Hockey IQ: Nature or Nurture?

Hockey IQ: Nature or Nurture?

Is it nature or nurture?

Can hockey sense or IQ be taught?

Can they think the game?

Can they play at the next level if they process the game like that?

Are they coachable?

Do they want it?

Do they want to learn?

It doesn’t matter how many questions you ask it all boils down to this.

Can you teach hockey sense?

When the QMJHL approached me to write blogs for the league in 2018 I thought they wanted feature article showcasing players, coaches and officials within the league.

I didn’t fully understand what style of article they wanted.

At the time I had ventured into a more interview style of writing.

I started my journey in writing strictly as a blogger.

To be brutally honest I hadn’t written a blog style post in quite sometime and actually felt out of my comfort zone.

New to the scouting business at the time I felt compelled to write something on hockey IQ.

This is what I wrote:

Making sense of hockey sense

(Originally Published February 2, 2018)

We hear about it all the time around the rink when people describe and analyze players. Unfortunately, the hockey market is oversaturated with clichés and buzzwords that misrepresent players all the time.

What is hockey sense? Why do we feel so compelled to label or mislabel players because of it? Are players more intelligent now then they were in the past?

You don’t have to watch a game for too long to pick out the select few players that have a high hockey IQ… or do you? It all depends on how you truly analyze the game; is it the winger that makes a nice play off the half boards for a clean breakout, or the defenseman that makes a solid first pass who is playing smarter?

We have overused the term so much that we think that it takes phenomenal hockey sense for players to pull some plays off. Sure, it takes skill and repetition, but most plays should be entrenched in a player’s DNA from the time they laced them up in youth hockey.

So how do we classify hockey sense, or a high hockey IQ?

For me, if a player can see the game two plays ahead, is spatially aware and can recognize where his opponents and teammates are at any given time on the ice, and can process all of that at top speed, he possesses a high hockey IQ.

Are players in this era smarter?

Can hockey sense be taught?

One thing is clear: the junior game is a lot faster than it used to be, and players have to process the game differently. That is when a player with great hockey sense usually stands out right away.

I believe hockey sense can be taught. But the real question that should be asked is; is it being taught, developed and emphasized enough at the youth hockey levels? It’s clear the QMJHL is producing quality players and the overall skill level in the league is very high, but it could perhaps be better is players learned more of the fundamentals early on in their careers.

So what sets players apart? That’s easy: skill, speed and… hockey sense!

It’s not difficult to see who the best and most complete players are in the QMJHL because their skill is on display every shift. But it’s the future NHL stars that will go above and beyond the basics. Those players have an uncanny ability of playing the game, and thinking the game, on an entirely different level.

Nico Hischier was a perfect example of this last season. If Hischier was struggling offensively, he would make an outstanding defensive play that left you in awe. That’s the wow factor NHL scouts are looking for in a player.

Scouts see the game differently; they break down the player’s subtle nuances and analyze every aspect of their game. At the forefront of every scout’s analysis and projection in the game today are two intangibles: can the player skate? And can he think the game at the next level?

There are quite a few current up-and-coming QMJHL players that standout in those two areas. I first saw Alexis Lafrenière (Rimouski) and Samuel Poulin (Sherbrooke) play at the QMJHL Combine in Blainville, Quebec, last April. They stood out for a number of reasons, but it was their understanding of the game and their awareness on the ice that jumped out at me right away.

The third overall pick in last June’s QMJHL Entry Draft, Jakob Pelletier (Moncton) is another player who displays an innate ability to read, analyze, slow down or speed up the game when he has the puck on his stick.  Pelletier, along with Poulin and Lafrenière, is a special player who possesses tremendous individual skill. When matched with their high hockey sense and IQ, they all display a lethal combination.

Sure, hockey sense can be taught through practices. It can be honed and refined with video analysis. But when it comes naturally, it’s truly a sight to behold and appreciate!

An Open Mind

I approach my role as a scout with an open mind now more than ever.

Is processing the game a major issue and concern for young players?

Of course it is.

Some things you just can’t teach, right?

Is that the approach that we all should take?

Of course not.

There’s a number of aspects we have to consider when evaluating and projecting a player’s hockey IQ.

For example, the player that looks at the right play to make and rather throws it indirectly up the boards.

Is that a processing issue?

Oh well they can’t think the game if they did that.

Not the case at all, they know if they make that pass up the middle and doesn’t click they will be benched, even though they saw it, read it and considered the consequences of that play in a split second.

That young player knows to take the lower percentage play and throws it indirectly because that’s the coach’s system.

I see that all year long.

Time and time again.

Young players want to make plays. They process the game very well, but are held back or restricted with team systems or rules that obstruct development or their own identity crisis within the game.

Young players often times try to be something they are not.

Nevertheless, young players understand this formula as well. Make a mistake = get benched.

It’s just like the kid that holds on the puck too long. Is that poor hockey IQ, hell no it’s selfishness.

They see the play, I can see their eyes and I can tell in their body language and in their movement that they saw the play they just elect not to pass it.

You see at the next level they will move it quicker or they will be looking at the lights because they will be knocked on their backs nonstop.

The question we should be asking more is, can the player think and process the game within the parameters of the teams or coaches style and philosophy.

Isn’t that what projecting is all about?

Can hockey sense be taught?

Of course it can be to a certain extent, if coaches and organizations are willing to invest the time in teaching t he finer points and focus on player development and growth.

If there’s a culture of learning and teaching within the ranks of minor hockey and that philosophy is carried over to the next level year after year, we will definitely see smarter players coming up through the ranks.

In my opinion some are way too quick to jump to final conclusions on young players saying that they can’t process the game and that they will never play at the next level.

In some cases they might be right, but that doesn’t mean the player can’t discover their full potential in other areas of the game to be an effective contributor to team success.

I believe evaluating hockey sense in young players is the most challenging aspect of our jobs as scouts and one that should never be taken lightly.

Every time I come to rink, I learn something new.

I wonder if that rings true in young hockey players?

Hockey IQ: Nature or Nurture, the debate rages on.

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