There’s no question, making the move into junior hockey comes with an entire hockey bag of adjustments.
Players are living away from home, playing more hockey than they did growing up, and learning how to continuously develop their game in an effort to reach that next level of the game.
And while all of it can make a player’s—and parent’s head spin—one of the primary ‘oh wow’ changes noticed when making the move into juniors is the need for speed.
“Sometimes, especially on teams players have played on before, it’s usually just one or two lines of players that can play at pace, then maybe the third and fourth lines the speed and skill drop off a bit,” explained John Wroblewski, coach of the Under-17 squad at the U.S National Team Development Program in Plymouth, Michigan. “But once you get to the USHL, there’s no reprieve. Every player can skate, every can play heavy—that’s probably the biggest acclimation for players.”
USA Hockey: Is speed one of the tougher elements young players have to adjust to when entering the junior hockey ranks?
John Wroblewki: I think it’s not just the speed; it’s how the opposition keeps coming in waves. It’s not necessarily the speed that they can’t hang with, it’s that they can’t sustain it usually. There’s an endurance factor to it. You have players on every single line in juniors that have high-end skill.
USA Hockey: So how do you help that?
Wroblewski: You have to reinforce when they do it. Positively show the clips from the games. You have to remember, they are kids and they’re trying to acclimate to a pace, so it’s a huge jump; you have to remember that right away.
Once you see a player can do it, can keep pace, then you demand that from them more. Then, they give you more and you ask for more. It’s one of those things where each player finds their own path at different speeds. You’ve got to keep pushing them and make sure they believe in themselves. That’s one of the most important things about development is getting the player to have confidence in their game.
USA Hockey: Are there any specific drills you’ve seen have a noticeable affect on a player’s speed?
Wroblewski: We run a lot of overspeed drills and, its cliché, but they’ll have some scoring dynamic to them. Like a chase drill, and things where there are loose pucks and the winner gets a 2-on-1 when they win the first puck. Things like that where they really value the first puck and getting to spots on the ice first.
Players just entering juniors are still at a young age where you can still greatly improve their leg strength on the ice with those angling drills with those chase drills. So to build their endurance, you build their speed. Work on their edges, give them game strength on their edges and courage to take the pucks to the net.
Equally important is to build their brain in small-area games. If the game slows down in their head just a little bit, where they know where their players are, their IQ starts to grow. That also really helps with trying to slow the game down around you. You know your outs and you know where the rest of the guys are on the ice, that’s massive for being able to acclimate to a level.
USA Hockey: And, like every level before, each player takes their own time acclimate and develop, right?
Wroblewski: We have had guys at the NTDP, Trevor Zegras, he came back after the new year (in 2019) when he really popped, and it was at Five Nations in February where he really took over and established himself as a superstar.
For a lot of others, they don’t perform at their highest level until their final year at the NTDP. Everyone’s different, and that’s another great thing with junior hockey; it gives kids a chance to develop as a 19-or 20-year-old and go out and pursue a dream of college or pro hockey.
This window now between 16-20 is huge for development, when the hormones are kicking in and last couple surges, the recovery is there, it’s a unique time. There’s an opportunity to get bigger, faster, stronger, it’s all about really buying into it.