We thank Donna for sending in this question. It is one that
is on the mind of parents and coaches at the beginning of every try-out
session. Go to any training camp and you will see a lot of smaller players
who skate like the wind and have excellent hockey skills. They handle the
puck extremely well and have all of the ingredients.
You will also see a number of players who "stand out" among
the others simply because of their physical domination. They are slower
skaters; handle the puck with difficulty; have extremely hard shots but
the shots are never anywhere near the net; and would rather kick pylons
rather than stickhandle around them.
But when the coach finally sits down to make his final decision on who
makes the team, who has a better chance of getting signed?
I coached my first hockey team back in 1974. It was a bantam house
league team. At that time we had a two-tier system, so the boys who didn't
make Tier I played for Tier II. I had a Tier I team and we drafted our
players during a try-out session. There wasn't any body checking
during the try-outs, so I selected my team based on how well the kids
handled the puck and not on their size. I thought I had selected a pretty
We lost our first nine games. Many of them by more than six goals. My
players had the skills, but they were rather on the small side and were
getting physically intimidated by the larger players on the other teams.
After getting soundly beaten by a score of 10 to 0 in game nine, I
decided to make a change. I watched the Tier II teams play that weekend
and picked the three biggest (and yes, slowest) players I could see. I
then had the difficult task of informing three of my smaller, yet skilled,
players that I was cutting them and they would be moving to Tier II. The
smaller players were much more skilled than the larger players I was
The very next practice I told my team that things were going to be done
differently from that point on. We were going to begin playing like the
Philadelphia Flyers (those were the days of the Broadstreet Bullies). We
were going to hit our opponents every time they touched the puck and we
weren't going to take any nonsense. The three big players I had brought up
were beaming with pride. This was something they could do well. I told
them to get in front of the net and create havoc. Back then players were
only given five minute penalties for fighting, so I also gave them
permission to feel free to get involved in fisticuffs if they wished.
However, I warned them to keep their gloves on. You see, I was a referee
in my younger days and I knew that if you kept your gloves on and the
fight only involved two or three good punches, you were more likely to
just receive a two minute roughing penalty. Drop your gloves and besides
hurting your hand, you would be sitting for five minutes. We also played a
system whereby the players were simply to get over the red line, dump the
puck into the other end and then chase down the opponents and crash them
into the boards. There was very little skill in our play. We dumped,
chased, banged, crashed, got the puck in front of the net and scrambled
for garbage goals. In our own end, we punished anyone who touched the puck
or came anywhere close to our net.
Was I proud of the fact that I let my smaller, skilled players go? No I
Did my players develop and refine their individual hockey skills that
year? No they did not?
But my players never again felt the personal humiliation they had felt
during the first nine games of the season. In fact, we won every single
one of our remaining games. It was the most remarkable turn-around anyone
had ever seen. By replacing three smaller skilled hockey players with
three big "goons" , and by changing to a grinding, bashing,
intimidation system, we went from being the laughing stock of the league
to being league champions.
Did my players enjoy the season after the change? You bet!
Were the parents happy? You bet!
To get back to Donna's question, if two players are of equal ability,
would the player with the greater size be selected? I would say that nine
times out of ten, the larger player will be the one chosen.
In the case of a choice between a smaller, more skilled player or a
larger, more physically aggressive player, especially at levels of peewee
and above, I would say that the smaller player will have a difficult
chance of making the team. He has more of a chance if he is one of the
only small players on the team. But if there are several other smaller,
skilled players, he will have to be one of the top smaller players.
There are a lot of reasons why most coaches will go for the larger
players. Not the least of which is the fact that the game has changed a
lot over the years. Physical play is more important than ever. Teams play
"systems" which actually discourage individual skills and
talents. All you need today is size, a reasonably good shot, and a
miserable disposition on the ice. Add the ability to trash talk and a
desire to listen to the coach when he tells you to stay on your wing and
dump the puck into the corner, and you have a perfect player.
There is still a place for the smaller player in hockey today. But
those places are getting harder and harder to find.
This is one of the reasons why I am a great proponent of providing a
no-body-checking option in every hockey association. It will give the
smaller players a chance to continue to enjoy the game and to
demonstrate their talents on the ice. The no-body-checking division will
also allow coaches to get back to the development of skills like stick
handling, passing and skating.