John Russo

Moving up the hockey ranks

By John Russo

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

This topic has been around for decades and probably won’t go away soon. I wrote about it 20 years ago – and probably have unduly ignored it since. “Moving up” is a question for only a few players and it exists at all levels all the way to junior hockey and even college.

While there only are a few very exceptional youngsters (actually parents are faced with the question), all players at the lower (moving from) level are affected because their team will not be as good if someone of that caliber leaves. Some argue that this actually makes the other 15 or 18 players try harder and so they actually develop better. Others claim that the team becomes less competitive, so the overall competition is lowered – even including an easier schedule.

Like any other controversy, there are always two sides to the issue. The best way to make a good decision is to look at the advantages and disadvantages in each individual case. For the most part, I believe that the youngster’s best interest should be the basis of the decision.

The advantages for moving are:

• For the individual, it can provide for better challenges, hockey growth and enjoyment. This is only true, however, if the youngster is truly “beyond” the level he is supposed to play in.

• It might be the action necessary to keep the youngster in the local program as he moves into high school. One of the reasons that youngsters transfer to bigger or more successful high school programs at the ninth-grade level is the lack of perceived challenge available to them in their own youth and high school programs.


The disadvantages for moving are:

• Youngsters can be physically injured if they lack the size to compete with older players. The physical maturity difference between a seventh-grade PeeWee and a ninth-grade Bantam can be very substantial.

• The psychological and social differences between a fifth and seventh grader or a seventh and ninth grader can be extremely wide. This may be the most difficult aspect of the differences to overcome. It takes an exceptional youngster to be able to handle this situation.

• The player moving up will not be with his normal school friends.

• There are also the bad feelings created as the young player “takes” a position away from another youngster on the team to which he has moved, and leaves his younger team behind without their best player.

• The youngster may go from being a top star at one level to a 3-4 (third to fourth line or fifth to sixth defenseman) at the next level up. This is a true problem. At 3-4, the player is not on special teams and actually not on one of the primary scoring lines. I have seen this problem at all levels, but especially after moving from bantams to high school or high school to Junior.


I recently talked to a very knowledgeable parent that turned the opportunity down for his Bantam son who was asked to play high school varsity and skip his second-year Bantam season. The parent had watched several other youngsters do the same over the past few years and all but one lost their scoring touch.

I see a number of high school players go to juniors each year. It is about 50-50 as to their success. Most don’t really end up, at age 20, being any better than their peers who didn’t leave home. Many end up not doing well at all. 

It looks like the disadvantages list is longer than the advantages list and generally I think that is true. The truly exceptional player that is noticeably better than his peer group, has the physical size, and physical as well as mental and emotional maturity may well prosper from advancement to the next level.  There are very few of these youngsters around, however.

There are, however, many parents who see their youngster as something beyond what they really are – and more important, the parent underestimates the quality of the team or league they are accelerating into.

There is a serious difference between Bantam A and high school varsity. The same is true from high school to Junior A (USHL). While the high school coach pretty much has to live up to his offer, the Junior A coach feels no such obligation. All the promises in the world fall apart if the coach is losing or the seats in the stands aren’t full, or the player isn’t really fully capable. At Junior A, it’s a business, no guarantees given — most players/parents don’t get that.

I don’t want to just stress the high school–Junior A move, however. It exists at all levels. Most high schools and associations are smart enough to require that move-ups must make the varsity or A team. I think it should go farther than that. A move-up needs to be a 1-2 (first or second line or top four defensemen). That keeps them in the proper development mode. Otherwise, they are just “parking” at the higher level and not gaining much. They must wait for the next season (park) to be ‘on the scoring’ and primary competition lines. They might just as well be stars at the lower level – a better development of all aspects of their game, and with their friends and classmates. Social development is a very important part of the process.

Express your opinion to your association or high school. It is the American way!


John Russo, Ph.D., is founder and director of the Upper Midwest High School Elite League. He was a captain at the University of Wisconsin, and his Coaches Corner columns have appeared in LPH since 1986.