If we think of each level of youth hockey as a step in the evolution of a player’s growth, it becomes even clearer just how important 12U is in that process.
In addition to the continued layering of skill, there is this: 12U is the time when hockey starts to become more of a team game instead of a collection of individual skills.
As such, it’s a great opportunity for growth – and for building or refining good habits. Dan Jablonic, a player development manager for USA Hockey, has thoughts on some of the essentials for 12U progress.
Because skating is the engine that drives so much of a player’s on-ice production, 12U is a great time to pay even more attention to its fundamentals, Jablonic says.
“Trying to increase your speed, trying to increase your balance and being more fluid and efficient in your skating is key,” Jablonic says. “It obviously helps you be a little bit more aware on the ice, and when you're in that good position you can get into those time and space areas which are so crucial in our game.”
Even if you’re already a good skater, it’s a great idea to work on it. That’s what often separates the truly elite players from the rest.
“That's why the best skaters in the world are continuing to hone their craft even at the highest levels,” Jablonic says. “It's something you can continuously improve.”
Because hockey starts to transition to more of a team game at 12U, building your on-ice awareness habits at this level are essential.
“Team speed, how much you can move to the puck and how can you be in a good position to support your teammates really come into play,” Jablonic says. “Especially when we look at the game, and 98% of our game is played away from the puck.”
If you lack that spatial awareness on the ice, lanes will become clogged and defensive deficiencies in the other direction will be picked apart.
“That’s so important when you're transferring from essentially the individual skill into actually the team game and understanding concepts of time and space puck support,” Jablonic says. “There are layers to our game. You might be able to get by one person, but where's the second layer, where's the third layer as you get through? It's not systems, it's concepts of understanding what is going to make you successful. It's the ice awareness of where you are in relation to your defensive partner and those five-man units that are in play.”
Though body checking is not legal for boys until 14U, this is the next level down and an important transition point in the concept of physical play that is an inevitable part of hockey.
Refining good body contact habits is essential at this level, both from a standpoint of player safety but also through the lens of puck possession.
“Where we talk about the contact confidence in our game at 6U, 8U and 10U, they are learning essentially how to be stable on the ice, have good balance and be in a good athletic position,” Jablonic says. “We know there's contact at all levels and it’s about having that awareness of where the danger areas are on the ice, where are the areas that I need to be in good position to get my hands and head up when we're battling for pucks.”
And it’s about reinforcing the end goal of body contact, even when body checking becomes legal.
“When there's full body checking at 14, these kids have the foundational skills for what consists of checking,” Jablonic says. “The end result is how efficiently can you actually win the puck to make a hockey play. It doesn't matter if that other person falls down. We're really trying to win the puck as efficiently as we can.”
One final habit to work on at 12U: Being a good teammate, and by extension emerging as a leader in the locker room.
That doesn’t necessarily mean being the loudest or boldest, so this is not limited to extroverts. It’s about embracing a true team concept, understanding how you fit into it and figuring out how the whole team can be greater than the sum of its parts.
“There's the ability to challenge your teammates and be that good teammate. Not only having the physical hockey skills but having some compassion for your teammates,” Jablonic says. “How do you actually make them better? What kind of listening skills do you have?”
It’s at least in part about showing up, putting in the work and giving full effort to a sport in order to get the maximum in return.
“We’re obviously so biased in a good way about what hockey does for you in general, but these are life skills,” Jablonic says. “It's not easy to play our game, but it gives you so many things that carry on throughout your life. It’s about working hard, being accountable to your teammates and constantly developing those skills that will give you a rewarding experience.”