Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill
I have truly enjoyed this winter of watching high school hockey (boys and girls, but more so boys). I have seen more games this winter – for sure since the 1980s when I had to do most of my own scouting for the St. Paul Vulcans. As always, I have thoughts on what I think I have seen this winter.
This one is certainly not an original thought. Minnesota hockey fans know we really have a treasure in our community-based hockey. Our young people learning to come together for “their” team. This done for their communities and with their communities. It is special.
The skill level has increased for sure. Most nights, you can’t tell when the third line is on the ice. This means the third liners can skate, often as well as the first liners. This hasn’t always been the case. In years maybe now long past, there was often quite a drop from a first line to a third line. Now, it seems the skating and basic skill level is impressive throughout a team’s roster. It makes for fun and entertaining hockey.
Hockey is a spatial game. Unlike baseball, where the ball gets hit to an infielder who knows exactly what to do – throw the ball to first base – hockey is played in the fluidity of space. Give space, take space, create space. The understanding of these concepts are a big part of what makes an elite hockey player. And of course, it’s not easy to see everything or make good decisions over and over again. And quick decisions! Our boys and girls get to play a game that truly takes vision, spatial understanding and teamwork to these spatial ends. Night after night, I have found myself saying, “Hockey is such a hard game to play!” We are all lucky to have been or be involved with this crazy hard game.
I take great pride in being a goalie connoisseur. Connoisseur meaning, I “think” I know something about goaltending even though I didn’t play the position. Maybe I do, maybe I do not. That said, the two best goalies I saw this year were in the girls’ game – Calla Frank of White Bear Lake and Maddison Lehto of Roseville. The best forward, for me, goes to Matthew Gleason, center at Cretin-Derham Hall.
Best team performance of the year: Edina’s performance at White Bear Lake. I didn’t think Edina was spectacular that night, just super solid. White Bear Lake had little chance in this game the way Edina played. I am not making predictions as both are in the state tournament, but that night, Edina was darn good.
I saw a handful of games where the “better” team did not win. Happens in hockey often. And it is what makes hockey great. Even if the odds are against you based on team strengths, in hockey your grit and hard work – and some goaltending – are great equalizers. As are the bounces. A player’s only recourse in this great game is to work hard and grind it out to make one’s luck come alive. As the very old saying goes, “The harder I work, the luckier I get!” It’s easy to love this game!
I see lots of players who can skate better than ever. Many have overall better puck skills than years past. But when looking at these more skilled players, my scouting report would be that I see too many that lack spatial understanding. How does a hockey player develop spatial awareness? It seems to me more of an instinct that is best developed away from coaches and structure. Kids used to do more of that. We used to call those kids “rink rats” or “pond rats.” Rinks and ponds were opportunities to “play and to see” in an unstructured environment, without limitations or structure created by well-intended adults. Freedom in play is important development time for hockey players.
I might be wrong, but this is my theory as to why more girls don’t have better spatial awareness and understanding on the ice. Girls are structured even more so than boys. Less pond rats. More parental organization for our daughters who we all love and want to help. Maybe we help to a fault. No doubt from my observations that many smart girls, when on the ice, have limited vision and spatial awareness.
Sometimes we conflate how exciting Minnesota high school hockey is with how good it is. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of good going on. But sometimes our pride in Minnesota hockey allows us to make some assumptions. We even seem to get a little cocky at times. To this I want to say that there is excellent competitive hockey out there and all across America. In my last couple of years in Sioux Falls of the USHL, we had elite players from Missouri, California, Arizona, Georgia, Florida and even North Carolina. A short time ago, the No. 1 player taken in the NHL draft was from Arizona. This year, there is good chance the No. 1 player drafted will be from Florida. Minnesota is good, but I often have the feeling that folks don’t have a proper appreciation for how good the hockey is outside of our borders.
This is not a criticism of the referees as I think the referees are enforcing the rules as they have been instructed. That said, I think boys’ high school hockey has too many high-speed, high hits being allowed. Maybe it is me, being older, softer and not wanting to ever see anyone get hurt.
It is known in the science of adolescent development that “cautionary” instincts develop later in adolescence. Developed cautionary instincts might be one of the definitions of “adulthood.”
Often the players do not see the higher speed hit coming. It all happens fast. Sometimes caution is maybe not considered at all. And sometimes it just happens. That said, I think a concerted effort to address these high-speed hits is an idea to be considered.
Good defending involves space and angles with a knowledge of what is happening with the puck. And defending against the puck. Stick on the puck or near the puck, or in a passing lane, then the body to body part comes almost in unison. That’s the perfect world. I can say for certain that the fundamental of stick on the ice was too often lacking in the games I attended.
Charging is a penalty of intent. When a defender is “high” and the puck is of little or no concern, this in my opinion is the definition of intent. Add to intent, force, and we have “charging.” It is a topic for conversation at a coaches’ meeting on how to better address this – just an opinion folks!
A St. Paul native and forward for the University of Minnesota from 1978-82, Kevin Hartzell coached in the USHL from 1983-89 with the St. Paul Vulcans and from 2005-12 with the Sioux Falls Stampede. He was the head coach of Lillehammer in Norway’s GET-Ligaen from 2012-14. His columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey since the late 1980s. His book “Leading From the Ice” is available at amazon.com.