I am obviously being a little biased in this article as I spent pretty much all of my playing days on the back end, except for one year as a 14-year old.
(By the way, me moving to center wasn’t my choice but the coach thought it would be good for our team, so I went along with it.)
Anyway, I hear and have seen at the younger age groups, a hesitation, a fear, a dislike — whatever you want to call it — of playing the defense position. (My grandson is part of this group, ha ha.)
To be sure, some kids are just not a fit for the position and I understand that. There are probably a few different things that come into play as well.
The first one would be the coaching of defenseman. There was a time that the position was boring with a dump-it-out, dump-it-in mentality. If I was told to do that as a kid, I wouldn’t have wanted to play that way either.
But there is a whole new mentality in the game at the National Hockey League level and defensemen with skill, skating abilities, creativity and offensive instincts are now a premium.
We need to encourage and teach our young guys to play with puck, to beat fore-checking by skating and passing and not slapping the puck somewhere. Who wants to just stand on the offensive blueline and not be involved in the fore-checking or the offense?
Coaches and parents can teach and encourage this as well. This is not say you don’t have to defend, it is like every player on the ice when you don’t have the puck, you have got to figure out how to get it back. There is a lot to teach in this area for sure.
I loved the fact that as a defenseman, you can control the game, you see the game and can react. In football terms, all in one shift, you can be a quarterback, also can be defensive safety and if and when you are allowed to hit, you can be a linebacker, if it’s in you.
We always joked as defensemen how we were the smartest players. Whenever a d-man got moved to forward, we told them the first thing that was to happen was to suck out half your brain now that you are moving up front, ha ha.
So, we all love Crosby, McDavid, Ovechkin et al. But don’t forget how great Karlsson, Doughty, Burns et al are. They are fun to watch and they control every game they play.
Any way, have fun, whatever position you play. I just hope no one discourages you from playing a really fun, challenging and important position.
Love the game!
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of columns written for Hockey News North by retired National Hockey League player and coach Craig Hartsburg. Hartsburg retired from the game in 2016 after an eventful 27-year coaching career that included 19 seasons in the NHL and successful stints in the Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League. As a player, Hartsburg had a world-class career as an all-star defenseman with both the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL and the erstwhile Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He was captain of the Greyhounds for two of his three OHL seasons and was captain of the North Stars for seven of his 10 NHL seasons.