Did the soundtrack to your summer include shouts from a driveway hockey game? Were otherwise warm and serene afternoons interrupted by the percussive thunk-thunk-thunk of pucks against a basement wall? Did you wonder aloud when the "real" hockey season was going to arrive, when your son or daughter might return to the rink to act out these hockey passions on ice?
If so, your teenager may very well have a natural wiring to overcome the challenges presented by a game that continues to grow more competitive. That wiring is no guarantee, of course, but it's a foundation as important as the skills they honed all summer.
As associate head coach at the University of Minnesota, where he also worked from 1994-08 before returning in 2011, Mike Guentzel has seen hundreds of elite hockey players come through the program, and there’s a common thread running through the player who really wants success.
"Did he want to train?" Guentzel asked rhetorically. "Did he want to work on certain skills? Was the initiative being taken to say, 'I'm going to go to work and do what I like to do, and I'm going to have some fun doing it?"
Guentzel, in addition to the two Hobey Baker winners and 15 All-Americans he coached at Minnesota, also has even more direct experience with players who reached the heights that so many parents would consider the very best payoff for all of their own hard work: Each of Guentzel's three sons played NCAA Division I hockey.
Guentzel’s youngest son, Jake, a current standout for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has always been a rink rat. He said that drive not only helped his son, but his teammates as well.
“It really hit home with my youngest boy,” said Guentzel. “We see that the group of one or two kids grew to three or four or five and larger because, I think, good players and motivated players draw other players to them, and they inspire other players to try things or be involved in this group or want to do more things to get better. He was really involved with a good group, 25 or 30 kids deep in our association. They'd go on the ice whether it was A or B level, or 1 or 2, or A or AA, and there wasn't a lot of separation from top to bottom. They just all wanted to be on the ice. It was, ‘Jump right in and keep up, do what you can to gain respect and earn credit from other guys because you were able to skate, pass, shoot, score or make a play.”
Time to Prioritize
By the time a young player reaches the 14-16 range, his or her hockey future is coming in to clearer focus. In addition to maturing coordination, strength training and physical fitness work is paying off in ways that weren’t possible just a few years earlier. It’s also a time where more of the burden to separate oneself from his or her peers falls on the individual, even while the prospect of burgeoning social lives and high school pressures begin to compete for a young player’s attention.
“You prioritize,” Guentzel said. “You keep your focus.”
One area of focus, said Guentzel, is on a player whose skills are worth studying.
“First of all, think about your idols or who you emulate at the highest level,” he said. “Most kids who want to be hockey players watch NHL hockey. Who do you want to be? Who do you try to copy? I think that kids who get it or really want it can reach out with their own research or their own eyeballs and watch players.”
Which isn’t to say, of course, that anything is set in stone in terms of development. The moral of the story is to keep working, to keep wanting it. Not every 14-year-old looks alike.
“At 14, maybe he's not a star, but at 17 or 18, you know where his skills and attributes might be,” said Guentzel. “You can provide him the right background and provide him with some tips and point him in a direction – whether it's [working with a] trainer or a diet or whatever it might be – and you're going to see a better product.”
Use Your Coaches and Other Resources
Guentzel sees a different development environment today.
“I think you evolve,” he said, referencing his take on a coaching career that began in 1988. “The game has changed a lot from a coaching standpoint. The player relationship has changed. When I was in college in the early '80s, fear through motivation was a big part of it. What's changed is that now there's more of an open dialog, a little bit more of building the relationship and trust.”
And what is Minnesota’s definition of the right player?
“We want a guy here who understands the balance between being a hockey player, a student-athlete and a good person,” said Guentzel. “That's essential here. The really elite ones are self-motivated.”