Darren Eliot has experienced hockey in a variety of different ways.
Not only is he a former NHL goaltender, he’s also a TV analyst, a coach, a Sports Illustrated columnist, an instructor, an association director and a hockey parent.
So whether he’s reflecting on his own career, discussing others’ or watching his own son rise through the hockey ranks, he has seen what works and what doesn’t.
That’s why Eliot, currently a TV analyst for the Detroit Red Wings and director of minor hockey operations for Little Caesars Amateur Hockey, is a big proponent of young hockey players participating in other sports.
What Are Invasion Sports?
As part of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, players are encouraged to participate in multiple sports. Among those that can be especially beneficial for hockey players are the so-called “invasion sports” – sports that involve similar tactics and concepts as hockey. Examples include lacrosse, soccer, floorball and field hockey. These invasion sports teach related strategic and tactical concepts while building overall athleticism and skills that can translate to hockey.
Eliot, a former goaltender for the Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings, grew up playing lacrosse (among many other sports) during his downtime from hockey, and his son did the same.
“He played midfield, and I think that, first of all, it was fun,” he said of his son, Mitch, who won state and national titles with Honeybaked in Metro Detroit before making the jump to the USHL. “There’s the obvious translation with the hand skills, but the spreading of the ball around the field was like distributing the puck. Wanting to be a puck-moving defenseman, you play midfield in lacrosse and you’re asked to score, you’re asked to play in both directions, kind of the way hockey is now. Defensemen have to be up in the play, involved both offensively and defensively. From that standpoint, I think that the vision aspect, along with the physical attributes of having to run so much and [improving] his compete level as well, really benefited him.”
With invasion sports, players learn offensive qualities like how to maintain possession of a ball or puck, avoid defenders, create space and find ways to attack the goal and score. Conversely, defensive skills like predicting an opponent’s next move, how to cover a specific space or player and regaining possession are consistently improved.
Eliot served as the longtime color commentator for the Atlanta Thrashers, and was active in growing youth hockey across Georgia. With limited access to ice, he encouraged the utilization of floorball, a sport that mimics hockey with cheap and easily accessible means.
“Being in a non-traditional market like Atlanta, there was lots of gym space, way more than ice availability,” Eliot said. “You were just trying to get kids to play hockey in any form or fashion. That game – it looks like a whiffle ball, there’s lots of stops and starts, there’s lots of skills you can acquire, there are lots of cool shots and training aids. You just want kids to be active at a minimum, you want them to participate, but then as it translates to hockey, those are the fine skills – the hands, the lighter object of a ball. It’s not the same, but it’s close enough and a lot of the skills are transferable. When you go back to ice hockey, they’re there, whether it be hands, coordination, those types of things.”
Building an Overall Athlete
It all goes back to the ADM core principle of making sure kids experience other sports, according to Eliot.
“For me, it breeds athleticism,” Eliot said. “We have kids who play hockey in the ages of specialization. All they do at too young of an age is play one sport and that sort of breeds out athleticism by design. That’s just the physiology. The other part of it, to me, is that other sports put you in different situations socially - different groups of teammates or you might not be the best kid on your team. In the end, I think it keeps everything fresh. There are three elements to it – the athletic side, the mental side and the social side.”
Invasion sports offer great benefits for hockey players, and, at the same time, get them away from the rink to recharge their hockey batteries.
“It’s closely aligned to a sport they love most, but it gives you that break,” Eliot said. “To me, you’ve got to want it, you’ve got to love going to the rink. Some kids are just all into it, but that’s such a rare number where it’s the only thing they live and breathe for. If you give them a little bit of a different twist, a different rhythm and routine, you build up that anticipation, that ‘I can’t wait to get back to hockey’ when it’s hockey season.”