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Even NHL coaches aim to make the game fun

Saturday, 09.08.2007 / 4:28 PM / News
By Bradley Holland
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Even NHL coaches aim to make the game fun
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Coaches talking hockey.

That was the off-ice scene Saturday at the Detroit Red Wings-sponsored Prospect Tournament as the NHL Coaches’ Association conducted a clinic for local coaches. The free event took up the entire morning and featured lectures from NHL and AHL coaches.

There also was a special guest, but more on that later.

In all, 35-50 coaches from the mites, pee wee, bantam, midget and high school-level took time out on a beautiful afternoon to learn from some of the NHL’s sharpest minds.

Atlanta’s Bob Hartley, St. Louis’ Andy Murray, Dallas’ Dave Tippett and Detroit’s Mike Babcock  were only some of the many coaches who lectured for between 15-30 minutes each, often including a question and answer session from the crowd.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of the coaches in attendance, many of whom didn’t waste the opportunity. On subjects from goalie preparation to organizing a practice, working the bench during games and beyond, each NHL coach was able to add a little of his own personality and theory to the room.

The overriding message was one of fun. Whether mites or college kids or NHL superstars, hockey is a game meant to be enjoyed. A game meant to be fun.

”We can be a reason why the kids want to come to the rink, or we could be a big reason why they don’t want to come to the rink,” Hartley said.

Each coach gave his thoughts on how to make the game enjoyable for the kids.

Former NHL goaltender Bob Mason, the Minnesota Wild’s goaltending coach, spent discussing warm-up drills for goaltenders and some things for the coaches to keep in mind during their own practices . His lecture had many of the coaches scribbling on their notepads from start to finish, capturing key phrases like “quiet legs,” “eye drills,” and “toes to the puck.”

Mason coached former Wild goaltenders Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez and current Wild puckstoppers Nicklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Not a bad set of guys to build a resume on. But Mason repeated often how much he learned from his mentor, former San Jose goaltending coach Warren Strelow who passed away this year at the age of 73.

Following Mason’s talk, the coaches were able to go out into the arena to watch the Wild practice first-hand. It must have been something for the amateur coaches to listen to the NHL coaches describe goaltender and warm-up drills and then walk into the arena to witness them first hand.

Hartley was up next and his message was simple: keep the ice moving, waste no movement, and, if you want to make your team better, make your goaltender better.

“Work on their skills,” he said. “But never forget about the guys with the big pads. Make your goalie better, because then your third-line player that skates like this … ” (and here he bent both ankles in at an awkward angle), “he’s better.”

Detroit head coach Mike Babcock and assistant coach Todd McLellan spoke to a number of youth coaches at Traverse City's Centre Ice on Saturday morning.
New York Rangers assistant coach Mike Pelino spoke of focusing “activities in small spaces.” The entire lecture focused on keeping things fun, keeping the games entertaining for NHL players, and drawing the comparison that if the game should be fun for men who play hockey for a living, then it shouldn’t be anything but that for kids playing at young ages.

Pelino extolled the virtues of many of his players, though you could tell the special place he held for current Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Pelino  believes that nobody in hockey works harder than Lundqvist, but he credits Lundqvist’s passion for the game and desire to enjoy himself in practice as his driving forces.

Changing pace, Tippett discussed his plans for game preparation, a formula that he believes is based on three key factors: 1. Who are we? 2. What is our identity? and 3. Plan for success. The amateur coaches in attendance almost started a small fire with the amount of furious scribbling Tippett’s presentation prompted.

Finally, the entire staff of the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen, the affiliate of the St. Louis Blues, gave a presentation titled “Getting the most out of practice.” Dave Bassigio, Brent Thompson and Davis Paine built on Tippett’s presentation of preparedness by focusing on just how much time and effort go into running a professional practice.

From there, the coaches were given more than just a pleasant surprise. They were given a lunch of pizza and pop.

Oh, and former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman stopped by to say hello. He answered some questions from Babcock, gave his thoughts on the importance of allowing kids to enjoy the game first and practice it second, then left to a standing ovation from the crowd.

After that admittedly hard act to follow, the Red Wing coaches played a game of pass-the-torch and imparted more wisdom in a half-hour presentation than most of the amateur coaches in attendance could have hoped to learn in a year of trial-and-error. Video coach Jay Woodcroft, assistant coaches Todd McLellan and Paul MacLean, and Babcock went through a multi-media presentation wrapping together all of the information touched upon by the preceding lecturers. Boiled down, the entire day was built on two main tenants, the two staples of the amateur coaches’ responsibilities.

First, you do what you can to make sure that the kids love the game more when they leave than they did when they arrived.

Second, you need to build enough of a skill set on your own to make an impression on whomever you meet.

The first tenant seems easy enough. Each coach simply has to bring the natural passion that he or she proved they had by giving up a Saturday to learn more about the profession. The second, also, was easy, you watch hockey, and you let your natural love of the game develop into a natural curiosity about the game and how it could be done better than it is.

In the end, it is all based on passion. Something “you can’t fake,” according to Babcock. But when you have it, everyone from the kids to their parents knows immediately, and they’ll respond.

 

“If you have passion, everybody knows you have it…and you either have it, or you don’t," he said.

Having passion for the game isn't only a valuable attribute for the coach. Players benefit from the quality, and their respective teams as well.

 

“Our guys hoot and holler and have more fun at practice than anyone in the NHL…I always tell the coaches I know when things are going good when nobody is listening to me," Babcock said.

 

“They’re having so much fun they’re just like kids in a candy store...they’re always buzzing around. It’s fantastic, and that’s what the game has to be.”

When it was all said and done, the amateur coaches in attendance had a pretty good day. They were able to take advantage of the combined experience, intelligence and insight of the NHL Coaches’ Association. And they got to meet a future Hall of Famer in Yzerman.

And, let’s not forget, they got a free lunch of pizza and pop.

Any way you slice it, a good day for all involved.

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