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Deflections: When does the light go on for young hockey players?


Here's the difference between two fellows at the same junior tryout camp.

I'm on one bench doing nothing particularly useful other than seeing that everyone behaves. They do, of course (though certainly not because of my austere presence).

A colleague is watching the forwards while I'm rolling the defence. In fact, the five are changing themselves. Players from this camp will be invited to the "shortlist" camp in August, so there's a lot at stake for many of them. They know they need to show their best stuff. But, typical teens new to junior, many don't quite know what that means. Holding back and playing it safe seems to be the standard approach.

After a few shifts, I see a pattern for two of the defencemen and it isn't a good one. Now, I could just stand there, say nothing, and let their mistakes compound and perhaps bury them. Or I could be a coach and give them some direction, which is what I do.

James is a big boy with some agility problems, but he has smarts. However, he's backing up almost a half zone away from attackers. When the puck is at centre ice, he's nearly at the top of his own circles. Loose pucks up the boards are watched. It's like he's reticent to get involved. For a few shifts I whisper to him it's a lot more fun being involved than waiting for the game to come to him. He's responsive. He chats with me about it, nods, and then slowly, shift by shift, puts it into action.

He starts jumping up the boards and pinching on floating forwards in the neutral zone. He comes back after shifts smiling at the new successes. I ask if this is more fun. “Oh yeah,” he says.

Another kid, Charlie, is even bigger with terrific tools. He’s fast, can handle the puck, turns well and if he hits, he’s going to be the one standing. But he’s dangling in his own zone, passing too late, trying to outskate every forechecker and getting caught on odd-man rushes. I suggest he’d accomplish more by doing less. I tell him his skills are already obvious, that he doesn’t need to showcase them every shift.

But Charlie, while politely nodding, ignores the advice. In fact, he starts losing the puck more often and having lost the guy he was supposed to cover, is often twirling in small circles near his net. I wonder if perhaps Charlie just isn’t a very smart player in addition to being rather self-absorbed.

On the last day of the camp, when names are tossed about as assessors are wont to do, James is mentioned as having improved considerably over the weekend. He’s worth another look in August. Charlie though is a risk. Can he be trusted when coached? School’s out on him. Maybe they should take a pass on him. Correct on both counts. Too bad Charlie didn’t see it.

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