The University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team was a sight to behold in the mid-1980s, reaching three consecutive NCAA tournaments and two NCAA Frozen Fours thanks to a core of talented and dedicated players.
But as good as the hockey team was, Guy Gosselin says, you should have seen the stickball games they used to play.
Gosselin, a mainstay on the UMD blue line during that era, is now a player development manager for USA Hockey. He was asked recently about the importance of other sports as a means of unlocking hockey skills in 6U and 8U players, and he was transported back 40 years to those Bulldogs teams.
“It’s about hand-eye coordination. Brett Hull was a pretty good stickball player. We’d play stickball in college and Norm Maciver was a great stickball player,” says Gosselin of two former teammates who went on to long NHL careers. “Other sports really do translate. It’s pretty simple to do the math on it.”
To Gosselin, the specifics are less important than the general on this subject. While some sports might translate more directly to hockey than others, he stresses that building an overall healthy and active lifestyle is the biggest key for a young hockey player.
“Just having an active lifestyle and sampling whatever sports you can is key,” he says. “Participate and be fully engaged in movement. Be active when you are in that sport. Provide that environment. We talk about physical literacy. The way we define it is moving with confidence and competence in multiple environments. It’s about the healthy development of the whole person.”
Adds Dan Jablonic, another USA Hockey player development manager: Other sports allow a young athlete to experience “increased hand-eye coordination” and “seeing the mental side of another sport.”
Both Gosselin and Jablonic mentioned the idea of being comfortable in different athletic settings – water, air, land and ice.
Those different environments are important to building overall athletic confidence.
“Competence leads to confidence,” Gosselin says. “That’s how we develop resilient athletes.”
It’s important to avoid repetitive stress injuries and overuse that comes from early specialization. But the non-physical importance of participating in other activities and sports might be even more important than the physical payoff, both Gosselin and Jablonic say.
Getting outside of hockey helps kids make new friends and have new experiences, Jablonic says. And it helps them understand how to interact in new social environments and to be good teammates, Gosselin says.
“Being a good teammate means being happy for other kids’ successes,” Gosselin says. “We can have an effect on that as coaches. It’s the environment that you can create. We don’t want a work environment.”
Indeed, it shouldn’t be work to play a sport at any level – but particularly for 6U and 8U players. Getting kids off of screens and into any sort of physical activity, while being mindful of the component of fun instead of making it a chore, is perhaps the biggest key of all.
Unstructured play away from hockey, Jablonic adds, lets young kids give their brains a break from hockey and lets them miss it – leading to “renewed energy and passion and appreciation when hockey starts back up again next season.”
“Fun looks different at all ages, but if we can get down on their level and say it’s OK to be silly and offer free play, that’s so important,” Gosselin says. “Those are the kids are going to excel and want to come back to hockey.”