Over the weekend I watched a couple high school hockey games in the Milwaukee area. High school hockey serves a few different purposes depending on where you reside in the United States. It can be an option to play at a level where a player could get recruited to further their career. It could also be a more cost-efficient choice for players seeking a high level of competition, but may not be able to afford a Tier 1 program.
Regardless of why the players are there, I have seen many high school programs fizzle out over the last five to 10 years. Most of the co-op programs you see forming around the country were once separate teams that held tryouts and cut players from their roster. In recent years, it seems like high school hockey is on the decline. After thinking about it, I came to the conclusion it is due to the following:
- Part-time coaches have fears of full-time coaches. Without really opening up a can of worms, most full-time coaches have a fear that any given time they could be fired. Coaching is their well-being and much of the pressure put on them causes them to ‘play it safe.’ This mentality leads them to;
- Depend solely on systems. Teaching and coaching systems is easy. It involves the X’s and O’s and there really isn’t much thought that needs to go into it. It can be regurgitated year after year and as long as the players ‘buy-in’ to the system, the skill from the top players should earn you at least a 0.500 record. That should be good enough to keep your job. Hell maybe your team even wins a couple games when playoffs come around. Speaking of top players……
- Relying too much on the top two lines. I have seen this in Michigan and in Wisconsin. At the high school level, the coaches heavily rely and play the top two lines. Most coaches will say that they want to reward the upper classmen for their commitment to the team, the younger guys aren’t mature enough, etc. The problem with this is two-fold; A) When injuries arise, they then call on the third and fourth line guys to produce, some of which are deathly afraid of failing (much like the coach) that they too play it safe. B) The top two lines get a ‘free lunch.’ They know they are rolling every other shift, so if they want to take a shift, period or game off, they will. They understand the system in place has put them in a position where the coach will play them regardless. They are most likely the leading scorers and the coach needs to keep his job.
- Ignorance is bliss and deeply embedded in the system. The coaches may see a once-in-a-lifetime talent come through their locker room and they will ruin that player with systems and not allowing the player to develop into an elite athlete. They will then ruin the team chemistry by not properly disciplining players who are out of line or who are cancers to the team. They are more worried about the politics of the parents, boosters, athletic administration to actually run the team with an iron fist and some structure.
- Not to mention the physical nature of the game has decreased significantly…..oh wait, most of these players only have a couple years of checking experience. Thanks USA Hockey.
To conclude, I am not saying every coach or high school team has these flaws. What I am trying to accomplish with this piece is to get you thinking. Maybe you are an athletic director. What relationship do you have with your coaches? Is there a possibility they fear losing their job? Perhaps you are a player. Could you talk to the coach about doing drills to develop skill and allowing you to loosen the system play? Are you a first line player who has gotten lazy and stagnant in skill development?
At the end of the day, high school hockey in every state could truly be phenomenal. Unless a player is playing at the Jr. level, most teams do not get on the ice daily. This fact alone should significantly close the gap between high school hockey and Tier 1 hockey, but unfortunately it does not. We have to find ways to get high school hockey to be a growth and development stage for hockey players, not just one where good players go to live the dream for four years then hang up the skates.