Hockey players at the 14U and 16U levels are growing up – both on and off the ice and both physically and mentally. They’re getting stronger, understanding strengths and weaknesses, learning how to handle success and failure, and taking responsibility for their own development.
This window can also be rife with both challenges and opportunities for young skaters. When it comes to planning an approach for the offseason, individual aspirations should serve as a guide, according to Erin Hamlen, the head women’s hockey coach at Merrimack College.
“If they have aspirations of playing at the next level, particularly at the 16U level, summer is a great time to focus on things that recruitable athletes do, such as working on off-ice agility and strength and conditioning,” said Hamlen, who has led Merrimack since its transition to Division I just four seasons ago, following a decade as an assistant at the University of New Hampshire, her alma mater. “Spring is a great time to mix in some other sports, play some fun, unstructured pick-up games or take a break from the game altogether. For the more serious player, summer is the time to improve athleticism and hone specific hockey skills.”
Hamlen suggests goal-setting as a starting point.
“I suggest sitting down with coaches after the season and developing goals for the offseason to put the player in a better position for the fall,” she said. “Players who stick to their goals and re-evaluate and adjust along the way will be the most successful.”
As for strength and conditioning, Hamlen offers the following tips:
Hamlen also believes playing other sports can improve overall athleticism and that the “right” sports may develop skills that can translate to the rink.
“Every sport is a little different, but sports like lacrosse and soccer, with cutting and lots of changes of direction can be really helpful for hockey players,” she said. “When a skater hits their stride and changes gears, it’s similar. We talk a lot about putting a puck into space so a teammate can retrieve it rather than always hitting the target directly – these sports can help develop that passing skill.”
Making a good impression
Hamlen has seen both sides of the recruiting process. She was a star goaltender at the University of New Hampshire, where she was a four-time first-team all-star selection. Hamlen was also the starting netminder for the U.S. Women’s National Team from 1992-97 and again from 1999-2000.
Hamlen says players should be aware of the types of things coaches and recruiters are looking for in young players, both on and off the ice.
“On the ice, we’re looking for a separation in skill development. We’re looking for the players who stand out. Typically it’s speed combined with hockey IQ – that’s a dangerous combination,” said Hamlen. “When there’s a speed level that’s greater than others and a player can get to an open space and create more – it’s something we look for. Hockey IQ alone is big, making smart decisions with and without the puck. We look for athletes who can possess the puck but also know when to make a pass.”
Intangibles are also extremely important, according to Hamlen. They include:
Parents can provide an assist
Players in this age group are likely facing added pressures of being a part of “elite” teams, even if they may not be ready for it. This pressure comes from a variety of sources.
“Unfortunately there’s some pressure everywhere at this level,” Hamlen said. “Parents hear ‘If you do this your child will have a better opportunity at a scholarship.’ That has bled down from the upper age groups to the lower age groups.
“Pressure comes from some coaches, a player’s peers and parents who used to play and say we did it a certain way. Some parents believe if their child doesn’t play for an elite team they won’t ‘make it’ down the road and we spent all this money it should translate into something. It’s unfortunate.”
So what is the proper place for parents?
Hamlen believes parents can help by doing their own research and not relying on what they hear or rumors. She suggests they individualize their own child’s program, rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach.
“At the younger levels, the involvement of parents should be behind the scenes. I would never talk to a coach of one of my daughters or sons unless they needed my help or if there was a situation that my child couldn’t handle. Allow your child to make his or her own mistakes and work through them. It’s a gift. Have the athlete do as much of the communication as possible. At the end of the day, it’s the child’s career, so they should handle it.”