Joel Johnson has to make many difficult decisions when it comes to player evaluation and selection, but more often than not, he’s made the right choices.
Just look at the hardware: six NCAA National Championships as an associate head coach for the University of Minnesota Gophers and four consecutive IIHF U.S. Under-18 Women’s World Championship gold medals. He’s now serving as head coach for the 2021 U.S. Women’s National Team.
As 14U/16U players sharpen their skills and ramp up training with the hopes of catching scouts’ eyes this season, Johnson has some advice.
Here’s the top five things the veteran coach looks for, in order:
“When coaches look for players at the highest level, like a national team or the college level, the margin of error or difference in athletic ability is often pretty small. But what can’t be traded on is the character and integrity of the athlete. It’s extremely important.”
“You can also call this coachability or humility. Most of us who have obtained things in life realize later on that we didn’t know what we didn’t know. As players get older, the willingness to receive feedback and understanding that people are trying to make you better is an incredibly important skill. Players have to remember – it’s not all about you.”
“Some people call this hockey IQ. I’m not sure how much of this is instinct versus what you can learn about the game, or perhaps it’s a combination. When you watch players you can see some of them making certain effective decisions on the ice (with or without the puck) that others simply do not.”
“You absolutely have to give your best, every shift. It’s easy to tell when a player isn’t giving maximum effort.”
“There has to be a baseline of ability regardless of the sport or profession you choose. Things like skating, passing, shooting – you must excel at the basic skills of the game.”
According to Johnson, there are very few players in the world who have mastery of all five things on the list.
“Those that do,” he said, “you’re talking about Olympians.”
While seeking to develop skills and get noticed is a perfectly reasonable endeavor, Johnson cautions players and their parents to not go overboard, or worse, compare themselves to someone else.
“It’s great to continue to focus on areas where you are gifted and work on things you aren’t as gifted at,” Johnson said. “But the moment you start comparing yourself to others, you lose the ability to be content with who you are. When you do that you lose joy and then you start playing for the wrong reasons. Your enjoyment should come simply from playing the game.”