The Kids “Are Young” but They’re Alright!

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Some of us old enough to remember, can reference classic “catch phrases” from the 1980’s including, “Cheque’s in the Mail” or “Yes the Mercedes is paid for.” Folks I think its time to update the list to capture the essence of society today and what better way than through the eyes of sports? The above-mentioned phrases were more a reflection of the explosive economy creating a need to be relevant or pretending to be a part of the game thus becoming a necessity to baby boomers. Since the market crash of 1987 along with the continued turbulence of markets and the economy, pretty much make those comments passé.

Long suffering fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are enjoying a resurgence of this stored franchise with the blossoming of the young talent assembled under the watchful eye of Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and tutelage of coach Mike Babcock. I used the term “young” to describe the “ New-look Leafs” because with nine rookies in the lineup they are still kids. However my problem with the word is that it’s become the new catch phrase every time something goes wrong or a mistake is made.

At the just played Winter Classic, with less than a minute remaining, the Leafs clinging to a one-goal lead, Connor Brown had the puck at the top of the faceoff circle in his own end with complete control. He decided to make a short pass to Zach Hyman who was still inside the Leaf zone and as we all witnessed, disaster ensued with puck kept in and the game tied with 1 second remaining. Now this isn’t to pick on Brown because he’s been terrific and redeemed himself with an assist on Matthews OT winner. The point is whether a player is in first year hockey, Junior, Pro or Beer-league, he is taught in that situation to get the puck out. Period! Absolutely nothing to do with “ they’re young” and “ they’ll learn”. Once again the press and fans alike have created this built in excuse when things go wrong by stating, “they’re young”.

Remember when the Edmonton Oilers were considered “the team of the future” a few years ago, but making no progress, (until luck of the draw landed them McDavid) yet ,“they’re young,” “wait a few years and see how good they’ll be”, was the constant reminder for the uneducated. Today, Taylor Hall (25), Sam Gagner (26) and Nail Yakupov (23) all top picks, are no longer a part of “they’re young” progression in Edmonton.

I know its tongue and cheek with this analysis, but my contention is, once the puck is dropped, age has no bearing whatsoever. If a player is good enough to make the team, he’s good enough to compete with the level at hand. Do you think Auston Matthews stops before he goes into a corner and lets Sidney Crosby just walk out because he’s only 19? Mitch Marner on a breakaway can’t score on Roberto Luongo because he’s young? Of course not!

The other new built in excuse is, “When they learn to win”. This was once a punch line, and is now a thesis like analysis for failure. The number one way to “learn to win” is very simple; don’t let your man score. That isn’t a secret; it’s been the formula for longevity in the NHL since the game commenced in 1875. Ron Ellis was the exemplary example of this type player and why he has over a thousand NHL games on his resume patrolling the right side as a Maple Leaf for 18 years. By the way, the results are still the same; don’t allow your man to score, chip in a few of your own and you have a job. If you fail to execute this basic principal, then someone else will and you can “learn to win” watching from the stands.

The biggest challenge for most young players entering the NHL is that for all their hockey lives they’ve been the center of attention on every team, playing the most minutes, captain, and the main attraction. However, after a first glance around an NHL dressing room, the young phenom is suddenly thrust into a world of 25 players with the same pedigree as him. They too were the center of attention on every team from novice to pro. Why do you think later picks have longer careers a lot of the times? Simply because they had to make every team they’ve ever played on while the star never had to make a team because he was so good, until now. Why do you think teams spend so much time on the kid as a person, his family, upbringing etc. It’s more than just talent.

The game is very simple in principal, extremely difficult to execute, because the skill level, skating, strength and size of the players continues to accelerate year to year. We sugar coat failure with terms such as the “200 foot game,” “he has to be better in the neutral zone,” “has a good stick” and so on. We can use analytics, video, chalkboards and any means you choose but the bottom line is, win more shifts than you lose and your team will come out on top.

What is critical however, is that the coach and management not only prepare but also make sure the position is earned in the first place. If a kid takes a vets job, then he better perform or guess what? The vet will take the spot back or someone else will. Its incumbent on management to put the player in a position to succeed and this is the biggest role a coach can fill. Here’s a good example; Bruce Boudreau was a marvelous junior player for the Marlboros and natural goal scorer as there was during his era. However playing for the Leafs they insisted on placing him with fourth line pluggers instead of surrounding him with players to advance his progress as a pro. That time players had to work up the ladder, no gifts, which explain the difference in the game today. To be successful at anything takes practice and repetition. The 10,000-hour principle suggests that it takes this many hours of deliberate practice to become world-class in any field. Think of the hours a kid puts in from his first road hockey game, house league game, off ice training to the professional ranks.

I like to think, “they’re young,” means we as fans will have extended time enjoying the talent before us. With time they will learn to hold the puck longer, shoot quicker, know when or when not to rush and all the nuances of the game undiscovered; that my friends is known as experience.

How about we label our young talent with inexperience and with time they work to eliminate the “I” and “N”? Or as I’ve said before, kids like Marner, Nylander and Matthews have been given six digits of a 7-digit code to success and all they have to do is figure out the last number.