Tony Granato, the men’s hockey head coach at the University of Wisconsin and the coach of the 2018 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team, has guided players at the highest level of his sport.
But he also recognizes that the paths to get to the highest level of hockey – or even the highest level a particular player can achieve, given the skills he or she has to work with – are varied.
As such, Granato has some advice for players at various levels of hockey, including that critical 14U/16U group, on how to navigate some difficult decisions. It’s not always about making an elite team or moving far away in pursuit of a dream. Sometimes disappointments can be blessings in disguise, and sometimes what seems like a door closing can actually be an opportunity.
No need to hurry
“First of all, I think a lot of times players are in a hurry to get to next level or part of their career,” Granato said.
This plays out at all levels of hockey. The ones Granato sees most frequently in his day-to-day role involve youth players leaving at a young age to play junior hockey and then eventually deciding when to make the leap to college.
“Kids who commit to college want to leave high school programs and go to juniors,” Granato said. “But maybe they miss being at home and their family. Their development stalls and they end up going back home anyway. Whether staying at home or with the program you’re with is the best option, sometimes the best thing for you is right where you are.”
And sometimes when you stay put, you grow more than you would have if you were given what might be deemed a more prestigious opportunity.
“A lot of kids are in a hurry to get there, where they would be better off physically and maturity-wise getting that additional growth year,” Granato added. “There’s a good chance you’re going to put on a lot of muscle and weight.”
Making the right decision for your own development can be made more challenging because of advice coming from many directions.
And not all of it will be in the best interests of the player.
“Recruitment from the other side of things is a big part of this. Coaches at the next level tells kids, ‘We’ve developed kids this way, come next year and you’ll have the same opportunity,’” Granato said. “But it ends up being different. The evaluation is off. Lots of things happen. The side trying to get you is going to tell you a lot of good things.”
It’s only increasing in the age of specialization, Granato said.
“A lot of it has to do with advisers,” he said. “Players are getting advisers and skating coaches at a really young age, and they’re getting advice.”
It’s important to consider all angles when making big decisions. For a 14U player, it could be a decision between playing on a select team or not. For the best of the best, maybe the decision is clear. For others, development could be stymied on a better team.
“Is it better to be a fourth-liner on the best team or a first-liner on a team that’s not as good?” Granato asked. “At a young age, I’d say it’s better to be a top-line player on a not-so-great team.”
Granato, 53, saw some of the decision-making firsthand as the father of two boys who played hockey. His kids weren’t pushed hard to leave school to play junior hockey and ultimately stayed at home.
“But I saw a lot of their teammates in the same position. Some decided to go play junior hockey. Some decided to stay,” Granato said. “I just think it’s really hard as a 16-year old to have to leave home to play somewhere else because you think it might be better. A lot of times staying where you’re at is best.”
The final word
Trying to achieve and play at the highest level are noble pursuits, but hockey is full of late bloomers, Granato said. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to slow down in order to ultimately get ahead.
“There are a lot of situations where people – players, parents, advisers, coaches – think faster is more important,” Granato said. “I just think that every player’s career path is different. Just because Patrick Kane does this and Joe Pavelski does that doesn’t mean it’s right for you.”