The Overlooked Importance of Player Development

By: Dave Starman


Craig Button is a long time and successful hockey executive.  His name is on the Stanley Cup as the Assistant GM of the 1998-1999 Dallas Stars.  Currently he works for TSN, a national sports network as a game analyst for NHL and World Junior games as well as their #1 guy when it comes to amateur scouting and the draft.

I was lucky enough to cut my teeth in the scouting world under Craig’s dad, the legendary Jack Button.  Jack was the Director of Scouting for the Washington Capitals when I was working with their top minor pro affiliate, the Baltimore Skipjacks from 1991-1993.  Craig’s brother Tod was also with Washington as the Video Coach, he is now the Calgary Flames Director of Amateur Scouting.

Between Jack Button and Barry Trotz, then the assistant coach in Baltimore, I learned a ton about pre scouting, player evaluation, coaching, and scouting.  In my role as the color analyst for the radio broadcasts of Skipjacks games I learned a bit on the broadcasting side from my booth partner for two years and roommate in Maryland, Kenny Albert.  Not a bad trio to get a career started with. Add in Joel Quennville, a vet of 800 NHL games who was finishing his playing career that season in Baltimore and you had some tremendous minds to pick for information.

I find Craig to be brilliant when it comes to many areas of hockey ops, scouting, and seeing the big picture.  Craig doesn’t bull shit but he also doesn’t brow beat.  He teaches, he shares, he mentors, and he dedicated to his craft and getting better at it.  Strongly opinionated but willing to move if presented a good counter argument.

I’ve had some great conversations with Craig the past decade as we have spent a lot of time together at the World Junior Championships both broadcasting and scouting.  A few things he said during a podcast with Craig Custance last season that really caught my attention.  He was speaking about the pro level but I’m going to take some of the stories and comments he made and translate it to amateur hockey, specifically the 14U and 16U areas where I have coached the past few years.

First off I’ll start off with this….in 2011 in Michigan MAHA (Michigan Amateue Hockey Association) asked 2,000 players to rate, from most important to least important, these six items in terms of what they find most important in a coach.  3,000 parents were also asked.  The six categories were Development, Enthusiasm, Fun, Winning, Fairness, and Knowledge.  Least important to the players was winning.  For the parents it was development.

Let’s translate that.  Here’s what I see and I’ll back it up with 34 years of successful coaching and player development experience at all levels.  For players, the one’s we coach, the ones who grind and sweat it out, winning is 6th.  That means Things like getting better, enjoying the experience, the passion and care level their coach has and ability to express it, how he/she treats their players, that all mattered to the ones playing for that coach before winning did.  I interpret that as “you give us all the tools, you let us play, we’ll play to win, you coach to make us better players.”

It makes me think of my favorite coaching line of all time, from Red Gendron, a 2x time Stanley Cup winning coach and NCAA national champion as an assistant coach.  “Let’s be honest, the team that gets off the bus with the best players usually wins.”

I interpret the players ranking winning as their least important criteria to go hand in hand with my analysis of their mentality….let us go out and win the game, you just make us better.  In youth hockey, most teams (excluding the “super team” competition based model) have 2-3 really good players (if that), kids who can dominate a game.  Those are the ones ahead of the curve, the “early recruits” in the world of prep school, Major Junior, NCAA, US Junior A.

The rest of the players are probably right where they should be; developing at a good pace, play their asses off, want to get better, play to win.  Give them a chance to be part of the equation, let them make their mistakes, keep them on their proper development curve, keep building the players of the future, the “late bloomers” (or as I like to call them, the “long watch player”).  Those late bloomers can make up about half of the NCAA player pool if they are developed correctly, or in some cases, just allowed to develop.

SO back to the MAHA study and players putting winning 6th of 6 in terms of importance.

I equate that to players wanting to play and get better and parents wanting to see their kid play as much as possible assuming the more ice time they got the better they would get and the hell with everyone else.

How could you spend that type of money and make that type of commitment when the ROI (Return on Investment) is measured in how much better your kid got?  I spent this year with a U14 Tier 1 team.  I was one of two assistants with one HC.  I did a lot of teaching in practice focusing on habits, skills, fundamentals.

I wasn’t on the bench every game; when I was I can say I distributed ice and responsibility evenly and players were put in game situations outside their comfort zone.  If this was pro hockey (where I have coached before) my philosophy would have been somewhat different. I understand bench management when results are the benchmark.  Matchups, certain players for certain moments, etc.  I get it, I’ve lived it.  In our case at U14, mistakes were made, players learned, goals were given up, and over time failure produced success.

In other instances out of my control a lot of minutes were played by a select few.  There were times where I’d see one coach play the last 8 mins of a game with three defenseman, harking back to the days of the Canadiens big three of the late 1970’s.  I’d be lying if I said it made a big difference.  Heaven forbid someone should play in a clutch situation and make a mistake?  The phrase “it’s Tier 1, where here to win” was uttered a few times.  I thought it was absurd.  Me and one of our coaches were about 180 degrees apart on this.

I mostly handled the defense in games and practice as mentioned; I can say without question those kids improved in terms of Hockey IQ, habits, preparation, execution, and skill development.  Former NHL player Arron Asham, the HC, handled the forwards and he and I were closer to being on the same page in this area. He wanted to win, he also wanted to develop players and did a nice job.

Without knowing about that Michigan survey I think I took care of the players desire to get better with my coaching methodology.  It includes teach the modern game, teach with repetition, drill down on good habits and fundamentals, explain the why, allow for trial and error, allow for unstructured play, don’t rip kids for mistakes, let them go out and fix them.

Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky once said “the next coach these kids play for will care less if they were able to execute your system, but they will care if these kids had good work ethic and the right habits needed to build success.”  An NHL GM once told me about the players that play for Jeff Jackson, HC at Notre Dame, that when they draft who goes to Notre Dame they will come out well coached and ready for the next level.” What they mean is, Coach Jackson and his staff know how to develop skill, habits, and what it takes to play at the next level. They are not exclusive in this regarding college hockey but they do it well.

It isn’t a popularity contest, it’s a process and the good coaches know a) what the process is, b) how to teach it, and c) how to hold people accountable while continuing to make them better players and better people.  I’d add Cornell HC Mike Schafer in this category among several at the men’s D 1 level.

Button, talking about the NHL draft, said “Development is just as important as selecting players.  They go hand in hand, if you don’t have one you can’t succeed at the other.  If you select good players but do not have a good development system you will struggle and vice versa.”

Let’s take that down to youth hockey for a moment, and I’m very aware that each area of the country faces its unique challenges and has their own territorial issues.  Also taking into account some areas are purely Tier 2 or 3 and don’t have Tier 1 while some are so hung up on Tier 1 they have lost sight of the importance of Tier 2 and 3 as development areas. At the 12U and younger levels where many future Tier 1 players can be created if well coached in a practice based curriculum, T2, T3 and house league are a vital development and business model.

First and foremost, you need coaches that can teach skills.  Believe it or not, recently a U15 Tier 1 coach in my area addressed a parent group and said “I’m not really a skills coach”.  While I admire the candor, and with no assistant in the fold at that moment, if I’m a parent I’d have walked out the door in about 10 seconds. One soon to be former parent of a player on that team said to me “he played the hell out of my kid but I’m not sure he taught him anything.”

The baloney that gets sold to parents is that they need to be on a team that is built to win, and unfortunately they buy it. If fundamental skills and skating are high on the list of what makes you a player in the modern game, someone to teach that would be my #1 criteria to where I want my son or daughter playing.  The chance to play for a coach that can make you better through practice, game, video, and small area games should be a high priority.  Ice time is great, if you play and don’t get taught where is the development?

If we are to believe the prevailing thought that the technical leads to the tactical, if the technical is not being taught the how good can the tactical be?  About as good as “when you have it anywhere on the ice hammer it in and go get it.”  Not such a great development model to get to U16.

If we go back to Gadowsky’s comments that “its about your habits, not your ability to play the last coach’s system” then you have possibly hurt your chances of the next level because what habits are you building and what ability is developing.

“Well Dave, not every player who makes a team has to have great skill.”

True.

I look at two players who I got to watch a lot at the NCAA level, one of whom became a part of a defense corps that won back to back national titles at Minnesota Duluth taking over the role the former played.  That’s Brendan Kotyk and Nick Wolff.

Neither guy will tell you they are super skilled.  Neither were flashy.  To the layman’s eye both probably never stood out.  To the educated hockey eye you realized how valuable they were (“the long watch”).  Both had excellent work ethic and habits.  They could make safe plays but also make hard ones.

They could find a good first pass, retrieve a puck, make a play in all three zones and play with pace.  You need those guys and they succeeded because a) good habits/foundation  and b) they had the skills needed to play their role on a highly successful D1 team in a very hard conference to play in, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference.  Kotyk, a D1 walk on at UMD has a had a good minor pro career, Wolfe just signed with Boston.

So here is an example that I would say the selection process is in place but not the development path.  If USA Hockey has taught us anything, its about long term development, the race to the older levels and not the end of the season.

Les Jackson, assistant GM of the Dallas Stars and long time NHL exec once said “the NHL is as responsible for failing players as they are failing on their own.”  It’s a sobering indictment of poor development at the minor pro level or, as Button told in a story he shared, one that can fall on the NHL team as well. Button followed that up with “if you take a player and you don’t help them develop or understand what their development needs are you are failing the player.”  I interpret that as you don’t have the right teaching staff at the AHL level or you brought the player to the NHL too quick and skipped an important step.

The example Button used was Dan Cleary who finished his career as an important player in a Stanley Cup winning situation in Detroit.  Cleary was drafted 13th overall by Chicago, failed there, went to Edmonton, failed there.  He went to the Coyotes, not much happened and out of the lockout year he signed as a FA with Detroit.  Detroit told him “your game is skating, puck possession, thinking and movement. Play that way here.”

Cleary later said Detroit was the first team that told him to play to his identity and helped him develop in that role.  It took 4 teams for someone to tell him the right way to play and help him do it.  So essentially, as Button said, “he was a bust until he wasn’t.”  How many youth hockey players can you look with a layman’s eye at and say “they aren’t very good”.  At 14-16, there are many current NHL players who would have been in that category that people would have tried to run out of good programs.  The late bloomer.

So back to youth hockey.  Players hitting the 14U and 16U are hitting that age where coaching gets more vital.  There is no question that players at this age group are certainly responsible for their own careers.  Their coaches see them maybe three hours a week in practice so what they do with the other hours in terms of stretching, rest, studying, training, etc is up to them. Some run with the responsibility, some expect to have it handed to them.

That being said, they need to be coached, taught, trained and developed.  As a 34 year coach and a parent of a Tier 1 05 defenseman (who has coached him most of his career) the most important thing to me is not program prestige or a coach with a famous name.

There are three things you can look at in looking for a good place to play.

  • Who the coach is and can he/she teach and develop players?
  • The skill level of the players on that team who you will be practicing against 3 times a week.
  • The competition they will play against.  Many leading authorities across youth hockey have said of these the one component of the three that you can bargain with the is the last one, the schedule.  The other two are more important.   To quote noted Sports Performance Development coach Dr. Stephen Norris of the Canadian Olympic Program, “any idiot can put together a good schedule.”

I’m a big believer as a sports parent you are paying for the curriculum not the schedule.  50 games (the max) or 70 games (ridiculous) is a decision to make.

Who you play matters more than how many games you play.  More importantly who you play for and their concern for your child’s development in practice is what you pay for.  Re read that to yourseIf a few times.   If that coach or coaching staff has no track record of moving players ahead to higher levels you need to think twice about signing that contract.

I’ll further that.  If you play 70 games and only 15-20 of them are really competitive, what did you gain? If you have a good team and well structured, competitive practices you could make a case that 3x a week against your teammates might be a better development path then 50 games against teams that didn’t challenge you.

3v3 cross ice against good teammates in practice where you get more game like reps in a competitive environment vs 5v5 full ice with less reps in a non competitive situation (like a 7-2 win) where the coach can’t change the parameters of the competition to increase degree of difficulty or get players out of their comfort zone…as a parent you decide.

There are three components to development; the natural laws of maturity are mental, physical, and emotional.  Everyone thinks you can speed those up but you can’t.  You can’t bag skate your U13 team after they have a tough weekend thinking that will toughen them up.  It won’t, but you will probably lose an hour of really good practice time where you can make some constructive contributions to their long term development while still holding them accountable.

You risk the possibility that they emotionally check out on you.  It happens a lot, it’s a different world these days for that generation.  Kids want to come to the rink, get challenged, get taught, have fun, compete.  Skating laps and bag skated probably sets you back further than any point you are trying to prove.

You can enhance these laws of development for these kids a bit at points in time but you can you really speed them up?  Like a tree, a kid will grow and develop according to their genetics.  The trick is understanding teachable moments so that you could add input to their ever-processing system that become building blocks for them when advancement is ready.

So, my message based on four decades of this starting in 1988 is this; pick the program that cares about your child making the next team they try out for, not just this one.  The wrong decision now could affect the range of decisions you hope to make next year.  Look for coaches with COACHING pedigree, where they played is part of it but their track record of player development is more important and always will be.

While the tryout season is very delayed right now, that helps the prospective player pool make better decisions.  Ask questions, do your own thinking, make informed decisions.

Good luck and feel free to share experiences related to this with us so we can continue to compile data.

 

 

7 Responses
  1. James

    It would be interesting to get a bunch of coaches at various levels of the development time frame to talk about the habits they want in their players.

    Do high level HS/Midget AAA/Prep School coaches look for the same things as college/Jr coaches? And do they look for the same things as ECHL/AHL coaches? And do they look for the same things as NHL coaches?

  2. Pete

    Thanks coach. I needed that for perspective. With Covid-19, teams were selected without tryouts. I thought my daughter had an excellent shot at making a t-2 team but without tryouts she didn’t make the cut. Luckily we ended up getting selected to a different program where development is first and foremost.

    What are your thoughts about girls hockey? Everything USA hockey has taught me is that the physical development window for girls closes after U12. I just cannot accept that and believe girls can continuously improve just like the boys. I see the physical/biological window closing but feel athleticism can still be developed and improved.

    Another question, what’s with all the spring and summer hockey? USA hockey wants multi-sport athletes but almost every program we’ve experienced wants your child playing all year round. I’d like to know your thoughts on that as well. Some programs punish you if you don’t play travel selects in the spring/summer and that really stinks.

  3. Joe

    This is EXCELLENT. A lot of people who believe in this philosophical/pedagogical approach to youth hockey have similar ideas, but your conclusions are the most well said.

    As a 8U 10U coach, who REALLY wants player development, but has concerns of T1 teams at the lower ages not providing development… I think this is where USA/MAHA/ETC… need to address what GOOD DEVELOPMENT looks like. How do you take T2/T3 (Travel House) Players at the 10u/12u level and properly parent or coach them so that they can stay on track heading into 14/16u.

  4. Steve McAllister

    This is simply a fantastic piece, Dave. A must-read for every minor hockey coach, regardless of the level/tier/age. Having people like yourself, Craig Button, Steve Larmer and Greg Millen (read Ed Arnold’s Whose Puck Is It Anyway for more about Steve and Greg), preach development and fun over winning makes it easier for coaches doing the right thing. I’ll be sharing this with other coaches in my local association. Thanks again!

  5. Mike

    Great article Dave. Thanks. Are you able to provide the reference for the Michigan study? Do you know where I could find it? Thanks.

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