Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill
It’s that time of year. Graduation parties on the horizon. Young hockey players making decisions on where hockey fits into their lives. Some will pursue hockey further, and for the great vast majority of those players, it means junior hockey.
If I am an expert in anything, it might be the world of junior hockey. How it all works. Why it works. I’ve seen a lot of it and from a lot of different angles.
When I graduated high school, I was a good student. I was a very good baseball player. I had college offers to play baseball which would have made me the only of my five family siblings to attend a four-year college. It was enticing. But I loved hockey more. Much more. I made what was for me an easy decision – “no” to baseball, “yes” to junior hockey. This decision took me to the St. Paul Vulcans and coach Doug Woog.
It ends well. Becoming a captain at the University of Minnesota, an accomplishment I will remain proud of. A member of a national championship team and another as national runner-up (a team I consider one of the very best in the history of Gopher hockey). But make no mistake, playing junior hockey was a risk as far as getting a paid-for college education.
I wasn’t all that successful early in my junior career. At my first Christmas, barely playing and with a total of two goals to my credit, I had nowhere to go but up. In an after-game rant where Coach Woog singled us out one by one for our poor play, I was wondering what he could possibly say to me, being I didn’t play much. Coach Woog got to me and said, and I will never forget, “Hartzell, you are lucky you don’t bitch, or you wouldn’t be here!” There is a lesson there in that simple, harsh critic of Kevin Hartzell.
The good news is, of course, I didn’t complain or “bitch” as coach Woog put it. I kept plugging and, eventually, opportunity came, and little by little, I earned some trust.
After two years of playing junior hockey (and four years at the U of M), I came back to the Vulcans as the head coach. I put in six years as head coach in St. Paul, then director of the team for another 10. After some time away, I was back to Sioux Falls of the USHL for seven years. And now, I’m advising a couple of teams. That’s a lot of years involved with junior hockey.
During these many years, what have I learned? What do Minnesota kids need to know as they enter junior hockey? What do their parents need to know?
Minnesota players grow up in a community-based system that extends through high school. It is, however, not what most do. Kids are playing hockey everywhere and they too start out in a community-based program. In most cases, these young players develop just like ours. Ice time. Handle a puck, skate around a cone, etc. Kids in areas outside Minnesota, just like in Minnesota, get pretty good in a hurry. But “those other kids” eventually find a predicament. Competition.
“Those” kids realize somewhere around the age of 14 that they are needing better levels of competition. The thought of leaving home enters not just their minds, but the minds of their parents. From ages 14-16, the more skilled are thinking about it hard. Eventually, many leave home to play for Midget programs, enrolling in new schools and living with billet families.
Midget teams are the equivalent of our high school teams. Only the Midget teams travel more. They travel to weekend tournaments in various cities to participate with other Midget teams. Then back to their home away from home and schoolwork in their “new” school. And the talented, continue to progress.
When our boys enter junior hockey, they are facing competition that has in many cases already lived away from home. Gone to school away from home. These boys from “other” places are often just a little more “hardened.” That’s OK, many of our boys will figure it out. Some do not. The whole point of junior hockey is to weed out those that are good when it’s “easy.” Junior hockey will “separate the weak from the herd.” For many, it will take not just hard work, but also patience. Patience has always been a virtue. In today’s world, it may be even more so.
For those wanting to play juniors, I recommend that they embrace the difficult. The grind. Getting on the bus and off the bus and playing at a high level night after night takes focus. Energy does not show up on its own. For most, it must be summoned.
Players aspiring to junior hockey must embrace fast, physical, gritty and even ugly hockey. Opponents will be tough and mean at times. But that is what hockey players want – a tough, fast, physical challenge, night after night.
While you embrace all that is difficult, you must also come to better understand yourself. What “really” is your game? Are you a skill player? A grinder? A power play guy or more a penalty kill guy? Many enter junior hockey believing they are something they are not. Coaches and teammates can all help in this discovery process.
What a player is and whatever he does, the question to be asked is; is one dependable in these things? That’s what your coach needs from you. He has to be able to trust you to do what you do consistently, and of course, consistency is what we all hope for.
Speaking of coaches, players entering juniors might get a coach who communicates well. Some coaches will not communicate well. Some coaches are nice and caring. Many are not. Most coaches will be having their performance evaluated nightly. Their jobs will be on the line. The coach’s concern for their own personal livelihood is often greater than that of their players. The player’s job is to perform. Easy equation. Unfortunately, not everyone gets the equation and hockey filters those folks out.
Players succeed or fail based on daily attitude. Parents miles away can be helpful, or while not intending to be so, can be harmful. Players must be coachable, embrace what is difficult, eat well and sleep well. Doesn’t seem difficult.
Getting it right is embracing what is difficult. It is embracing a tough coach. Embracing a tough playoff series. When done right, many look back on their time in junior hockey as the very best hockey experience of their life. This includes players who have had nice NCAA and NHL careers. Junior hockey is such a great, pure hockey experience – it is also why I coached junior hockey for as long as I did. There is so much room for a player to grow as a person and learn their game. Embrace all that is difficult. The rewards are immense.
A St. Paul native and forward for the University of Minnesota from 1978-82, Kevin Hartzell coached in the USHL from 1983-89 with the St. Paul Vulcans and from 2005-12 with the Sioux Falls Stampede. He was the head coach of Lillehammer in Norway’s GET-Ligaen from 2012-14. His columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey since the late 1980s. His book “Leading From the Ice” is available at amazon.com.