Parents might look back wistfully at the first few years of their son or daughter's days on the ice. There was discovery, the joy of learning new skills and, in many cases, the obvious flicker of what just might become a lifelong passion.
In the years that followed, the skills served as a foundation and the building blocks were many. Not merely skating, but skating well. Not merely passing, but passing crisply. Not merely shooting, but shooting hard and to score.
Coaches and administrators guided them. Maybe the parents did, too. At some point, though, player development becomes the player’s responsibility. Do you want to be great? At some point, it's up to the player to answer.
But there's another question: When?
"I think that age really begins around 14 or 15," said Nate Leaman, who as Providence College's head coach, as well as a former head coach at Union and an assistant at Harvard, is more than familiar with how teenage hockey players develop. "Kids can spend 15, 20 minutes a day working on one of their weaknesses or working on something they want to improve – whether it's shooting a couple hundred pucks, or whether it's working on some stickhandling at home, or doing some lunges or core work."
And it’s important for those efforts to be mindful as players look to take more control of their futures.
“I think that's the key, that when you practice, you're deliberate,” Leaman said. “If I'm shooting 30 pucks for the upper left-hand corner, I want to set a goal for myself to hit 25 of the 30 up at that corner. You have to be working toward something versus going out and fooling around. There's a big difference.”
Leaman, who also served as an assistant coach on the 2007 United States National Junior Team that included current NHLers Justin Abdelkader, Nate Gerbe, Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Patrick Kane, Kyle Okposo and James van Riemsdyk, has found a common thread running through the most successful athletes.
“It's their passion,” he said. “The best guys in the world are working on their game every day,” he said. “It's a growth mindset. It's not a mindset that, 'I'm a natural and I can just get by on my talent.' Because that catches up with guys really quick.”
It’s a lesson that some players with NCAA aspirations might find hard to swallow.
“When kids get to this level, it's difficult,” Leaman said. “If it were easy, everyone would do it. If you want to be good at something, there's a price that you pay – whether you want to be a good computer analyst, whether you want to be a good police officer, a good student or a good hockey player. If you want to be good at anything in life, you have to put the time in. I think it's something that goes back to this: What can kids be working on every day, or a couple times a week, to help them develop themselves versus just playing games all the time?”
The successful players are willing to put in the hours.
“There's always guys who just kind of talk about it,” Leaman said. “There's always guys who are talented at each level, but if you don't put the work or the passion into the game, the game passes you by.”