Be a student of the game ... even during the game!
One thing youth players (particularly from the PeeWee level and up) need to learn is to be observant at all times. Players should always watch, listen and emulate the techniques and positional play lessons coaches are providing. Additionally, when watching a game on TV players, should focus of what the players that play their positions are doing during they game. Watch where they go in the defensive zone, where they position themselves in the offensive zone, what they do when they have better numbers (or worse numbers) on the rush.
All of this observation will allow players to develop better instincts and a blue print (or for you gamers ... cheat codes) for how to make the best possible decisions/plays when placed in similar situations. The more situational awareness a player develops the more effective they will be when the puck drops.
However, this situational awareness and observation shouldn't just be limited to practice and watching college and pro games on TV, but should also be employed in real time during a players own games. For instance, a forward should be studying the
tendencies of the opposing teams defenseman so they can learn how to exploit potential weaknesses later in the game. Maybe a certain defenseman on the other team is very slow, making him (or her) vulnerable to speed. Maybe a certain defenseman is overly aggressive and pinches in the offensive zone too much, and could be exposed with a chip and chase off the boards.
Gaining an edge on a player may be the key difference in winning or losing games. Only by being observant during the game can a player can pinpoint areas to attack the opposition on. Time spent on the bench should be time spent observing and then communicating what you have learned to your line mates.
Just as forwards need to be keen observers, defensman should keep an eye on the opposition while on the bench. For example, defensman should look to identify what forwards on the other teams have explosive speed. Or which forwards are slippery with the puck. When those players identified as high end offensive talent are on the ice use that knowledge as a defensman to maybe gamble less or staying home more versus getting caught up ice. Additionally, defenders can identify if certain players tend to be pass first or shoot first. Learning these tendencies can help make you a more effective player when faced with on rushing forwards.
As always communicate the information learned with your D partner. If you notice their top forward is on the ice make sure you remind your partner to stay home and take less risks. Knowing who your up against and how they play their game allows you to make the necessary adjustments to offset their strengths.
Finally, goalies should also get a feel for what opposing players like to do. This will not only help them make assumptions as to what a player may do under certain circumstances (shoot vs pass, pass vs. shoot, deke vs shoot, etc etc) but they can also convey those observations to his/her defensemen during period change overs, timeouts or just before offensive zone face-offs.
So as the title says always be a student of the game and always be observing. In hockey any edge you gain could be the difference between a win and a loss!