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Potulny on playing time in youth hockey

10/02/2017, 9:45am MDT
By Michael Rand

As a former standout college and American Hockey League player, a current NCAA Division I men’s head coach at Northern Michigan University and a father of 10U and 12U hockey-playing boys, Grant Potulny can see the issue of playing time through an interesting and diverse lens.

That doesn’t quite make Potulny an expert on one of the biggest hot-button issues in youth hockey (and all of youth sports, really), but it does give him some insights into how to handle the questions and concerns that naturally relate to ice time during the course of a youth hockey season.

Keep it equal

At the 12U level, USA Hockey recommends an equal distribution of ice time for all players in most situations. There are numerous reasons for that, and Potulny nailed a big one.

“At the youth level, playing time is a very dangerous and slippery slope. Lots of kids, for whatever reason, whether it’s physical maturity or maybe they don’t play hockey in summer and just choose to play another sport, develop differently,” Potulny said. “If you’re closing off opportunities for those players who grew a bunch and are kind of awkward, or for someone who played another sport, you can close off their development path – and that’s damaging.”

He mentioned a recent article he read about a major hockey program in Sweden that isn’t cutting any players until age 16 and is giving everyone equal ice time. Without specifically endorsing that model, Potulny said, “If kids are giving their best effort with their best attitude, you can find ice time for them.”

How to approach a coach

If there are concerns, however, about the way ice time is being distributed, Potulny says there is a right way and a wrong way to go about beginning that discussion.

“First of all, you have to honor what most of these youth coaches are doing. It’s a big commitment to them,” Potulny said. “I do think most coaches will see the game and want to keep everyone involved. But if there’s a scenario where you want to talk about ice time, you have to remember coaches are emotional, too.”

To that end, the timing of a conversation is everything.

“If you are going to approach a coach about ice time, I don’t think the best time is after the game,” he said. “Set up a meeting in advance and take all the emotion out of it. Both you and the coach might learn something about each other and come to realization there’s a better way to work out that scenario.”

From a parent’s perspective

When Potulny removes his coach hat and puts on his dad hat, he still sees opportunities for mutual respect and teachable moments. If his sons have an issue with their coaches, Potulny wants them to learn from it.

“As a parent, you can use an opportunity like maybe your child isn’t playing as much as you want, and you can create learning chances,” Potulny said. “Maybe it’s, ‘hey, this is what the coach is looking for,’ and trying to work within those parameters to earn more time. It gives you an opportunity to talk about respecting people that are trying to help you.”

Potulny says he also encourages his sons to talk to their coaches directly instead of getting him involved as an intermediary.

“It’s good for their social development. We’ve tried to do that in our house. There have been very few issues, but we try to use that opportunity to have them talk to their own coach and verbalize and understand where the coach is coming from and maybe it hits home,” Potulny said. “It has worked well. Every time, it strengthened the relationship.”

Understanding generations

Potulny, who was a prep star in North Dakota in the 1990s, says he doesn’t recall having many issues with his coaches growing up. Back then, he says, it was less common to question a coach because the mentality was that you followed orders. Young players now, though, are different.

“Players are more inquisitive now. They want to understand ‘why’ and the more you can communicate with players and explain why you’re doing things, the better,” Potulny said. “I think at the youth level, if the communication is strong, a lot of issues can be resolved.”

As a 37-year-old head coach, Potulny says he feels like he has a chance to relate to his players in a way other coaches cannot. That said, age only matters so much.

“It’s all about trust and relationships. The old saying is true: They don’t care what you know until they know that you care,” Potulny said. “Consistency in the approach creates trust.”

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