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Lived through it, one playing in college but my humble opinion -
1.) Which league is better if it even matters
The league's matter a bit. Yes they need to be competitive and your kid need to 'fit in' but the bigger variable ends-up being car time, travel time to games and tournaments and burning the kid out schlepping all over to keep up with the insanity. As they get older you need to play for the better teams and have them enter the better tournaments and it gets much more important at say 14-15 years old in order to get noticed by prep, junior and colleges.
2.) Should your kid be the best player or the worst trying to be pushed to get better.
I think you should adjust it based on the kids age (birth date) and confidence. A late December kid can do well being the best player on his team to build his confidence as he is almost always playing up almost a full year on a really good team because they are almost all early birthday kids (believe me). Similarly if the kid plays timid, has bad body language or is frequently pushed to the outer circle of players as in a real non-leadership role, find him a team to build his confidence. No need to be demoralized early!
3.) Does coaching matter
Yes. A coach that stresses responsible play, benches penalty problem kids to instill some logical discipline, one that can run a strenuous, hard practice with very little wasted time with kids standing around and one the kids love to see at the rink that they can have a bit of fun with (afterall they are kids) so they develop a love of going to the rink and not a fear the guy. A guy that develops kids, gives everyone a chance to build their confidence by not always shortening the bench and going with the same old kids... none of this has to do with wins and losses. Similarly some coaches are good at winning and some specific aspects of the game but not every aspect so get ready to find other coaches and camps to round it out.
4.) If your a stud when you're 11 years old does that make you a stud in high school.
In my opinion yes and no. To me, the early success that more frequently leads to later success happens with forwards and less at other positions. Speed, hands, shot, hockey sense as a youth usually doesn't evaporate into thin air. Conversely many of the very good defensemen are considered 'late bloomers' and many good youth defesnemen fade away. In fact many of the best D-men during my oldest son's Peewee time failed to develop. Some ride on their Peewee reputations but at some point it becomes obvious they aren't keeping up. Others who were the early growers became average as the other's size caught up. The ones that worked hard, learned, focused on their skating AND grew ended up getting noticed at 17 or 18 years old. The kid who was 5'9" at 13 who also was 5'9" at 19 gets overlooked. Goalie is a bit like this as well.
Just my opinion and what I've seen. Good luck.
Maybe the best post here in years. Well thought out and informative.
Original poster. Thank you! I appreciate the time and effort. Now I have to go back into the jungle know as "youth tab".
A few additional observations and some reactions to the one reply.
1. League doesn't matter as long as it's, in this geography and the current environment, EHF or E9. MPDHL, EJEPL, and some of the other leagues that are strong at the older ages are very mixed at the younger - right now. That could change in the next couple of years.
But, organization is far more important than whether it's E9 or EHF. The two-year long debate about E9 vs. EHF is just ridiculous.
IMO EHF has more solid programs, across all age groups, than E9. But, I'd much rather have my kid play for the VJW than Top Gun, BA than the Bandits. I just think there are more dog programs in E9 than in EHF. But, a dog is still a dog.
And, the good program in both of those leagues are more likely to have a spot for your kid next year. Stability year to year for your kid is far more important that which league.
2. I don't see how a December kid that is the best on his team is a plus. To me, that means it isn't likely to be a very good team.
I think you pretty much always want your kid to be in the middle of the pack, unless he really is elite, and is the best player on the best team. Then you don't have a choice. Of course, someone has to be best, and someone has to be worst, but that can change over time, too. Going back to my point about stability, if he's the best kid, you're going to be looking for a better team. If he's the worst, then you may not have a choice.
3. Yes, coaching matters a ton, for the reasons the prior poster mentioned. It's really hard to find good youth coaches, but it really should be one of the key things that you're looking for, if you have the luxury of choice.
But, what I learned pretty early on is, you have to go outside your program for skills. Team-run skills aren't going to be individual enough for your kid's development. We started working 1:1 when my kid was a Squirt. Once a week, half an hour. Made a huge difference. We've built up from there. Coach didn't like it, because he saw that as a commentary on his ability, which it wasn't. No coach can give individual attention to the weaknesses of 15 skaters. What was a reflection on his ability was his insecurity about our working with an outside skills coach.
Small group or 1:1 skills are critical for your kid to be able to realize somewhere close to his full potential. The chemistry between player and skills coach is a key contributor to how hard he will work at his game.
4. Interesting that you chose 11. It's sort of right on the cusp of where it does become a good predictor. Younger than that, not so much. Above that, the best kids get the best opportunities on the best programs, and of course that does become important.
But, nobody will care who he played for when he was 11, or how good a PeeWee he was. They only care about how well he plays today.
What IS important is that you, and he, don't walk around like he's a 14 year old Wayne Gretzky because he was a stud at 11. The HS coaches I talk to have a kid or two every year that hasn't developed as a team player, doesn't have a good hockey IQ, or doesn't know how to play within systems, and therefore is getting limited minutes in HS. Next think you know, he has to have a conversation with the parents, who don't understand why their kid is riding the bench, because he was such a stud when he was 11. Don't be that parent. Don't let your kid be that kid.
"...nobody will care who he played for when he was 11, or how good a PeeWee he was."
There were a handful of kids making teams a few years ago based upon their days on Boston Mission. If you play for the best team in the region as a Peewee, some are impressed by it.
Yup. And some of those boys parlayed it into junior hockey (even up in the Q) before people figured out some of them didn't keep up and now some are dabbling in lower level college hockey or club hockey and they're about as good as the next kid but still being moved on.