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12U: College Coaches on Positional Versatility

01/23/2020, 12:15pm MST
By Shane Frederick

College hockey coaches agree: Don’t pick positions for young players. Let them learn them all.

“The more positions you can play, the more versatile you are,” said Mike Carroll, women’s hockey coach at Gustavus Adolphus College.

USA Hockey’s American Development Model not only encourages players to experience different positions but focuses on skills players can use all over the ice.

“In all of these practice plans that they are producing, there are no set positions, which tells me that they want everyone to experience both (forward and defense), especially at a young age,” Gustavus men’s hockey coach Brett Petersen said. “Just from a simple experience standpoint, you're putting kids in different positions, which affects their skating, it affects their puck-handling and all of the above, which is good, good and good — vs. trying to streamline a left wing beginning at the age of 5. I just think the whole idea is healthy.”


Petersen is in his 20th season coaching the Golden Gusties. Carroll is in his 21st season. Both have appreciated having versatile players on their rosters over the years.

“I think it's really a big plus for young players to be moved around and play both forward and defense,” Carroll said. “I've moved many, many kids at the college level. I've got examples all over the map, even some kids who have made All-American after never playing defense in high school, and then we moved them back to D.”

The Long Game

Petersen said it can be easy for coaches to look at a group of young players and try to put them in certain spots, putting a smaller, quicker skater up front and moving a bigger, slower one to the blue line. That might help that day’s game, but it’s not going to help the development of either player.

“When Herbie Brooks was alive, he would always remind us not to give up on our big guys because they're the last ones to develop physically,” Petersen said. “Their feet just haven't caught up with their bodies yet. The little guys, their feet have always been with them. … So instead of taking those kids and plopping them on the blue line, let's let them have some opportunities up front.”

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Learning the Game

Carroll said learning multiple positions also helps players better understand what their teammates’ duties are once they ultimately do end up in a certain spot.

“If you've been a defenseman your whole life, you don't really understand what a forward’s responsibility is,” Carroll said. “If you're a defenseman and you get moved to forward, you're more apt to be more of a defensive-minded forward, but even the experience of playing forward is going to allow you to be a better defenseman when you get moved back because you understand what their role is and what their jobs are in all three zones.

“Conversely, if you've been a forward your whole life, you're probably thinking score, score, score, score. Well, you get moved back to defense, you've got no choice but to learn the defensive zone and what to do without the puck there. So I really think that should be something mandated or encouraged by young coaches.”

Not Just Forwards & Defense

Learning multiple positions shouldn’t just be limited to skaters. Goaltenders can benefit from skating out and participating in passing and puck-handling drills to improve those important aspects of their game. Carroll said you want your goaltenders to be good skaters “because of all the different things they’re asked to do now.”

Petersen said it’s no different than encouraging kids to play multiple sports and not specialize at too young of an age. The sport benefits from having well-rounded athletes as well as from having well-rounded hockey players.

“You can't convince me that to be a really, really high-end player, you have to play the same position from age 5. I just don't buy that,” Petersen said. “It's the same with being a multi-sport athlete. You can be an All-American college hockey player and still be a three-sport athlete. You don't have to play just one sport your whole life to be really good. And I think the same is true with the position piece, too.”

Less Pressure, More Learning

Teaching young players multiple positions can take some pressure off the coaches and parents, the Gustavus coaches agreed. By letting players learn all of the skills over time, they can figure it out on their own and gravitate toward certain positions, based on how their skills develop.

“Let's not pigeonhole our kids,” Petersen said. “Let's let them experience different positions and see where it evolves. I just think there are way more benefits to that approach than there is for the other side.”

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