Watch 8U players and try to identify a team’s center, right wing or left defenseman. Chances are, the cluster of players chasing the puck or scurrying around will make it pretty challenging. But believe it or not, at this level, that freedom to explore the ice is more beneficial than being pigeonholed into a specific position.
“(At 8U) players shouldn’t be focusing on positions,” said Kevin Patrick, assistant coach of the University of Vermont men’s hockey team. “If they focus too much on what their position is and where they should be, they’re missing out on learning more important aspects of the game.
“What players need to know on the ice is the ability to read, react and adjust to where your teammates are at. That starts at the 8U level and only grows from there.”
Here are three big reasons 8U players shouldn’t be zeroing in on one position but instead trying them all.
Learn the Game, Not the Position
Hockey is still new at 8U. Learning to skate, learning to shoot and learning the basic rules and elements of the game should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind – rather than positional tactics.
“(Not choosing a position) provides a great opportunity for kids to learn conceptually about positioning in the game of hockey,” Patrick said. “I think if they can grasp the idea of ‘OK, this is where I want to be when my team has the puck and how I can support the puck carrier offensively,' I think their game and understanding of how to make plays will really grow.”
Cross-ice hockey reinforces that idea. The age-appropriate ice sheet creates an environment for them to get more puck touches, make quicker decisions and learn how to read and react to the play.
Versatility is an Ally
One highly valuable but often under-looked quality is the ability to be comfortable on both sides of the puck. Players like Cam Fowler, Gigi Marvin, Dustin Byfuglien and Ryan Callahan have shown why versatility is important. Developing that flexibility and hockey smarts starts at 8U.
“You constantly hear stories about a player who all of a sudden moves from forward to defense in junior hockey,” Patrick said. “Ultimately, you go where a coach tells you. If they ask you to play defense, you might find that your game really takes off. I think you have to keep an open mind throughout your career.
“A player who is willing to move around to help his or her team is not only more coachable, but will develop into a better overall player. Players shouldn’t pigeon-hole themselves (into one position), especially starting at 8U.”
“But I want to score goals …”
It’s hard to say no to your young 8U player, and it’s natural for players at every level to want to lead the offensive charge. Patrick is seeing that in his own two sons, James and John.
“They both like to score goals right now and that’s about it,” Patrick said with a laugh. “We have to remind them to try it all.”
Scoring isn’t specific to one position on the ice. Mike Brodzinski, a former NCAA Division I player turned youth coach, encouraged his son, Michael, to switch to defense during his first year of bantam hockey in Blaine, Minnesota. Michael resisted initially, but found he had a knack for the position. He’s now a sophomore defenseman at the University of Minnesota.
“I told (Michael) he can score from back there, too,” said Mike. “He called me after being invited to the (2014) U. S. Junior Evaluation Camp and said, ‘Thanks for making me try defense.’”
So remember, 8U is primetime for your player to begin developing all of their hockey skills, not just an offensive, defensive or goaltending talent. Remind them to try every position to develop versatility and seek what suits them best. They might be surprised by the payoff, not only now, but years down the road.