“The word favorite has connotations in sport of inequality or unfairness,” said Christian Koelling, USA Hockey Coach-in-Chief for the Minnesota District.
But the truth is every coach has favorites. We’re not talking about favoritism, in which players receive additional playing time or leeway when it comes to discipline solely because their family has a special relationship with the coach. Favoritism gives the concept of favorites an unnecessarily bad reputation.
Koelling explains that true coach favorites are, “players that coaches enjoy coaching”.
“At one of my beginning of the season parent meetings many years ago, I said that I play favorites,” said Koelling, who has coached at both the youth and high school level in Duluth. “Then, I said my favorites are the kids that work hard and are respectful and coachable.”
A great example at the NHL level is the recent signing of Blaine native Matt Hendricks by the Minnesota Wild. Even though Hendricks isn’t known for lighting up the scoresheet, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau had coach Hendricks while with the Capitals and admitted to advocating for the Wild to sign him in a Star Tribune article saying:
“He does things other people don’t do all the time. He blocks shots. He defends his teammates. He sticks up for teammates. He does a lot of really good things, and he plays hard every shift out there.”
As Koelling and Boudreau elude to, being a coach favorite is directly tied to players’ day-to-day behavior and their ability to earn their coach’s trust in all situations on and off the ice. Here are some ways youth players can strive to becoming one of their coaches’ favorite players.
Team First Attitude
“First and foremost, being a good teammate and putting your team first is important,” said Koelling. “Coach’s interest is in the entire team’s well-being. By putting the team first and being a good teammate, you’re aligning yourself with the coaches’ goals.”
Coaches spend a significant amount of time trying to create an environment that supports and promotes team unity. Players who display selflessness and encourage their teammates on a consistent basis reinforce those messages and make it more enjoyable for everyone to come to the rink.
Players that show coaches respect and an earnest desire to learn are often noticed early on in the season.
“It’s fun to coach a kid that accepts feedback and asks questions,” said Koelling. “Listening to what the coaches say, taking it in and being willing to consider what they’re saying and then making adjustments based on what they’re saying.”
Behaviors such as making eye contact or nodding along while coaches are talking show you’re giving them your full attention and care about getting better.
“That allows for improvement and any coach likes to see that in their players,” said Koelling. “When coaches see kids that are dedicated and share that passion for the game with them, it makes them want to put that extra time into try to help that player achieve their goals.”
Better Athletes, Better People
It’s more than just doing the right things during hockey practice too. Coaches care about how players act in the locker room and away from the rink. They care how their players are developing as a person, not just a hockey player.
“It goes a long way just being a good kid,” said Koelling. “Getting good grades, respecting teachers at school and being a good person in the community. Those are things that don’t apply to hockey specifically, but I know those things go a long way to being someone the coaches would consider a favorite.”
“How you do anything is how you do everything. You can’t turn it on and off. Either you are coachable and you listen and you’re respectful in all aspects of your life or you’re not.”
Pursuit of Excellence
Another common perception regarding coach favorites is that coaches always like the best players on the team. That’s certainly not always the case, but when the top player(s) are indeed coach favorites, the reason typically has more to do with the positive characteristics the player displays than simply his or her high level of skill.
“A lot of times being the best player is the byproduct of doing all of those other things the right way,” said Koelling. “For example, coaches certainly like players who do extra things to get better away from the rink, players that are dedicated to getting better.”
At the younger ages, this may be as simple as a coach seeing kids skating at the local outdoor rink or during open hockey. As players get older, shooting pucks, puck handling and off-ice training take on added importance and can be easily noticed by coaches from one season to another.
“Working hard is important,” said Koelling. “The consistency of effort, every day when you show up to the rink or weight room.”
“Those attributes are things that make coaches like a player, but those are also the attributes that are making players better as well on the ice.”