Where has the well-rounded athlete gone? That's what some NHL and Junior coaches are asking. We are living in an era where young players are specializing in hockey, year-round; but experts are saying kids who play multiple sports have the advantage.
Scott Bonner is concerned. And, for that matter, so is Brent Sutter. Over the past couple of months, both Western Hockey League general managers – Bonner of the Vancouver Giants and Sutter of the Red Deer Rebels – have aired their anxiety about the state of hockey and the current era of uber- specialization.
It seems, for many young hockey players, gone are the days of playing a variety of sports. Gone are the springs filled with the sounds of the cracking of bats and baseballs in leather mitts. Absent are the summers of halftime oranges and curling corner kicks. And departed are the mad wolfing- down-dinner scrambles from the basketball court after school to the ice in the early evenings.
Instead, for the aspiring youngsters keen on greater heights, it’s hockey in the morning, hockey in the afternoon, hockey in the evening and hockey in summer time.
But for both Bonner and Sutter – two GMs who, of course, are always looking for better ways to both develop and mine talent – they believe the relatively new idea of a one-sport focus is a detriment to the game and the players who play it.
“It’s good for guys to get away from the game,” Bonner told Hockey Now in a recent interview. “Last year, some of our guys were playing basketball and it was shocking how bad some of them were. We’re in an era in which hockey players are becoming one-dimensional at a young age. I think society is at risk of losing a generation of quality all-around athletes and it’s a dangerous precedent.”
In a story written in the Edmonton Journal, earlier this year, Sutter made his position on the matter clear. And in general manager meetings since, he’s continued to voice his concerns.
“You just don’t have as many players today that are as good athletes as they used to be,” Sutter told the Edmonton Journal. “Too much today, especially in young players, is focused on hockey 12 months a year. They don’t play soccer, they don’t play baseball or tennis or the other things that people used to do.
“It is so noticeable on a hockey team that the kids who have played other sports and experienced different things are always the smarter players on your team, and they are able to handle adversity better.”
With the allure of the NHL or, perhaps even Junior or university hockey, Bonner can see why parents might feel it’s necessary to enroll their children in every power skating session, bodychecking camp and line-changing lesson they
can find. He just doesn’t think it’s necessary. And, even further to the point, actually detrimental.
As was well-documented in a previous Hockey Now feature, the odds of “making it” in hockey, be it Junior hockey or beyond, are slim. So, even as a man heavily in the business of preparing players for professional hockey, Bonner is well aware there is more to life than a sheet of ice and everything that goes on between the boards.
“Parents don’t want their kid to miss an opportunity, so the parents become competitive,” Bonner said. “Yes, of course, some of the kids are succeeding and becoming very good hockey players, but others I think are going to miss the opportunity to join other sports.
“I’m sure there are a lot of kids that I wouldn’t come across at our level that, by the time they got to Midget, it didn’t quite work out for them, and now they’ve missed an opportunity to play other sports because they decided to focus on just hockey.”
“If you close the door to other sports at a young age, you don’t know what you’re missing.”
There are few teams in the WHL that can rival the lineage of talented stars produced by Bonner’s Giants.
For five years in particular, from 2005 to 2010, the Giants churned-out the likes of budding NHL stars Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins, Evander Kane of the Winnipeg Jets and, most recently, Brendan Gallagher of the Montreal Canadiens.
Not surprisingly, all three have one thing in common: a sporting passion away from the rink.
As teenagers, Lucic was boxer, Kane was a soccer-playing striker and Gallagher was a baseball player.
All of them chose hockey, but undoubtedly benefited from their athletic pursuits beyond sticks and pucks.
“Hockey doesn’t become mundane,” Bonner said. “You don’t necessarily have to play (these other sports) at a high level. I would just suggest they enjoy other sports, meet other people and work to become a more well-rounded person.
“For a player like Brendan, playing baseball and getting away from hockey made him really enjoy hockey when he came back.”
Kane, who has taken up tennis in recent years and, growing up, was also something of a track star, has long been a proponent of playing a variety of sports. Even now, as an NHLer.
“Some kids might not have the opportunity to play a number of different sports but I think, if you do, you should really take advantage of it,” Kane said. “I was fortunate enough to play multiple sports and it’s something I really enjoyed. You look back and those were some of my best memories growing up.”
If there’s one person who is most qualified to discuss the how-to of developing hockey players, it’s Peter Twist.
The founder and CEO of Twist Conditioning has coached over 700 pro athletes and mentored thousands of young players. From former NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon to NHLers like Pavel Bure and Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Twist has seemingly trained them all.
He knows what it takes to get the top. And, largely, athleticism is at the core.
“Without question, the best athletes rise to the top,” Twist said in an email to Hockey Now this week. “Elite hockey requires a plethora of physical ingredients and movement strategies that are best grown and compiled from varied sport participation.
“The body and mind would appreciate variety and, really, at an early age, you don’t know which sport a child even has the best potential to excel in, or which one best lights his fire.”
As it turns out, putting together the whole puzzle together takes a number of different pieces. As Kane discovered, playing sports like track and soccer were quite obviously beneficial, not only for variety sake, but also as a practical improvement on the ice.
“Track definitely helped with my speed on the ice and developing an explosive start,” Kane said. “As for soccer, it’s quite similar to hockey in that you have to learn to play properly without the ball. Having a good sense of both sports can really help you while playing either of them.”
While injuries are bound to arise in a fast-paced contact sport like hockey, a look back at the careers of Kane, Lucic and Gallagher and, knock on wood, generally, they’ve been void of major injuries.
Other than the 2009/10 season when Lucic was limited to 50 NHL games because of a pair of injuries – a broken finger followed shortly thereafter by a sprained ankle – none of three have missed any more than 20 games in any regular season dating all the way back through their WHL careers.
Indeed good fortune is a factor, but there’s no denying that their overall athleticism has played a part in their collective health.
“Both good athletic oriented and hockey specific training helps with injury prevention,” Twist said. “But, so does shifting the types of sports played throughout the year for a young developing body, as it imposes a variety of demands on the muscles, bones and joints.
“The body is a complex machine operated by “software.” The muscles and sensors and receptors in the skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia detect what our body is doing and feed the info to the brain where the brain then compute the exact motor response the whole body needs. This amazing machine feeds-off of variety. The more variety there is, the better software will run.”
When so many players are so close in terms of talent and hard work, the mental aspect of the game is most often the difference maker.
Sure, he ultimately lost in the Stanley Cup final, but how else do you explain Patrice Bergeron reportedly playing Game 6 with a broken rib, torn rib cartilage and a separated shoulder?
Variety gives the brain a chance to recover from the stress of high-level hockey. It grants the mind a break to do something different. And it offers a player the opportunity to learn mental skills in a different context.
Dr. Douglas Smith, working with Pro Mind Sports Psychology, is a leading psychologist in Ontario who has worked with professional and elite-level athletes for the last 20 years. For Smith, life is all about striking a balance.
“Sometimes, I think we get too narrow with one sport and see it as do or die,” Smith said. “Playing different sports allows the player to stay fresh and enjoy life even when things don’t go so well with hockey.”
While Smith doesn’t rule out the positive effects of specialization at a certain age, he is concerned – perhaps not unlike Bonner and Sutter – about the burnout process.
Recently, Smith has been working with a few elite level hockey players. This summer, he is encouraging them to get away from the rink and try something completely new. And forget even baseball or soccer. How about whitewater rafting or canoeing or kayaking?
“Let kids have fun,” Smith said. “When you get to be an adult, then you can be a professional. But even then, when (adults) haven’t learned that balance as a kid, they have major problems, which I’m dealing with a lot. And then, when
they’re not playing well or their team isn’t playing well, it’s like the end of the world.
“I think these kids I’m working with this summer are going to be more well-rounded, have more fun and, in the fall, they’re going to play better. Making adults into kids at such a young age is kind of ridiculous.”
And for Bonner and Sutter, they are definitely not in the business of ridiculous.
Bonner has been the Giants GM since their inaugural season and has seen his team qualify for the playoffs in 10 of 12 years and win a Memorial Cup in 2007. Over that period of time, Vancouver has had 23 of its players selected in the NHL draft.
He knows what players need to succeed.
“If they just do hockey 24/7, by January, it becomes a really long process,” Bonner said. “Mentally the change in sports is good for them.”
With hockey academies and winter clubs and spring and summer hockey, the stark reality is that if a player wants to play hockey every day of the year, it’s possible.
However, it’s clear that’s not the best route to the top.
Sure, sometimes it’ll work, but even some of the most respected people in the Junior hockey world, believe kids – ultimately, if they “make it” or not – will be a whole lot better, as both players and as individuals, if they dip a paddle in the lake or slide into home plate or cross an actual finish line.
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