How does a child playing hockey become an NHL star? Everyone should follow the 20-hour rule, says the top coach

How does a child playing hockey become an NHL star

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– It’s not worth being satisfied with what is, Joel Kiviranta wants to say to his now 15-year-old self.

At that time, Kiviranta was one of the best ice hockey players in Finland in his age group.

Every year, the most talented 15-year-old Finnish ice hockey players are gathered together for the Pohjola camp. Kiviranta was number one in the camp’s points exchange.

Kiviranta scored more points than current NHL superstars Mikko Rantanen and Roope Hintz in the year 2011.

Still, four years later, no club was interested in him at the NHL draft. Kiviranta is an exceptional case. He is one of the fraction of Finnish players who have managed to establish their place in the NHL without being booked by any club.

– If you are at the Pohjola camp, in the youth national teams and score a few points in the A-junior championship series, you won’t go far. However, you have to remember to press on with work all the time, says Kiviranta.

Kiviranta represents the Dallas Stars, where he made his NHL debut in January 2020. Kiviranta was one of 13 Finns who played in the NHL’s four best teams this season.

Alexander Barkov, Eetu Luostarinen and Anton Lundell still chasing the title in a Florida jersey against Vegas.

This story tells how a 15-year-old hockey player can become an NHL player. We focus on four age groups. For those born in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998.

When it comes to becoming an NHL player, a hockey expert Ismo Lehkonen speaks of four “Olympics”, i.e. a period of four years. 6–10 years old, 10–14 years old, 14–18 years old and 18–22 years old.

In Lehkonen’s opinion, he has a good chance of breaking into the NHL in the last Olympics, if the foundations laid earlier are in order.

Lehkonen strongly emphasizes issues already before the age of 15, i.e. Pohjola camp selections. He raises five important issues: Versatile exercise, aerobic bases, honing sports skills and, of course, arousing passion for hockey.

– If lucky, the child has fallen into a place where the right things are done, says Lehkonen.

According to Lehkonen, by the age of 15, you should have learned how to handle the puck perfectly so that you can also see the entire rink.

Skating skills should also be fine. Above all, learning the right playing position is important so that, in Lehkonen’s words, the player’s “firma”, i.e. their own body, remains healthy.

Lehkonen stresses that the coordination of hands, eyes and feet should also be improved. He tells about one illustrative question he has asked, among other things, to 12-year-old ice hockey players.

– Do you think that a formula driver always looks at his feet when he presses the brake or gas? Lehkonen illustrates.

Glamor is far away when the physical and mental aspects are tested

The further we go, the more emphasis is placed on good aerobic fitness.

– At the elite level, you must have the foundations of an elite level Olympic athlete. As a professional, you can play 120 games for 8 months. You should still be able to develop certain areas every day. If the aerobic bases are not in order, the meters go to the red. Development is going backwards, Lehkonen states.

Aerobic fitness and explosive power predict a quick entry into the NHL and success in the initial phase of the NHL career for both defenders and forwards.

Good physique alone does not warm you up. If a reservation comes, we will ask a lot from the spiritual side. Anyone looking for an NHL spot has to show that they belong in the lineup and beat more experienced teammates.

In Finland, NHL are three letters that are often associated with glamour. However, that is not the point.

– I emphasize that it is hard shovel work, grinding. When you open the hall door, you must be full of electricity. When the hall door closes, the evening is spent preparing for the next day’s event. Must be even better than yesterday. One must not show signs of weakness, Lehkonen describes the harsh world.

So what distinguishes why some end up in the NHL, why some in the SM league and why some in Mesti?

Ismo Lehkonen, who works a lot with young hockey players, says that he has thought about it a lot.

– I have come to the conclusion that the biggest decisive factor is a cheeky competitive spirit. It’s about anything. Whether it’s a coin toss, running sprints, soccer penalty kicks or basketball throws, Lehkonen tells about his experiences.

NHL players think like an expert

Kiviranta has not heard about Lehkonen’s thoughts, but he has similar thoughts.

Kiviranta emphasizes the importance of physics in opening an NHL career.

– Movement in the rink is probably the reason why I’ve made it this far. When your legs stop working, you have to find something else to do, Kiviranta says.

Like Kiviranta, a kind of exceptional case is in Florida’s shirt this spring, craving a championship Eetu Luostarinen. He has been one of the biggest Finnish surprises of the current NHL season.

At the time, Luostarinen was not included in the Huippu-Pohjola camp for his own age group, born in 1998. Now he played a significant role in Florida, which played a phenomenal spring.

Luostarinen, on the other hand, emphasizes the tough mental edge in order to be able to rise to the world’s toughest hockey league and succeed there.

– You don’t always feel like putting on sneakers or skates. Getting here is tough on the mental side, Luostarinen states.

Let’s also return to the awakening of passion mentioned by Lehkonen at the beginning. Luostarinen has somehow developed the will to play hockey specifically and to do everything for it.

– This doesn’t feel like work. I’ve liked to work a lot for the NHL dream, when it doesn’t feel like real work, Luostarinen repeats.

One of the turning points in Kiviranta’s career was when he did not get to join Nuorii Leijon, which won the World Championship gold in 2016. He was among the last to fall from the champion team of the World Championship home games.

In the Jokerien A-junior, Kiviranta excelled for a year alongside his seniors and having played in the SM league, the KHL and Switzerland Teemu Turunen as a chain friend.

– I personally thought that it was nice to put in assists when Turunen put them in, Kiviranta recalls.

In the B-juniors, Luostarinen still played in KalPa’s second team, but the following season he rose to the first team in the A-juniors and made his debut in the SM league.

During the season, he scored his first SM league goals and broke into the lineup. The spring culminated in silver medals in the SM league. Luostarinen also sees that moment as a turning point.

Luostarinen remembers how he himself did not practice much on his own and voluntarily when he was younger.

– When I got to the SM league, I felt that this could become a profession. Since then I have invested even more.

– This is a cliché, but I would talk about independent training on top of team training, Luostarinen would advise his 15-year-old self now.

A success coach warns of a pitfall – offers a blunt calculation

Currently working as the head coach of Ilves SM league team Antti Pennanen has been following Finnish hockey prospects from a close distance for a long time.

Pennanen was in the 2016 Junior Lions World Cup gold team Jukka Jalonen as an assistant coach. In the years 2020–2022, Pennanen was the head coach of the Young Lions and the top sports director of the Ice Hockey League.

According to Pennanen, regardless of the sport, it would be good if during the childhood and youth phase there should be 20 hours of exercise per week as versatile as possible.

Pennanen looks at the subject from the level of structures. He is worried about how in Finland there is too much trust in club activities.

– The corona pandemic revealed that the finger went to the mouth when club activities were taken away. The importance of clubs is huge. I don’t want to downplay that. However, there is no way to get to the top of the world with club activities alone, states Pennanen.

In his everyday life, Pennanen has come across parents who think their children are exercising enough when they take them somewhere every night to practice.

However, Pennanen offers a calculation for the counter-ball. In the ice hockey coach’s math lesson, the child gets three hours of physical activity at school per week and on top of that supervised physical activity.

According to Pennanen, a two-hour guided exercise can mean one hour of active exercise. In this way, you would only have eight hours in the bank, even if you attended guided exercises five times a week.

What differentiates where young hockey players end up?

Lehkonen, who works with a lot of young hockey players, especially emphasizes the importance of competition.

– I have thought about why some people play in the NHL and why some people play in the SM league or Mest. I’ve come to the conclusion that the biggest deciding factor is a cheeky competitive spirit. It’s about anything. Whether it’s a coin toss, running sprints, soccer penalty kicks or basketball throws, Lehkonen says.

Forget the rush and garage training

Pennanen and Lehkonen want to remind all parents of children who dream of playing in the NHL.

Ismo Lehkonen gets excited to give a fire speech.

– If a child gets excited about music and, for example, playing the piano or the violin, no parent will start interfering with music teaching. They look for the best possible music teachers and invest in that, Lehkonen begins.

– However, there is something completely incomprehensible in ice hockey. Every parent, and especially a father, is a coach in his own opinion. I call this garage coaching. When a parent starts coaching his own child as a garage coach, we are completely on the wrong track. Wrong decisions and solutions are made, for which the child pays a heavy price.

The most famous of Lehkonen’s five children is a hockey player Artturi Lehkonen. He won the Stanley Cup championship with the Colorado Avalanche last spring and was one of the NHL’s sensational stories last spring.

– It didn’t even occur to me that I would have started practicing physics for my children. They had the goal of going to the elite level. I got the best possible coach for it. I put my hand in my pocket and closed my mouth, says Lehkonen.

Pennanen also overlooks the hustle and bustle of Finnish sports. In his opinion, there should be competitive sports and recreational sports for children and young people before the age of 16. After that, the top sports phase begins.

– Norwegian skiers are not yet that superior at 18 years old in the Nordic championships. When they’re in their twenties, they start cleaning everything. In Norway, they are trying to curb the arrival of the elite sports phase too early. There are no national competitions until the age of 14, says Pennanen.

Pennanen reminds that a child star is unlikely to be a superstar as an adult.

– It is very unlikely that there is a world top at the age of 13 and a world top as an adult. Both are extremely difficult to achieve. In Norway, the choice has been made that they want to be world leaders when they grow up. This has also been studied by Nobel laureates and musicians, Pennanen emphasizes.

There are plenty of examples of bouncy routes. Ten players from the 2016 under-20 World Cup gold team did not make it to the first national team event after the Pohjola camp. The most famous example of them is Patrik Laine.

A descriptive example is also that six of this spring’s Lions World Cup team have not played a single national youth match.

There were three players in last year’s world champion team and four players in the Olympic gold team who have not played a single national youth match. So nothing has been lost yet at the age of 15.

Pennase sometimes has the feeling that the top sports phase in Finland starts already at the age of 10.

– Everyone has to make sure that 20 hours of versatile exercise per week is realized. It brings NHL players and Olympic champions. This more than 20 hours is the blissful thing. All activities can be built on top of it. If the number of hours is not fulfilled, neither will the dream of a top athlete come true, says Pennanen.

According to Pennanen, unfair communication is sometimes seen in Finland too, when some parties advertise themselves as “come here and you will become an NHL player”.

– The message should be 20-25 hours of high-quality and versatile exercise per week if you want to become a top athlete, NHL player or Olympic champion. On top of that, you can take things to support the trip, if the child is passionate and interested, Pennanen concludes.