The intangibles of sports are always the toughest to determine success in. There are so many factors that go into creating great hockey players but there is no magic formula that exists for someone to copy.
Joe Birch, the Senior Director for Hockey Development and Special Events with the Ontario Hockey League, believes that off-ice character matters just as much as how a player performs with skates on.
“There’s no perfect player as we ever know,” said Birch. “When you think what goes in to making a Steven Stamkos or a Drew Doughty, you got think about the head, think about the skill and the physical ability, you got to think about the heart. And then there’s all the other intangibles.”
A player’s age, skill level, maturity, skating and hockey IQ are all some of the determining factors when it comes to measuring player success. It’s rare, however, to be able to properly judge each intangible asset.
Looking at the game from the outside in provides a whole different perspective than what is actually developing on the ice.
“When you sit in the stands, the game is a lot slower. You have the opportunity to break it down and to be able to evaluate. When a player can do that on the ice, generally he’s showing that he has some good hockey sense and IQ. They’re not thinking too much, which then can slow down their reaction and skill, but they’re thinking enough and letting their instincts take over.”
Building life skills off of the ice is something that Birch is a proponent of. At practice, learning doesn’t necessarily need to be about hockey. He wants his players to be better people.
“We know that when Matt Duchene stayed at home and played for the Central Ontario Wolves, he made his teammates and his community better. That’s good in the big picture.”
“I think every day you should have the ability to teach. Whether it’s being on time, whether it’s being a good person, whether it’s doing something that makes you learn about lifestyle, nutrition, commitment in balancing school and hockey and social and friends. I think every day they are at the rink, coaches have the responsibility to teach a life skill.”
Birch says that coaches have the responsibility to mentor younger players. Along with parents, he wants them to remember that it’s okay for players to make mistakes because sometimes it’s the only way they can learn from them. It can be important to take a step back and let them enjoy the game simply for being able to play with their friends and having fun.
In Birch’s mind, there is one skill that he notices above all of the rest in today’s game.
“Without a doubt, it’s skating. You watch a game and how fast it is now and it’s talked about all the time. If you can’t skate, it’s difficult to play at the next level… A close one after that when talking about technical skill would then become your puck skills – the ability to pass and shoot.”