BUFFALO – One of the most critical debates in grassroots hockey these days revolves around specialization. Yes, kids can play hockey year-round thanks to various spring and summer leagues, but should they? I was speaking to an NHL development exec the other week and he thought that even drafted NHL prospects were on the ice too much in the summer, between rookie camps and international duty. In an era of fierce competition however, parents are often afraid their kids will fall behind.
Well, why not ask the best of the best themselves? I asked a bunch of players at the NHL draft combine if they played other sports while they were growing up and almost all of them did.
“I grew up playing different sports and I will continue to play different sports,” said Russian goalie Pyotr Kotchetkov through a translator. “Because a goalie should be athletic.”
Kotchetkov plays ping pong, as well as the most popular “other” sport among this 2019 draft class: soccer. Harrison Blaisdell, a North Dakota recruit who played for Chilliwack in the BCHL this season, played soccer and lacrosse, another popular reply.
“As far as lacrosse goes, it is a lot of the same skill set you use in hockey, a lot of co-ordination,” he said. “The running is really good for my cardio and you’re in a hockey rink for six or seven months a year, so it’s a nice way to step away from that and get some refreshment.”
For the NHL teams themselves this sort of variation is welcomed. Ryan Jankowski is the director of amateur scouting for the Buffalo Sabres and he says a player’s athletic background gives teams a picture of what he can become. Jankowski previously worked for the New York Islanders and he cited a great example from his drafting days there: a future captain and 40-goal scorer.
“When we drafted Anders Lee, he was a dual sport player,” Jankowski said. “He was a great football player and a really good hockey player, but he had never focused on one sport or the other. So when he started focusing on training his body for hockey, his game improved because his feet were better, his skating improved and he wasn’t top-heavy – which you need in football as a quarterback. You want to dig in and see what these kids have done because it may explain why they are and where they are in their development curve.”
Jankowski also worked for Hockey Canada, giving him insight into the grassroots philosophy on the matter.
“The Hockey Canada way has been ‘try different sports,’ because you have the burn-out factor,” he said. “If you do hockey year-round, are you sick of it when you’re 16, 17, 18 years old? From an elite stand-point, you do need to take breaks and try things at a young age to round yourself out.”
Trevor Timmins, assistant GM and draft guru for the Montreal Canadiens, also sees the importance of diversity for the next generation.
“That’s something that we’re not instilling in today’s young children,” Timmins said. “There’s too much hockey: spring hockey, summer hockey. If children can develop athleticism, it goes a long way to eventually becoming a hockey player. There are a lot of things in other sports – golf, tennis, soccer – that would help them become better hockey players in the future, becoming well-rounded athletes.”
And you don’t have to be jacked as a teenager to catch the eye of NHL scouts. If anything, there are pros and cons to both avenues.
“For an underdeveloped athlete, we’re trying to find out how much potential he has and does his body have the ability to add more muscle and weight,” Timmins said. “Does he have the competitiveness, the confidence to drive forward? Everyone has the will to win. Here, we’re looking for players that have the will to put the effort in, to improve as athletes and hockey players. We’re looking for growth potential.”
Here’s a look at a cross-section of draft combine participants, which sports they played growing up and the age they stopped playing.
Albin Grewe, RW: soccer and floorball until 10
Ilya Nikolaev, C: soccer and basketball until 7
Mattias Norlinder, D: soccer until 14
Dominick Fensore, D: baseball until 16, lacrosse until Grade 5
Matthew Robertson, D: soccer, baseball, lacrosse until 12
Johnny Beecher, C: soccer, varsity basketball, stopped before high school
Hunter Jones, G: lacrosse (played forward) until 15
Peyton Krebs, C: lacrosse, track and field (800M) until last year
Samuel Bolduc, D: baseball until 13, but still plays for fun
Kirby Dach, C: None
Harrison Blaisdell, C: soccer, lacrosse until 13/14 years old.
Connor McMichael, C: soccer until three or four years ago
Ethan Phillips, C: lacrosse and soccer growing up. Played tennis at South Kent school during spring semester, surfs every summer
Artemi Kniazev, D: soccer, tennis, swimming, basketball, still plays for fun. Bandy – first winter he didn’t play because he was in Chicoutimi instead of Russia
Samuel Fagemo, LW: soccer until 12
Cole Caufield, RW: football, baseball until 13
Pyotr Kotchetkov, G: soccer and ping pong, still plays
Philip Broberg, D: soccer and floorball until 12
Owen Lindmark, C: basketball, soccer, football until 9, baseball until 16 (didn’t start skating until he was 8)
Drew Helleson, D: soccer, football, baseball until Grade 7
Jackson LaCombe, D: lacrosse and football until Grade 4 or 5