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Frozen Four Coach on Talent, Patience & Development

By Mike Doyle, Special to Minnesota Hockey, 04/27/21

Like any fish tale, most good stories grow in myth every year. And after scoring the game-winning goal against Boston College to send St. Cloud State University to this year’s Frozen Four in Pittsburgh, SCSU senior Will Hammer’s hockey legend grew a bit more.

The story goes that after playing three years of juniors in the North American Hockey League, Hammer was driving to Augsburg College, a Division III program, when the St. Cloud native got the call to walk-on at his hometown university. He turned his car around and enrolled at SCSU the next day. He could count the number of games he played in his first two years at school on one hand, worked hard and found a regular spot in his junior season. The rest, as they say, is history.

Unlike fish stories though, which often outgrow reality, Hammer’s long-term development path of playing high school and multiple years of junior hockey before going to college is a lot more common than the guys who make an impact at the college level at 18 years old, let alone in the NHL.

This year’s Frozen Four, which included three Minnesota schools, was another reminder of that as all four teams featured rosters with an average age over 21 years old. Eventual NCAA national camps, UMass Minutemen’s average age was 22.2, runner up SCSU averaged 22.6, University of Minnesota Duluth was 21.9, and Minnesota State was the highest at 23.

Patience Pays Off

“Everybody develops at their own rate,” said Guy Gosselin, two-time U.S. Olympian, Rochester native and USA Hockey American Development Model Regional Manager. “We need to be a little more patient with our kids and let them develop at their own pace, instead of profiling a kid and winning the race to the wrong finish line.”

St. Cloud State head coach Brett Larson guided the Huskies to their first-ever NCAA National Championship game appearance and saw Hammer’s development day-in and day-out.

“Will had a very patient process to his game. Worked hard every day, had a great attitude, he developed a part of his game that he believed could help get him in the lineup. It took him a couple years,” Larson said. “For Will, it paid off and he was a huge piece of the puzzle in a Frozen Four runner-up team.”

Hammer, like the other 44 Minnesota-born players in this year’s Frozen Four, had the benefit of playing high school hockey. He attended St. Cloud Cathedral for all four years before going to play junior hockey.

“I think that the Minnesota development model has always been the best and still is. If you look at the number of players in the NCAA tournament this year and where they came from, it was a huge number from Minnesota,” Larson said. “And that’s a testament to the long-term development path that allows kids to play other sports growing up, which allows them to become better athletes.”

Value of Time Away

Gosselin agrees that kids shouldn’t be specializing in a single sport. Playing multiple sports creates a foundation of athleticism that will benefit them when it’s time to get serious about hockey.

“We need to be patient in developing our multi-sport athletes. Because if you’re trying to develop a single-sport athlete, and it’s time to tap into that inner-athlete and they have those deficiencies in their motor skills, that’s not good. We want to hold off on specialization until it’s time for it,” Gosselin said. 

Larson believes taking time off away from the rink has benefits far beyond the athleticism that seeps into a player’s psyche though.

“We’ve talked a lot about this as coaches as we analyze the current climate of where hockey is going. It’s getting harder and harder to find kids that hate to lose. And we worry that some of them go right from a winter hockey season into a spring hockey season into a summer hockey season info a fall hockey season and back into the winter hockey season,” Larson said. “When we grew up and your last game ended, you were devastated because you didn’t get to play for six months. And I’m just worried that too much hockey isn’t a good thing. Those breaks and realizing how much you miss the game is really important.”

Sticking with It

Additionally, players and parents should understand that it is not the end of the world if they are not highly recruited or don’t make select teams. Both Gosselin and Larson gave the example of turnover at USA Hockey’s National Player Development Camps. 

“I’ve been doing the 15, 16 and 17 national camps for years,” Gosselin said. “The average turnover in players from 15 to 16 is 50%. So, if you were at camp last year, there’s a 50% chance you don’t make it the next year, only because of where you’re at in your development.”

Rankings, lists, commitments and social media can create a lot of unnecessary anxiety starting at far too young of an age. It’s important for players, parents and families to know that high school age players still have time to develop. In fact, according to College Hockey, Inc., the average age of a college commitment for Division I is 18.9 years old

“Most parents would believe because of social media that it’s 15 or 16,” Larson said. “There’s always that pressure, ‘How come I’m not being recruited? How come I’m not committed yet?’ Social media just drums up so much pressure on these kids to commit early when the reality is the average age is still [almost] 19.”

But Larson sees the benefits of not being at the head of the class too early in a player’s development.

“We had guys like Spencer Meier (Sartell) and Nicklaus Perbix (Elk River) and never made it out of Minnesota out to Buffalo, New York, for National Camps. So they were never the kids who everyone was telling them how great they were. They had to work for it and they had to keep getting better,” Larson said. “A lot of times, going through tough things like that, getting cut from teams, not making a national team, not making a national camp, the right kids thrive under that and push to get better. Sometimes what separates kids is going through some tough times and being willing to work through it.”

The patient, long-term athletic development route continues to prove that it works, for individuals and teams. From the Frozen Four and the Minnesota schools’ success to players like Will Hammer, being patient pays off.