Do You Have to Play Your Age?

If you’re new to hockey, you might think that hockey parents’ habit of talking about 1996s and 2002s rather than 14-year-olds and 9-year-olds is just a quirk. But in fact, it’s significant because almost all players are strictly assigned to play U8, Squirt, PeeWee, Bantam or Midget by birth year. This, however, doesn’t stop parents from constantly asking hockey association administrators questions such as:

  1. My son is very small for his age, a late bloomer when it comes to athletics, and has a “bad hockey birthday.” Should I ask if he can “play down” with the younger age group?
  2. My daughter is big for her age, consistently rated the top player, and has a “good hockey birthday.” Should I ask if she can “play up” with the older kids?

The answer to the first question about playing down is easy: USA Hockey’s rules and insurance do not allow players to play down except in special circumstances (involving an appeals process). In my 15 years as a director I have not been aware of anyone playing down a level.

Deciding whether a player should play up, on the other hand, is a whole different scenario. Yes, there are times when a special talent does have the ability to play up and develop his or her game. Issues to consider include:

  • Being big for your age is not a good enough reason to play up. Parents need to ask the director or coach if playing up is best for the child’s development.
  • The parents and association leaders need to consider the maturity level of the child who wants to play up.
  • Finally and obviously, the player’s ability and skill level need to be considered. It helps to find out where the child fits on the depth chart of a team.

If a player is a top three forward, top two defenseman or number one goalie, it is worth considering playing up.

However, I do not see anything wrong in the developmental process of a player remaining with his or her true birth year. There is nothing wrong with a player dominating at a specific level. In fact, it allows players to gain enormous confidence, which only helps them as they advance in their development each season.

Don’t rush the process. It is a marathon not a sprint!

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Angelo Ricci for sharing his 15 years of expertise as a hockey director in this article. Ricci is founder, head instructor and consultant for Ricci Hockey Consulting. With 20+ years experience as a skills and stickhandling coach, he conducts/oversees more than 40 programs year-round that develop over 1,000 players each year.

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