As hockey has evolved over the course of the past decade, coaches have come to seek out attributes in their players such as speed, agility, toughness and hockey sense. An unexpected twist is that teams are finding those skills in players whose sizes conjure up images of lumbering giants with nothing to contribute but brute force.
The 2012 U.S. National Junior Team roster featured eight players taller than 6-foot-3, including four defensemen taller than 6-foot-4, topped by Jarred Tinordi at 6-foot-7. However, fans who pictured a squad of cement-footed bruisers were surprised to see the big bodies executing hairpin turns with the best of the smaller players.
“They are great skaters and puck movers who happen to have a lot of length,” said Tim Taylor, director of player personnel. “It’s a fact that we’re getting taller and bigger players who have the higher skill level playing the sport.”
Heads likely turned skyward when the U.S. roster was announced for the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship, held Dec. 26, 2011 to Jan. 6, 2012, in Alberta, Canada. While fans and journalists talked about the size of the players, Taylor and the Team USA coaches were more excited about the skills they brought to the ice.
“At the end of the day, size and height and even strength are ineffective tools if the positional play isn’t solid and the agility isn’t there in the athlete,” Taylor said. “The game has evolved in the last couple years internationally, at the professional level with the NHL rule changes and the trickledown effect that [has extended] into college and Junior hockey. Yes, you need big, strong, physical players, but if the players can’t play at a high skill level, they won’t be effective.”
Tinordi, who towers above most of his opponents in the Ontario Hockey League, said he sees more tall players in Junior and international hockey who can skate at a high level.
“The bigger guys in the game are figuring out that skating is really important,” said Tinordi, who had a goal and assist in the tournament. “A lot of the tall players when they’re younger are working on their footwork.”
Tinordi went on to say he was always tall growing up and had to work harder on his skating to keep pace with shorter players.
“Balance and coordination and footwork are harder for taller guys than smaller guys,” he added. “But they are things that you work on and can use to your advantage.”
Kevin Gravel, who stands at 6-foot-4, said he uses the extra length to his advantage as much as possible.
“You’ll be playing 1-on-1 and a guy will beat you wide and you can poke your stick out there and knock the puck off his stick,“ said Gravel, who scored the game-winning goal against Switzerland, locking in a seventh-place finish for the Americans. “It gets the forwards pretty frustrated, but it’s nice for us.”
Like his coaches and teammates, Gravel said the key element to success is not his size, but his skating.
“If a bigger guy is mobile, it really helps his game,” he said. “They’re not just slugs out there and can jump up into the play.”
After an 11-3 opening-game victory over Denmark, Team USA dropped three consecutive games to Finland, Czech Republic and Canada, failing to reach the quarterfinals for the first time since 1999. The Americans rallied to defeat Latvia and Switzerland in the relegation round to ensure the country will play at next year’s tournament in Ufa, Russia.
Team USA struggled to score goals in the losses to Finland and Czech Republic, but the towering players certainly proved they weren’t just big bodies in the tournament. Leading scorer Austin Watson, 6-foot-3, chipped in nine points and Charlie Coyle, 6-foot-2, and Nick Bjugstad, 6-foot-4, tied for the team lead with four goals.
The tightrope that coaches and scouts have to walk these days is the balance between allowing players to develop at their own pace and finding elite-level players at the right moment.
For example, coaches have long sought to find players of size patrolling their blue lines, but Taylor said the advantages of having a taller player on defense have to be balanced by a broader range of hockey skills.
“Defensively, if the big men you have are good skaters, it just makes offensive ice hard to find for the opposing team,” he said. “Once they get schooled in gap control and taking away the good ice and forcing players into areas they don’t want to be in, that size and reach is extremely helpful.”
“Once they get schooled in gap control and taking away the good ice and forcing players into areas they don’t want to be in, that size and reach is extremely helpful.”
—Tim Taylor, director of player personnel.
Taylor said coaches would be wrong to think that the advantages that height brings are enough to place a player in a particular position.
“The skill set is the most important part,” Taylor said. “Can he skate? Can he pass? Can he control the puck? Can he control his body? That’s much more important than the shape of the athlete.”
An important piece of the puzzle for players of all shapes and sizes is the American Development Model. Tom Ward, who coaches at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School and served as an assistant coach on the 2012 World Junior Team, said the ADM is designed to allow young players develop their base level of skills and to grow at their own pace.
“I think we need to give these [tall] kids more time to develop,” said Ward, who came to Shattuck after four years as an assistant coach at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. “The ADM will help. It’ll give youth hockey coaches a better diary and dossier of information to have so they can work with those kids and get them the correct drill work to help with their skills.”
Ward pointed to current NHL players like Andrew Alberts of the Vancouver Canucks or U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Derian Hatcher as examples of players who needed extra time to grow into their bodies.
“Not every long-levered kid is a late bloomer, but I think there are a number of them [who] need the extra time to become the player that they can be,” Ward said.
The way the ADM will help the taller players, Ward said, is by focusing on crucial elements of development beginning at younger ages.
“I think the skating piece is the biggest piece at the youth level for a tall, long-levered kid,” he said. “I think that once they learn to skate, everything else, if their skill set is such and their work ethic is such, will come along for them. They will have an advantage in our game, being long, if they use it the right way.”
The challenge for taller young players is to keep working on their skating because as their bodies continue to grow and change, the footwork can quickly fall behind compared to smaller players.
“They become less mobile and agile, so I always encourage our long-levered kids through our summer camps and such to skate at least a couple times a week,” Ward said.
As coaches watch taller players become successful, agile skaters, the challenge becomes to retain and attract big, young athletes to stick with hockey.
“There are other sports in the States that gobble up the big kids — football and basketball specifically — and when they get older, they gravitate to those sports,” Ward said.
Ward went on to say that in the past, hockey coaches would pass over bigger players because they were viewed as clumsy or awkward when the game stressed the importance of maneuverability, speed and agility. That has changed, but there has to continue to be progress for the United States to remain competitive with the rest of the world.
“USA Hockey can really help our bigger, long-levered kids by giving them a chance to stick with [hockey] and grow into their bodies,” Ward said.
Defenseman Jon Merrill said he doesn’t think about height in terms of an advantage or disadvantage. To him, it’s all about executing the coach’s plan and being a solid, well-rounded hockey player.
“Whether you’re big or small,” he said, “you just have to get the job done.”
Cameron Eickmeyer is the managing editor of USAHockey.com.