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Adjusting to a New Playing Level

11/19/2015, 1:45pm MST
By Todd Smith

Moving up a level in hockey can be exciting and rewarding. But it can also can bring adversity. As a young player joins a new team at a new level, they often face more physically developed and experienced players, and therefore, must learn to be resilient.

Cary Eades, head coach of the United States Hockey League’s Fargo Force, has a unique perspective on players moving up levels in the hockey world. Along with his work in the USHL, Eades has also served as the high school hockey head coach at Warroad (Minn.) High School, and as an assistant coach at collegiate powerhouse North Dakota. During his time, Eades has seen hundreds of players make the transition from high school to the USHL and then onto college hockey and beyond. He has learned that all players, regardless of their size, talent level and pedigree will face adversity at some point as they adjust to a new playing level.

“Every step of the way is a learning process,” admits Eades.

He offers the following advice on adjusting to a new playing level.

Reality Check

The number of quality hockey players in the United States has never been greater – and it’s only growing. Eades has seen the exceptional growth of American hockey firsthand in the USHL as his Fargo Force rosters players from Florida and Colorado alongside the traditional hotbeds like Minnesota and New England. It’s an indication of the groundswell of talent from every corner of the country. This can catch players and their parents off guard because, after all, they are most often accustomed to being the big fish from their little pond.

“I think every step up the ladder, players are often surprised at just how many good players there are out there. All of these players are now battling for ice time,” said Eades. “That’s an eye-opener for parents, too: how many great kids are competing for the spots and how hard it is to win a spot in a higher level like the USHL.”

Less Shine, More Salt

Let’s face it: A player moves up a level because they have talent. As star players, they’re used to getting a lot of ice time and opportunities because they’re typically gifted scorers or skaters. But to be successful as they move up to another level, players need to adapt and learn to play in all situations.

“They have to learn to do all the little things it takes to be a consistent player,” said Eades. “Most of them can contribute offensively, but they have to learn the defensive side of the game. They have to learn positional play so they can play in all circumstances. They have to become reliable and dependable.”

Handling Adversity

Some players will have success early and then hit a wall later. Others might face adversity immediately as they adjust to the size and speed of the new level. Some will have to battle confidence issues. This is often because they are used to being the star. As they move up, their ice time and opportunity might diminish, and that can quickly crush an ego. But instead of griping about lack of playing time, Eades encourages players to flip the scenario.

“Players always say that they’ll play better if they play more,” said Eades. “I tell them that if they play better in the time they are given, then they’ll play more.”

And sometimes, even “playing better” isn’t an automatic solution to this kind of adversity. At advanced levels like the NCAA, players may simply need to be patient, regardless of their performance or ability level. Some teams boast exceptional depth, or a roster full of more experienced players, and younger players might have to accept that gratification won’t be instant. Those who can persevere through this kind of adversity, without losing their cool or their confidence, will grow from the experience.

Make the Most of your Opportunities

One of the greatest examples Eades has of a player making the most of their opportunity and limited playing time is when he coached a young T.J. Oshie, now a forward for the Washington Capitals. Eades was coaching at Warroad High School when Oshie moved there from the Pacific Northwest. Initially, Oshie didn’t get a whole lot of ice time and struggled with the intensity and level of competition in the northern Minnesota hockey hotbed. He was a small kid, too, and had moved away from home and was now literally the new kid on the block. The Warroad coaching staff worked with Oshie during and after practice to improve his game. Oshie became a relentless rink rat and practiced on his own or in pickup games for hours at a time. An injury to a top Warroad player opened a spot on the top line and Oshie filled it and his game took off.

“The whole time, he continued to work hard,” said Eades. “Sometimes it’s a break and being ready for the opportunity.”

Off-Ice Adjustment

Not all lessons are learned on the ice when a player moves up to the next level. Eades believes that the lessons a new player learns off the ice are just as valuable.

“A new player can make great strides with off-ice strength and conditioning sessions. Film study, too,” said Eades. “When they take that teaching and apply it back to the ice, that’s where they can show improvement. They don’t need to be perfect, but they can strive for a higher consistency and intensity and performance level.”

From Being Too Small to Three Stanley Cups

When Eades was coaching at North Dakota, a skinny under-aged freshman named Jonathan Toews arrived on campus. Initially, Toews was too small and slight to play center because he couldn’t handle the center's physical responsibilities down low. So the coaches had to protect him and play him on the wing.

“Once Toews adjusted to the strength and the speed he took off,” said Eades. “But it was a mental adjustment for him, too. Toews was very hard on himself. As a coaching staff, we had to help him be less critical and to enjoy the game a bit more. He took our words to heart and he really fought through some tough times. But he learned not to dwell on things and move through them quicker.”

Parental Adjustment

The players aren’t the only ones that have to adjust to moving up to a new level. Often, the transition is equally challenging for the parents. After all, they are the ones who have been watching their kids' practices and games since the beginning.

“Parents should be patient,” said Eades. “They should understand that development is a process. Sometimes success is not instantaneous and it takes a lot of hard work.”

Eades believes that junior hockey and NCAA parents need to accept their player being on the fourth line or being scratched or sometimes having limited playing time. To work up the ladder, a player has to work extremely hard and improve their game in all areas, not just the flashy numbers on the scoresheet.

“But saying those words isn’t enough,” said Eades. “You have to live through them. At first, it’s a challenge. But patience and belief in your young player and supporting him/her and the coaches is huge. If you start making excuses for your player, that usually ends in a train wreck.”

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