making in hockey. Players must decide when to shoot, pass, or carry the puck, and must be able to make those decisions quickly and confidently.
  3. Positioning: Good positioning is key to making effective decisions in hockey. Players must be able to position themselves in a way that maximizes their effectiveness and allows them to make quick decisions based on the flow of the game.
  4. Communication: Effective communication is essential for good decision making in hockey. Players must be able to communicate quickly and clearly with their teammates, both on and off the ice, to ensure that everyone is on the same page and can make decisions based on a shared understanding of the game.
  5. Adaptability: Finally, hockey players must be adaptable and able to make decisions in a fast-paced, dynamic environment. They must be able to react quickly to changes in the game and adjust their decisions accordingly, often on the fly.

Level 4: Deception and Protection

Deception and puck protection are important skills for ice hockey players to develop in order to create scoring opportunities and maintain possession of the puck.  In my experience, it is the highest order of development to display, because it relies on all the other attributes for players to be able to successfully perform them during games. 

  1. Deception: Deception is the act of misleading or confusing an opponent in order to gain an advantage. Players can use deception in a variety of ways, such as faking a shot, passing in the opposite direction, or changing direction suddenly. To develop deception skills, players should focus on maintaining good body posture and making quick, decisive movements to keep opponents guessing. There is a long list of fakes, but knowing which one to pick at the right moment is a skill in itself.
  2. Puck Protection: Puck protection is the ability to maintain possession of the puck while being checked by an opponent. To protect the puck effectively, players should keep their body between the puck and the opponent, use their body to shield the puck (e.g. mohawks or pivot turns), and maintain good balance and body position. They can also use quick fakes and sudden changes of direction to throw off the opponent’s timing.
  3. Reading the Defense: To be effective at deception and puck protection, players should be able to read the defense and anticipate their opponent’s movements. They should look for gaps in the defense, predict where the opponent is likely to go, and adjust their movements accordingly.

Deception and protection can be high risk, especially if they aren’t executed properly. If players attempt a fake or fancy puck protection move and fail, it can easily end up in the back of your net and you can be stapled to the bench by your coach. This is why players who can successfully perform these moves are considered elite.

It is certainly possible to demonstrate parts of these four attributes independently of the other, but to be a high end AAA player, these capabilities create synergies with each other when performed consistently together.  

Skating Youth Hockey

How to Develop a Great Hockey Player: Ice Time

Why is ice time important? 

I think every parent and player intuitively believes the more time you spend training on ice the better a player you will be. If you are figuring how to develop a great hockey player, then ice time is at the top of the list. We have all heard the stories of dozens of NHLers who grew up on in small towns in Canada or Minnesota and played on the outdoor rinks or at their local barn for hours and hours until they had to go home for dinner or bed. In addition, if you subscribe to the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours theory on domain mastery then being on the ice must be directly correlated to enabling greatness. So that leads to the question, how much time on ice per week should a player need? (Note: this refers to training and development time, not how many minutes of ice time a player has during a game.).

It Starts With Skating

To me the biggest factor to be on the ice and develop into a great player is to become a better skater.  Skating is the most important skill to play hockey. If you can’t skate, you can’t play. So, do you need to be the best or fastest skater on the team? No. But you to be a great player you should be in the top 25% of your peer group. Otherwise how can you keep up with the other players who are also striving to be great? Skating is a technical skill that can primarily only be improved with proper coaching and ice time to practice what a player needs to work on. 

How Much Time on Ice?

While it would be great if ice time were free everywhere in North America and kids could get their playtime by just walking down the street or out into the backyard to get some independent ice time, the reality is that for most kids this isn’t possible. For many, ice time can be pretty expensive and difficult to access. Given all the innovations and scientific insights about hockey that have arisen over the last 20 years, there must be some optimized balance for players today to get a good bang-for-the-buck for limited ice time that is available to them.

In my humble opinion, you clearly need at least 7 hours per week (averaging one hour per day) at a minimum. Show me someone who is on the ice less than 7 hours per week when they are 11 or older, and I’ll show you someone who is not on pace to be a “great player”.  Personally, I believe the sweet spot is more likely in the 10-15 hours per week.  Of course you need to balance those hours between focused development and playing/fun (where development is just a positive by-product). Based on all the USA Hockey and experts guidelines, my guess it should be in the 3:1 development to fun ratio.

Expensive vs. Cheap Ice Time

Indoor ice costs money almost everywhere (unless you live in Warroad, Minnesota). Here are some ideas we’ve used to try and dollar average the cost of ice time from most expensive to free to getting paid:

  • Private and semi-private skills and power skating lessons (most expensive ice time)
  • Hockey camps
  • Team Practices
  • Rink-run pick-up games
  • Skate and Shoot sessions (aka Stick time, Gretzky hour etc.) – only good if scrimmage or have someone pushing them to work on something skill-related. (Too many times I just see kids aged 10-14 just line up at the blue line taking breakaway shots on a goalie. That is working on a skill you may only use once in a blue moon.)
  • If you live in a cold winter climate, obviously well-maintained outdoor rinks are superb
  • Public skating (Note: our kids get free admission to their rink for public skates as part of their full-season hockey fees)
  • Find a goalie coach and offer to shoot on their students during their lesson
  • Volunteer as an assistant coach for younger age groups than your own
  • Referee (get paid to skate and watch hockey)

Be Coach-Friendly to Find Extra Ice Time

No one is saying you need to be like Auston Matthews’ mom and get a job at a rink so your child can get unlimited access to the rink and play as much hockey as possible. However, if you are creative you can find extra ice time. One of best ways we have dollar-averaged our cost of hockey was to ensure we had good relationships with most of the coaches at our rink, so my kids would often get invited to other team’s practices when they needed players or my kids showed up early (or were asked to stay late).

What about off-ice?

I am firm believer in the Long Term Athlete Development model. Kids should be doing hockey-related strength and conditioning, plus hockey-specific dryland training like stickhandling and shooting.  But playing other sports, especially complementary ones like lacrosse, tennis and basketball has multiple benefits back to hockey. For my kids, now that they are teenagers they have slowly narrowed the number of sports and reduced their time spent on other sports, but my kids still play at least one additional sport to hockey every season (e.g. soccer, baseball, pickle ball, lacrosse etc.).

Skating On Lots of Ice

Bottom line, if you aren’t playing working enough on the inputs, the outputs can’t be great. On-ice training somewhere between 7 and 15 hours per week should be sufficient to become a top skater.

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