Monday, April 27, 2015

An Open Letter to All AAA Hockey Programs

This post actually appeared a few years ago, as part of my old Hockey Diary blog.  So, while the timing of some things might be off those couple of years, the information is no less appropriate to today's hockey.
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Before I get rolling here, let me say that -- as usual, a number of things set me off on this topic... First, after almost a lifetime of running my own programs, I've more recently had the chance (and the pleasure, really) to observe a number of other AA and AAA programs, both closely and long distance. Secondly, the following question just arrived in my email inbox from LinkedIn...

"With the new checking rules moving legal checking to the bantam level, how does this impact high school freshmen teams, where the current ages span both the peewee and bantam levels?"

Why did that push me over the edge -- enough to send me reelin' at my 'riter? It's because the obvious answer to that coach's question lies in the need for some consistency within a given organization. Okay, I obviously didn't explain myself very well with that answer, so here's both the short and the long of it...

I think I'd answer the coach who submitted that question with the suggestion that checking skills should have been taught to his kids almost from the very start of their development. Hey, even though Mites aren't allowed to "body-check", collisions happen all the time. Moreover, nearly everything short of a big hit is not only permissible in the little guys' and gals' game, but I'll suggest that skills like steering and trapping an enemy puckcarrier are vital to every single level of our game. So, by the way, is it necessary to learn early-on to handle the puck with your dawgone eyes up! Then -- oh, boy...

Probably better than a year ago, Boston University Head Coach Jack Parker raised the ire of New England area hockey folks by suggesting there just isn't the talent in these here parts to bring many local kids on board -- to his program or to most other local Division I colleges. And, man, did the fans scald the legendary BU coach on that one. I hopped into one of the hockey forums to agree with Parker, citing "skills" as being one of the major culprits. Ya, skills...

Now, I dare anyone reading this to argue with my claim -- or partial blame -- here, that I actually started the trend towards the use of that term.

I'm guessing it was more than 20-years ago when I was invited to sit in on the founding of a revolutionary new hockey program. My part was only a small one, really, in that the owners of that new organization sought advice from several local hockey gurus as they attempted to put together the best developmental program they could for Southern New England high school players. And, believe it or not, the founders were gradually piecing together a program that would ultimately be followed by just about every other high level hockey program for decades to come. Where I jumped in was after they'd arrived at the typical weekly schedule of games and practices.

The owners did really want to provide more than others of that time, and they were asking my input about including a weekly "powerskating" session for each organization member. I happened to flinch at hearing that term. For, to me, it infers that "power" is the most important component in hockey skating. Trust me: It is not.  (Shortly after publishing this post, I did another on CoachChic.com that featured a new video on skating analysis by Dr Michael Bracko:  "Michael Bracko Presentation", the confirms all I've said here.)

Actually, the program that I'd become relatively famous for to that point in history had evolved to include far more than just an hour of skating work. Ya, I'd increasingly viewed my students' needs in a more holistic way, to include skating, tons of puckhandling, introductory passing and receiving, and some occasional work on shooting. (In ensuing years, I'd even include some basic "checking" skills.)

That in mind, I suggested to the group that I wouldn't trap their coaches -- or mislead their customers -- by calling that weekly session Powerskating. Then, put on the spot to arrive at something more appropriate, I offered, "How about just Hockey Skills?" (Quite obviously, that expression was shortened to "Skills" by the time it hit their brochures.)

Again, what I was suggesting would be a fast paced hour of intense skating and puckhandling, with some later attention given to passing and receiving basics and even some help with the kids' shooting.

Ugh! If I had it all to do over again, I'd have offered something even more descriptive for what I really meant, by calling it "Individual Hockey Skills". For, as a whole bunch of copycat programs soon began sprouting around New England, each included a skills session that was a far cry from what I'd envisioned.

Ya, reminiscent of the old song by Melanie -- "Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma",  I now shake my head as I walk through local rinks to see just what they've done to "my skills". I mean, it now appears that the actual individual skills part is long gone, and nearly every skills session is a mishmash of either unconnected stations or a series of numerical situation drills like 1 on 1's, 2 on 1's, etc. Worse yet, I've stopped to watch some of those situational match-ups in progress, and I've yet to see a single coach correct either an attacker or defender. (Geeeeeeze... As I recall from my long ago Phys Ed Degree studies, "A drill doesn't teach, coaches do!")

Still, the total waste of skills time is probably compounded further by yet another shortcoming in most development programs, this brought to mind by that LinkedIn question. For, you see, to deal with something like body-checking would take some foresight and planning on the parts of program organizers. Or, as this old skills coach sees it, the very basics of checking must be taught at the youngest levels, progressions should be added at each next level of the players' development, until fairly sophisticated players emerge at the highest levels. Okay, I know that one needs even more explaining, too. So, here goes...

The main point here isn't about "checking" or "body-checking". What I'm really getting at is that there has to be an overall, program-wide plan for every single hockey skill.

As an aside, just picture all the things that had to go wrong in a kid's development if he or she arrives at a the Bantam level with a lack in skating skills, puckhandling, passing, receiving, shooting, checking, or whatever. To my way of thinking, he or she has been let down along the way -- over about 5- or 6- or 7-years?

In the traditional hometown hockey program it might be the team coaches who were/are the culprits, but in the larger AAA programs I'm pointing a finger at those in charge of so-called "skills".

Oh, the latter group may have used the fanciest looking drills, and they may have impressed the heck out of onlookers. But they have also definitely let the kids down.

In other words, introductory skills have to be instilled at the very youngest levels, and those skills have to be heading somewhere. We might initially be talking about basic stopping or turning skills, but each of those have progressions that should ultimately take a player to an extremely high level of execution. And the same could be said about every other skating skill, puckhandling move, passing and so on.

As yet another aside, a while back I was shooting the bull on this very subject with someone who oversees a large hockey operation, and I ultimately blurted out something to the effect that, "Every organization should have a system almost akin to the MCAS!"

For those unfamiliar with that acronym, here in my home state it stands for "Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System", or a system in which public school students (and their teachers?) are tested periodically on the students' proficiencies in various school subjects.
What I was suggesting was something very similar to the MCASs being devised for a youth hockey organization, so that players had to achieve certain basic skills -- and perhaps even knowledge of some basic playing principles -- at this level, the next level, and so on.

And, as I intimated above in reference to the MCASs, I feel the teachers -- or coaches in this case -- have to have their feet held to the fire when it comes to their students' successes (or failures). Said yet another way... If players are arriving at Pee Wee and Bantam levels without some pretty decent skills, someone other than the kids has to be held accountable.

Now, I poked a little needle at the guys and gals who might be using fancy looking drills in their skills sessions, perhaps partially to impress those in the bleachers. And, I know this is a problem -- maybe a huge one. Yes, parents generally are impressed with all sorts of activity -- players buzzing all over, 8-pucks going at the same time, etc. And they might not even be noticing high priced coaches standing still to blow a whistle or oversee a line of players. (What they're also missing, quite obviously, is the need for coaches to be actively involved in a given drill, and constantly providing feedback to the players as they pass by. Again, the drill seldom does much for a player, at least beyond a point.

No, it's the coach's help or advice that makes all the difference in the world.)

Oh, since I'm on a roll with asides today... I actually authored a manual years ago called "500 Drills" (and it was purchased by NHL, AHL and European teams, besides lots of amateur level coaches). My point? I know plenty of drills, simple to pretty fancy. Still, I never use a one of them that isn't appropriate to where my kids are at a given time, or what their needs are on a given night. Said yet another way: My drill selections are NOT based on impressing anyone; I pick drills that help bring my kids from one level of play to the next.

So, what to do about this problem?

Well, Number One, I don't believe those of us responsible for the players' development should be caving and doing wrongly when we know what's truly right. If you think about it, to do things solely to please the parents is to suggest that they know more than the guys overseeing the ice.
Number Two, I am not totally dismissing the paying parents in all this. Ya, in a way, the customer is supposed to be right. But, then again, no self-respecting mechanic is going to totally agree with a car owner who wants to frequently skip oil changes. Nor is any doctor worth his or her salt (pardon the pun) going to okay a diet high in chocolate cake, solely because the patient likes that best. Naw, at some point those of us who know better have to step up -- have some gumption, and do what's right for the customer. If this means better educating everyone involved in the program, so be it. But again, what's the choice: Keep doing wrongly, or start doing things the way we know in our hearts are right?

Then, before ending, I see yet another thing shortchanging the kids when an organization's skills program isn't quite right. For, if individual skills aren't dealt with properly during those supposedly dedicated weekly sessions, team coaches are faced with the need to skip work on team related stuff, instead having to devote a good portion of their weekly practices trying to do what others should have been doing. So, there you have it, from a rather old skills coach who has been around the block (or rink) too many years to mention. And, for my money (if I was still a paying hockey parent)...

1) Organizations who see themselves as really class operations have to put true meaning back into skills by viewing them as "individual skill" sessions. In other words, get back to enhancing the capabilities of individual players by concentrating on skating, puckhandling, passing and receiving, shooting and checking skills.

2) There seems the need for a program to better educate parents, helping them to better appreciate how their youngsters can improve far more in the long run from such an approach.

3) Although a daunting task, I'm suggesting here that every program should have their own type of MCAS approach to individual skill development, this to include clearly defined progressions for every individual hockey skill, with defined levels for when such skills should be learned and then mastered.

Lastly, rather than getting upset at the likes of a Jack Parker -- for telling local hockey folks exactly the way it is, I think it's time we who know best get things back on the right track. For sure, it's going to be a long journey, and we just may need to accept the fact that we haven't done the greatest job with our current Pee Wees, Bantams and Midgets. Better late than never, though. And that reminds me of a quote I've seen a lot lately (I paraphrase):

"Plant a tree today, knowing full well you'll never get to enjoy its shade."

Ya, perhaps it's time we look to our current Mites and Squirts as the next crop of local players to be among the best in North America. Whether we'll be around to see that happen shouldn't be our motivation. Doing what we know is right should be.
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Want a treat? Go to YouTube.com and listen to the wonderful words and voice of Melanie in "Look What They've Done to My Song"!