Success can be framed in a lot of different ways, and it is often best treated with nuance rather than the black or white calculus of winning and losing.
As we think about what defines a successful 12U hockey season, then, it is important to think about big-picture ideals instead of just the bottom line.
Guy Gosselin, two-time U.S. Olympian and regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, has thoughts on the keys to a successful 12U season from the perspective of a team, an individual player and parents.
One way to define a successful year is the growth of a player as a teammate, which works hand in hand with the overall culture of a team.
By 12U, skill development is still critical. But so are some of the soft skills that become the hallmark of leadership as players grow and progress.
“Teamwork, being a good teammate, working hard and being happy for your other teammates when they have success and being there for them when they do make mistakes,” Gosselin says. “All that stuff is important. Those are the lessons to learn throughout your playing career in order to be successful and have a good team atmosphere and culture within your club.”
12U success, too, can be defined by the further honing of skill sets. By that age, players are more stable on their skates, they are understanding how to protect the puck and make plays.
“There’s intent,” Gosselin says. “They’re getting creative and making plays in any situation while learning the four roles on the ice: Offense with or away from the puck and defense with or away from the puck. Those are important things to do, but it’s fairly simple in that there are four things to remember in any situation.”
Playing with intent creates confidence. That coincides with players getting bigger, faster and stronger through a combination of work and the natural maturing process.
“Success means developing a strong hockey IQ and hockey sense, while having a better awareness of what’s going on out on the ice,” Gosselin says. Things start to connect a little quicker as you get older. The game’s pace is fast enough that you have to make decisions in a timely fashion. It’s another part of the progression.”
So, too, is body awareness. Though body checking isn’t allowed until 14U, successful players at 12U are learning how body positioning, angling and intent are all part of playing physically while playing safely – and ultimately having a plan for how to get the puck and what to do with it.
Competitive contact is a crucial skill that should be taught at all levels, for the benefit of the player’s development and safety.
“All of it is going to transfer to style of play and how you play this game. Stick on puck, possessing the puck is huge,” Gosselin says. “We don’t just go into a situation where you take a swipe at the puck. I’m going in with the intent of regaining possession of the puck. When I do regain possession, I’m looking to make a play.”
If that sounds like a lot to take in, don’t worry. It’s all part of the natural progression, as Gosselin says. Remembering that can be important for players and coaches – and particularly parents.
To that end, Gosselin says parents can contribute to a successful 12U season by offering positive support and by understanding that kids learn through a process of trial and error.
“It’s not always going to be pretty, but trust the process and be positive,” Gosselin says in regard to his message for parents. “Positivity goes a long way. Kids know when they make mistakes. They know when they had a great game or didn’t. Just be supportive for your child and help them figure it out.”
Helping 12U players grow as teammates while progressing with their skills in a positive environment ultimately will lead to perhaps the greatest success of all: 12U players becoming 14U players, then 16U players and eventually – hopefully – lifetime players.
“The number one sign of success is that they want to come back next year and play hockey. That’s the most important thing at that age. Retention is hugely important at all ages,” Gosselin says. “We want them to come back hungry and have them really excited to come back with passion. If you have that passion, it’s pretty obvious that you’re going to excel in whatever you are doing.”