Physical Size or Skill?
When It Comes Time To Choose, 
Who Will The Coach Select?
A special feature by Robert Kirwan
Publisher, After The Whistle

Does physical size take precedence over skills and skating ability when entering the peewee level? I know every coach would love to have the best of both worlds, but what if 2 players were competing for the same spot on a team. The smaller player is far more skilled than the larger player, but the larger player handles the body checking with much more aggression. Which player do you think would or should get picked?

Donna Damota

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 good club.

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 bringing up.

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 was not.

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. 


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My son is fortunate enough to have played for very good coaches for the last 10 years. Starting at house league, he has been in goal, of his own choosing. He has also been the smallest player on the ice for 10 years. It has not mattered to him in the least. The fact that the goal never changed size has a great deal to do with that. Three years at the A level in our town traveling team, he split time with other goalies. Then moving to Bantam and we heard that the coach liked bigger players. Time to look around. He ended up on an AAA team and we expected him to take advantage of the quality practice time and watch a lot of games backing up the six foot bantam Minor goalie. The coach was fair and playing time came his way and when it did, he played well, losing just 1 game in 19. However, at the end of the season, another "bigger" goalie was in the wings to take them to Nationals and my son needed to find new digs again. He landed on his feet with an AAA coach that could have cared less about player or goalie size-can you play the game. He learned more hockey during that season that he had in the last five. The team did get to nationals, but lost in an OT game. He got time in a couple of games and almost won the skills competition. The new season comes around with the same club and new coach. Coach likes big goalies. He is on the move again. He makes the jump to Juniors. At 15, he is the smallest, lightest and the youngest player in the league. We, as parents, fear for him, but good goalie equipment helps that. It's rough going, but halfway through the season, things start to turn around. He's getting playing time. Bottom line, two things are true. We have always told him "you don't have to do this" and " Most players succeed in spite of the coach, not because of him".

Skip Murray
Director of Operations
The Teare Group, Inc.                                             T 732-680-9680
136 Central Ave.                                                     F 732-680-9687
Clark, NJ 07066                           


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