Roll Your Lines: Stop Benching Kids in Youth Hockey

Roll Your Lines- Stop Benching Kids in Youth Hockey
As coaches, our job is to develop hockey players, and the truth is, you can't develop them while they sit on a bench.

Year after year, as tryouts get closer, many of the discussions stay the same among parents and players in youth hockey rinks around the world. You have two groups of parents: those who want coaches to sit kids and shorten the bench (win at all costs) and those who roll lines no matter what and let the team as a whole decide the outcome of the game (development first).

I will tell you, I have now been both coaches, worked with both parents, and even tried to find a middle ground. What I learned it, neither method makes parents happy, one method makes players happy, and as a coach, you need to take more control of your bench and set expectations with parents, and even better expectations with players.

First, the middle ground is tricky. One popular method is to tell everyone you’re going to roll lines until the last five or so minutes of a game, then pick the best lines to bring it home if it was close, or if it was a four goal difference in any direction, you would just roll them.

This sounds logical, but then in a game, you always feel like you’re just on the cusp of a comeback, or the other team is and five minutes becomes 10 minutes, then suddenly, you’re sitting kids and losing 6-1, trying to come back.

Winning at all costs

When I was recently a guest on Beyond the X’s and O’s podcast to discuss leadership lessons from the hit television show Ted Lasso, I told a story about taking my team to the California State Championship game.

In that tournament, on the way to the final, parents urged me over and over to shorten the bench and ensure we won. We had to travel a 10 hour drive north to compete and they wanted the trophy.

I foolishly listened. On a team of three lines, I focused mainly on running two of them, and it was working. We made it to the final, and we had to play the hardest team we had faced all season, and now once again they stood between us and victory.

We lost.

Then I lost, when a few players quit my team, and those parents did not have a nice thing to say about me. Their kids sat on the bench, and we still lost. Losing though, meant even the parents who didn’t see their kids get short shifted were unhappy. Why didn’t I do more, why didn’t I play their kid more? If they had been on the bench, things would be different and we would have won that game.

Worse, I had a team of kids in tears for losing, and a few more in tears because they didn’t get to contribute.

I was wrong, and it cost me a lot.

Roll the lines

Following that season, I knew I had to do better, I needed to change my philosophy, and I needed to gain trust of my players. So I set the tone early on: we are rolling lines.

When it came to power plays, we did draw up different combinations, and only used them if it was tight, but if we had enough of a lead, or were down enough, it was just the next line. This does fall a little into the middle ground above, but we found we only used it a few times, and mainly, we felt comfortable enough to roll them out and give everyone a chance on the power play.

Penalty kills are tougher because you have to sit someone, and we did our best to just rotate who that player was.

This method was fine with a good number of parents, and upset others. To be honest, had I done the reverse, I would still have happy and upset parents, so why was I ever trying to make them happy? It’s about the players.

This was really put to the test in a tournament in which my A level team was playing up in a AA tournament, and were playing a longtime local rival from seasons past. Everyone wanted to beat this team, and we were losing 5-2. With about eight minutes left and a timeout, I asked the kids a question:

“Do you want me to make a power line and try to get us back into this thing, or do you want me to continue to roll our lines and let the game go as the game goes?”

The players, all about 10-to-12-years-old, looked at each other, then our captain spoke up. “Coach, roll the lines, we win as a team, or lose as a team.”

We lost 5-2, and not a single player complained, but the parents did. They had a lot of opinions in fact, but I had the buy-in from my players.

At the end of that season, the same thing happened as the previous. This time, the parents who thought I needed to bench everyone quit, while those who agreed with our method stayed.

And our team was better for it.

We turned around a culture of win at all costs, to a culture of win as a team. Players knew they would only be sat for behaviour, not for going out there and working hard even on a bad day. I told them every time, if you’re trying, you’re playing, and we held ourselves to that standard.

It’s unfortunate the culture in youth hockey is focused on winning and not development, or that coaches and parents still think that being benched is part of the process and paying your dues.

We owe our players more than that. We owe the sport more than that.

In my most recent tournament, leading up to tryouts this year, I didn’t even do power play lines. Next five out, no matter what. We reached the semi-finals, and no one complained about ice time. No one even complained about losing, because now the culture is different. I even managed to bring back one of the players I previously benched and had quit. I made a promise I had changed and grown as a coach, and I asked for the chance to prove it.

As coaches, our job is to develop hockey players, and the truth is, you can’t develop them while they sit on a bench.

So as you ramp up your tryouts and have your team meetings, it’s time to step it up and set your team’s culture. Remember that winning at all costs carries a heavy price tag.

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Dan Arel

Dan Arel is the Director of Coaching Education and Development for the San Diego Oilers and head coach of their 12U A team. He was also named the 2020 San Diego Gulls Foundation's Coach of the Year. You can email him at [email protected].

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