Good hands.

08.01.16
Dave Mason

We just spent a couple of weekends at The Coaches Site / TeamSnap 2016 Hockey Coaches Conferences in Toronto and Vancouver. As sponsors, we were there to introduce PowerPlayer to the coaches in attendance, but along the way, we learned a thing or two about the state of hockey.

Coaches care.

Each two-day event was attended by approximately 150-200 coaches—from the NHL and European pro leagues to College, Major Junior, Junior A, and all levels of minor hockey. The simple fact that so many people took time away from their families in the middle of summer in order to learn more about the game they so obviously love says a lot about their level of commitment.

As Bill Peters, Carolina Hurricanes Head Coach said, “We ask players to get better in the off-season. That’s what all of you coaches are doing here.”

Learning never ends.

Because hockey is constantly evolving, from strategy and tactics to fitness training, nutrition and hydration, and psychology, virtually every presenter touched on the need to continually stay up to speed with new thinking.

On practice:

As the game is changing, so is the thinking around practice design. Dave Smith, Head Coach of D1 Canisius College, noted that “Players need passing and skating, but they really need hockey IQ. How do we teach it? For us, practice video is more valuable than game video.” University of New Brunswick Head Coach Gardiner MacDougall asked “What’s the theme and purpose of each practice? How does each drill relate to that theme?” and stressed practice pace: “Practice at the highest possible tempo. And add chaos!” Denver University’s Jim Montgomery noted: “We practice the way we play. Foot races, battles, body position drills. We like to finish every practice with a competition. All players want to compete: it makes it more fun!”

And Stan Butler, Head Coach for the OHL’s North Bay Battalion, pointed out: “We only work systems one day per week because without skills, systems don’t mean anything. And there’s nothing wrong with a little pond hockey in practice. It’s gotta be fun!”

On training and athleticism:

Anaheim Ducks strength and conditioning coach Mark Fitzgerald noted that old thinking has little relevance today. “Some things we do just because we’ve always done them that way. If you’re bag skating your players you’re actually helping them to become slower.” And he echoed the comments of many speakers who decried the year-round focus on hockey at the youth level. “The best way to develop all-round athleticism is ample free play and multi-sport participation, but the current training model in hockey is 12 months. Stop the insanity!”

On game strategy and tactics:

Five-time NCAA D1 Champion coach Shannon Miller pointed out, “Growth and comfort do not coexist,” and she invited us all to “Think outside the box” with a talk on ‘Torpedo Hockey’ that was not only illuminating but a lot of fun to watch.

On character and intangibles:

Virtually every coach touched on the importance of character. Gardiner MacDougall’s presentation focused on the power of ‘grit’. “Grit has nothing to do with physical strength. G = Guts. R = Resilience. I = Initiative. T = Tenacity. People with grit set more goals, practice with more focus, are more optimistic and more competitive. Take a 3-2 loss, add a little more grit, and you’ll create a win next time.”

Tyler Kuntz, WHL Vancouver Giants Assistant Coach, commented that when it comes to assessing character, he looks at simple things like daily habits: “Make your bed!” and stressed that “What makes a great person makes a great hockey player.”

Dallas Eakins, Head Coach of the AHL San Diego Gulls, shared his thoughts about player accountability: “For players you’re either 100% in or you’re 100% out. Nothing exists between. Players can’t have the excuse habit and the success habit at the same time. Excuses soften character, and serve as a sedative against your own conscience. Character is the accumulation of your thoughts, habits and priorities — what you think, do and value. So be early, carry your own gear, respect your opponents and the officials, and have a great work ethic. It’s contagious!”

Blake Nill, UBC Football Head Coach, summed up his thinking on character: “I recruit young men who will be on time. Who will try to outwork their teammates. Quality people.” And Chris DePiero, Director of Athletics at Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School and a scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins, touched on an aspect of youth hockey that’s at the core of our own thinking: “How many kids fall through the cracks because we identify mostly by ‘talent’?”

On understanding yourself and your players:

One thing that was made clear by speakers at both conferences is that to be a great coach requires more than just knowledge of the game itself.

Barry Jansen, a leadership consultant who works with corporate executives and hockey coaches and players, gave a presentation on recognizing personality types and the impact of personal differences on coach / player interactions. He noted that many business leaders and head coaches tend to be people who don’t need a lot of direction or feedback themselves, and that consequently they tend to not provide it to others. “A lot of coaches know so much about the game but they have a hard time communicating it to athletes. Younger players tend to want feedback, and many coaches tend to not give it. That can create disconnect issues.”

And as Blake Nill pointed out, “Coaching is recognizing strengths and weaknesses and applying a strategic plan to achieve success. The old style leadership model was top down, coach-centric. Now it’s peer to peer. Athletes lead and influence teammates by being stronger, more dedicated, disciplined and competitive.”

On feedback and communication:

The importance of feedback (a topic near and dear to our hearts!) was a common theme.

A panel that included Utica Comets forward Brendan Gaunce, Natalie Spooner of Canada’s National Team, and Mike Duco of the ECHL Evansville Icemen stressed the importance of continuous feedback and honesty from coaches, a sentiment echoed by New York Rangers forward Tanner Glass: “Feedback from coaches is extremely important. Players are more educated and want it.” And Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins pointed out that “Players know when they have good game or a bad game, but coach guidance is very important.”

AHL Head Coach Roy Sommer of the San Jose Barracuda was specific: “Everyone needs feedback. Give your players ratings and comments at least 6 to 7 times per year. Tell them what to work on.” Ditto for Edmonton Oilers Assistant Coach Jay Woodcroft: “Meet with players every 5 to 10 games to show them where they did well or need focus.” And Stan Butler stressed that because kids are visual learners, we need to teach them in the ways that they learn now, and suggested providing feedback directly to players after every practice to let them know that practice matters.

But when it comes to feedback for players, Gardiner MacDougall might have summed it up best: “Positive feedback is the breakfast of champions.” We agree 1000% with all of these comments!

On coaching itself:

During his often hilarious and insightful keynote, TSN’s Bob McKenzie pointed out some of the biggest changes in the game according to NHL coaches he’d polled, notably the use of technology to gather metrics and statistics to guide coaching decisions, and the importance of communicating with players.

Many coaches spoke passionately about the impact they hope to make with the players they work with. Vancouver Canucks Head Coach Willie Desjardins: “The biggest thing you can give your athletes is believing in them. If every player feels better about themselves at the end of the year, you’ve done your job.” Brennan Sonne, Assistant Coach of the WHL Everett Silvertips: “There are few nobler pursuits than effecting positive change, growth, and development in the lives of young people.” And Dallas Eakins closed with a simple but powerful thought: “We want the young men and women we coach to be better people. Win or lose.”

Knowledge is power.

Helmets off to Aaron, Len, Angela, Ben, Jay and the whole team at The Coaches Site, who pulled together two first-class events back-to-back.

Our takeaway? Based on what we saw, heard and experienced, it seems pretty clear that the future of hockey is in good hands. The hundreds of coaches we met in Toronto and Vancouver were all energized and eager to take in the wisdom of a diverse set of accomplished and respected hockey thought leaders, and they all seemed to recognize the truth in one of presenter Chris DePiero’s statements—and one of our favorites, for sure!—“Knowledge is power.”