Minnesota Hockey Magazine

Cold Dry Hands: The Short Bench

Does a shortened bench have a place in youth hockey? Columnist Hal Tearse says no.

Hockey is a team game and youth hockey is for the enjoyment and development of all the players . At the college and professional ranks teams play 3 lines regularly and often times use the fourth line. In youth hockey the holy grail of “winning” is to often used to relegate the third line to the bench in many games.

When I coached Bantam A teams our opponents regularly shortened their bench early in the game. We beat a better team in the regional play offs a couple years because they only played two of their three lines. We changed our three lines every 30 seconds and wore them out. When we went through the post game handshake there were 5 cold dry hands. The last game of the season for them and the third line did not skate a shift. In another instance, the third line never played a shift against us in a scrimmage game, in October. In high school games I see opponents have left the third line sitting for entire games not to mention the fourth line. In Pee Wee B, our opponents routinely shorted the bench and in one instance, during the first period. Tournaments seem to bring out the short bench syndrome.

So what is this all about? Is it about winning? Perhaps or maybe it is about not losing. Perhaps the fear of losing is stronger than the joy of winning. I cannot actually understand what is so important that a coach needs sit a third of the team down in the important games. The impact on those players is devastating. Winning cannot heal the damage.

I am often told that the parents and players were told by the coach at the beginning of the season that this might occur and that everybody agreed to it. This is self serving for the coach because when would a parent or player speak up against a policy like this? After all, every parent and player thinks it will be the other kids who sit out. It is not until it occurs to them that the reality sinks in. By the time it happens, it is too late to object. The parents of the players who are getting the extra ice time are suddenly in favor of the short bench and will not speak up.

I know that there are two schools of thought about this. The first is that winning is the salve that heals all wounds. A player relegated to the bench during the championship run should be happy to be along for the ride. The second is that we play all season together as a team and as a team we will finish by playing together.

At the higher levels of hockey where it is a business and winning actually effects players and coach’s careers, player utilization is accepted by the participants. Players are delegated certain roles and they need to fulfill those expectations. In youth hockey, winning feels good but there are little other benefits other than adult ego gratification.

I believe that in youth hockey there is no place for the short bench. A good coach can manage the players so that all of the skaters participate in the game. A good coach will spend extra time with the weaker players through out the season to improve their skills. A coach who starts the season by talking about skill development, teaching, self esteem, and having fun would not break his word by shortening the bench. The short bench is the easy way out for a coach who has not prepared his team properly.

Does this mean a youth coach should run the lines 1,2,3? Well for the most part yes. I would suggest that a skilled coach can find a way to equal the ice time out. Will some players get more ice time than others? Yes. In fact some players do not want to be put into the game in pressure situations. Are there specific reasons to reduce ice time for individual players? Yes there are (discipline or perhaps illness) but to relegate 5 skaters and a goalie to the bench for extended periods of time in order to win is not a valid reason. In effect, the message is to those benched players is that they are being penalized for lack of talent and they are not really part of the team.

The game is for the kids, all of the kids. Research nationwide tells us that players would rather play on a team that wins 50 percent of their games than sit on the bench of a championship team with little or no playing time. The bottom line is that all of the kids want to play. Each year we lose 10,000 players nationwide as they move from pee wees to Bantams. Many cite the reason they quite because they are not having fun.

I can personally cite numerous conversations with pee wee and bantam parents over the past several years that told me that their boys had played for 5 or 6 years and they were about to quit because there is so much pressure to win and it was not fun. I received numerous emails this past season from parents upset that their child’s coach was routinely running a short bench. One instance was from the parents of a squirt C.

This is an issue that needs to be resolved at the beginning of each season. The parents and coaches need to all understand the policy. With a no short bench policy there are no problems. If your team is going to have a short bench policy, perhaps it is better to not have three lines but rather roster only 14 players. That would solve the problem. This one issue alone ruins the season for hundreds of kids and parents each year. Even in victory, it is hollow for the players who sat and watched their teammates play. I know several instances this past year where the teams had a problem with the policy in mid season and the teams fell apart for the rest of the year.

Parents of youth players should not put up with short bench policies. You need to get a commitment from your coaches at the beginning of the year that they will not shorten the bench. Be proactive about this issue at the beginning of the season because once the train leaves the station it is too late to get off.

(Illustration by Ann Macarayan ©2014)

(Illustration by Ann Macarayan ©2014)

  • Kinsella Reporting

    My son played A peewees.The coach was a maniac. Our first scrimmage he skipped over the third line in the second rotation. The games were 33 minutes long. With PK”s & PP’s, his kid was on the ice for 23-25 minutes a game. We were about a .350 team. We stunk. In the final tournament of the year I asked the coach to play everyone. What difference could it make? So, we finish as a .345 team? I was practically blackballed. The coach and his cronies talked behind my back and still do to this day three years later. I’ve often thought about telling this guy he owes me $1,500 for a wasted season. These coaches do whatever they want and answer to no one. I would never coach like that. My kid remembers it, too. I enjoyed the article.

  • Gumby

    Nicely done. My son had the privilege of playing for a great coach for 4 straight seasons. This coach played over 900 games in the NHL and rolled his lines all 4 years. His philosophy: If I take the kid (at tryouts), I’m going to play him. If I’m not going to play him, I won’t take him. We were VERY successful in 3 of those 4 seasons, including a Bantam AA state championship. In the “not as successful” season, we had a winning record, but missed the playoffs in very tightly contested league.

    I’m a roller hockey coach. I don’t have the creds to successfully coach ice hockey. I was, however lucky enough to learn from a Minnesota guy (ice and roller), who taught me a few systems that allow weaker players to have success against stronger players by emphasizing position, assignment and discipline, especially on defense. This allowed us to play the weaker players because we weren’t asking them to do something they lacked the speed, strength and skills to do.

  • Great article Hal, Totally agree that there is no way to be shortening a bench in minor hockey. Maybe because this is happening more there ever we are seeing a decline in kids playing the sport. Let kids play and have some fun!

  • CadleCreek

    good article. How do you fell about hybrid policies? My squirt “A” teams had a predetermined informed policy that 1 goal games during the last 1 minute of play the coaches may use a short bench and timeouts so only the top performers would play. We limited the roster to 12 skaters. For Pee Wee “A”, we have 4 minute 1 goal rule where we may choose to shorten the bench. we have a roster of 15 skaters. We don;t have a preset rule for who is going to be grocery sticked. We play the players that have been the best that game, with no regard to who they are or who their parents are.

    Even with informed consent, I was called out by a parent who thought their pee wee was the 2nd coming of bobby hull that her son didn’t play the last 3 minutes of a semi-final game we were trailing by 1 goal. I kindly pointed out my son was stapled to the bench with 5 minutes left that game because he had been playing poorly, too.