For many players, the Bantam/15U level is the final step in the path toward high school hockey, and for some, the dream of playing after high school begins to take shape. It’s an exciting time for players and parents, no doubt.
Long-time bantam coach and Minnesota Hockey District 2 Coach-in-Chief Scott Hambly reminds parents that while the skill level of some players this age is impressive, they’re still kids. There is a lot of development occurring at this age beyond their hockey skills.
“The players we’ve had a ton of success with all stayed at their age all the way through the program and just made the natural progression,” said Hambly. “The ones that struggle, that I’ve seen struggle over the years, are the ones where moms and dads are trying to push their kids along who are maybe extremely talented, but physically, mentally and emotionally aren’t quite ready for the next step.”
We sat down with Hambly to hear more about what parents and players should expect at the Bantam/15U level, and what they should focus on to maximize long term development.
Physicality and Body Checking
Between body checking becoming legal in Bantams and players experiencing growth spurts at different times, it’s understandable why many parents mind believe the physical component of the game is the biggest change at this age. For Hambly though, the increased physicality is just part of a natural progression that kids adjust to fairly quickly if they’re taught the appropriate skills and concepts.
“When you use the word checking a lot of kids have a misconception they use checking as knocking the other player down,” said Hambly. “People talk about checking, which I like to refer to just as body contact. We never really worked on so called checking, per se.”
“We talked about being aware of your space so when you’re playing against some of those bigger players, you’re aware of them, and you’re going in there with the idea that someone is going to be coming on you so you need to be better prepared.”
Throughout the younger age groups, players are exposed to body contact in a variety of situations and gradually learn the fundamentals of having a good base, absorbing contact, angling and being aware of dangerous areas on the ice. The natural progression is then to enable players to apply checks with the intent of gaining possession of the puck.
“We try to get them to come away with the idea you’re not out there to just knock people around,” said Hambly. “You’re out there to limit time and space. That can be done at any age.”
With USA Hockey’s Declaration of Safety, Fair Play and Respect, these principles will take on even greater importance as the game progressively reduces and eventually eliminates any physical play designed to intimidate opponents.
Long Term Focus
As players reach the Bantam/15U level, there’s a perception teams should begin to ride their top players more, especially in certain situations.
“At the bantam level, yeah, moms and dads expect a little bit more at the upper level, but we still made it known that we were going to afford all of the kids the opportunity to be put in different situations throughout the year,” said Hambly. “I am a big believer that every kid should be playing. If they make your team, there’s a reason they made your team.”
Hambly admits playing time wasn’t perfectly equal on his teams. They would occasionally look to certain players to score goals or defend the lead when there was less than two minutes left in the game, but he’s strongly opposed to teams, even at Bantam/15U, shortening their bench early or often in games.
“During the course of the season, and I like to win as much as anyone, but we were willing to sacrifice wins for the sake of getting kids into every situation possible because you never know when they’re going to be put in those situations,” said Hambly. “Our main concern was development and being better at the end of the year. Hopefully, once they were done with us, they could make the high school team and beyond.”
“We did play some teams where their supposed third line would maybe see a shift per period. It’s hard for me to fathom that, especially as young kids.”
A key component of the American Development Model is around 13-15 years old, players determine what they want from the game of hockey.
“The top end kids, since I’ve been coaching and even back when I was playing, those kids were out in the garage stick handling, shooting extra pucks, and doing all of that little extra stuff naturally,” said Hambly. “It is still a game. Everyone wants to have fun. Some kids just want to participate. They may have other activities they want to do, besides just being a hockey player.”
There’s nothing wrong with either path, but the bottom line is it has to be the player’s choice.
“We never really pushed it on them,” said Hambly. “It still boils down to the young player who wants to do it. If they’re forced to do it, believe me, they aren’t going to stick around very long.”
Focus on Now
“Our main challenge right now is slowing down that recruiting and scouting process of young kids,” said Hambly of the Bantam/15U age group. “Everyone is in a hurry nowadays to get to the next level. They’re not allowing the kids to just be a kid and play well at the level they’re at.”
The recent changes to the NCAA recruiting timeline should help, but it won’t alleviate all of the issues, especially for boys’ players because of the ages of junior hockey drafts.
Having coached two NHL players in Ryan Carter and Justin Braun, as well as several more who played professionally in the AHL and Europe, the early profiling of players frustrates Hambly because he’s seen first hand how players mature and develop at all different times.
“We started seeing it in my last years, where we had to actually bring some parents in and discuss just slowing down,” said Hambly. “Don’t worry about who is talking about who. Let the players play and worry about the now, not what’s going to happen in the future.”
“The one’s that do that are the ones who I’ve seen have more success.”