The things in life that are nuanced and complicated also tend to have the potential for controversy. If there were easy answers, after all, there wouldn’t be much room for interpretation. Everyone would agree, and life would proceed smoothly.
The process of picking which players are on which lines on a youth hockey team – leading to other decisions such as how often everyone plays, what parts of the game in which they play and what lines are classified as first, second and third – can fall into that “complicated” category at all levels and particularly at 12U.
Joe Bonnett, a Player Development Manager for USA Hockey, says choices about lines, both initially and in-game, are an “art.”
Guy Gosselin, another USA Hockey Player Development Manager, says of line designations: “It’s only a big deal when we make it a big deal.”
Here are some ways that process plays out.
Bonnett, whose daughter is a 12U player now and who coached his sons through various age levels, notes that one of the biggest complications of line choices is the potential for parents to be frustrated.
If there is a sense that some players are being favored over others when it comes to line choices and playing time, tensions can mount.
“I think parents need to be respectful to a team dynamic and be respectful to kids with more and less experience,” Bonnett says. “Parents also have to have confidence that coaches are going to move kids around during the course of the year. If that doesn’t happen, it might be frustrating. It’s extremely difficult. What if it’s your kid? That’s where a lot of parents get frustrated.”
When it comes to picking lines, Bonnett says it is a balancing act for coaches. He even employs subtle tactics in an attempt to achieve that balance.
“I use a little trick when I coach,” he says. “If we have a ‘third’ line, I’ll start that line to start the game.”
Bonnett concedes, though, that parents and even the kids themselves can tell if and how they are being sorted into lines based on skill level. And he notes that having players stay together on the same lines can be a way to build chemistry.
How that sorting takes place can seem important, but skillful coaches can navigate it if they keep opportunities and game situations in mind.
“For the most part, should ice time and opportunity be fair at 12U? Yes,” Bonnett says. “Can we give the coach some breathing room to move kids around in a competitive spirit? It’s a two-way street. You have to be respectful as a parent and trust that your kid is going to have a chance to fail and succeed in the course of the year.”
Along the lines of the “competitive spirit” Bonnett references is the simple idea of winning games. While development is the overriding goal at 12U, he doesn’t shy away from the reality that victories can matter in the short-term.
Giving some extra ice time to your best players – whether they are classified as a top line or not – in occasional situations late during close games is part of achieving balance, he says.
“Winning is important in youth sports in the sense of providing momentum for teams to get through a season. If you lose every game, you will lose your parents and lose your team,” he says. “If you are able to sneak in a win, it adds energy to a program. It keeps the kids motivated and coming to the rink.”
Bonnett has a term for it, even: Bonus energy.
“I’m not saying you have to win all the games, but if I’m a coach I need bonus energy,” he says. “Sometimes you set up the team to succeed. It’s a fine line, and in the big, big, big picture it doesn’t matter. But that weekend it does.”
Add it all up and it’s easy to see why Bonnett refers to questions at 12U of line classification and playing time as an art.
“There’s an art to letting kids figure it out,” he says. “There’s an art to being fair and having a good team dynamic. I think at 12U, it’s not life and death. But part of fun is a good team dynamic, and kids understand it.”
It’s about putting kids in positions to succeed and giving them opportunities, even if those decisions require nuance in the moment.
“If you pigeonhole kids on the third line, and give them no penalty kill or power play time, that’s not okay. But if everyone has a chance to succeed or fail, and the coach plays the best line in the final two minutes, I think that’s okay,” Bonnett says. “If you can manipulate things to make sure everyone gets a fair opportunity, that’s ideal.”
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