Coaching: Something to Be Thankful For
by Dave Starman/Columnist
Thanksgiving, a time to give thanks for what makes us who and what we are. This time around I focus on youth hockey coaches. Across the USA there are thousands of them from mite to midget who give their time (volunteer or paid) to improve our kids, teach them the game, and make sure they safe and having fun on the ice.
The great college players we see are all products of some terrific coaching at the youth levels. One such story I heard recently was courtesy of Blake Coleman, who plays at Miami. Another came from Riley Barber, his teammate in Oxford.
In chatting with Coleman the day before the game against Wisconsin, I mentioned to him that what impressed me was his ability to either go around people or right through them. One thing I have noticed is that he plays a physical game and plays with an attitude. While offensively gifted, he doesn't shy away from hard areas or contact.
Coleman explained to me that his minor midget year he played for Kyle Krug in Michigan, the father of current Bruins defenseman (and former Michigan State player) Torey Krug. The one thing about Torey Krug that I loved and felt made him a pretty good candidate to be an NHL player was his compete level. There are a ton of skilled undersized defenseman in the NCAA, but what guys like Krug bring is that added element of "if you come near me, I'm going to make you feel it." It is that fine line that separates great NCAA defensemen from future NHL defensemen.
Coleman plays with that same mindset. His skills and his physical edge remind me a lot of Derek Stepan when he played at Wisconsin. Watching Stepan play his sophomore year in Madison, I saw a player that, when he played with jam and with intensity, was the best player on the ice in any game.
Sitting with him in the bowels of Ralph Englestad Arena during Team USA mini camp (leading to the 2010 WJC) in December of 2009, Stepan told me that his coach, Mike Eaves, was always on him to play with "his edge." Stepan said both Eaves and Mark Osiecki had mentioned to him on many occasions that when he plays with that physical edge, when he plays with that high compete level, he is a different player and a difference maker.
That reminded of what Dean Blais (his coach on that Gold Medal winning WJC team) had once told me about Zach Parise at North Dakota about compete level and consistency. Parise was the most competitive player I have watched in my 11 years working on college hockey.
Coleman is the type of player that can will his way to a good pro career using those same intangibles like work ethic, compete level, and utilizing the skill and hockey sense he brings to Miami. Those were things harnessed, as he said, by his coach Kyle Krug.
Shortly after talking to Coleman, I sat with Riley Barber. Barber is great to talk to because he loves chatting about the game within the game. He is a student of the game, studies the things that he needs to make himself better and more dangerous. He'll watch goalie practices at Miami to learn the goalies, talk to goalies or goalie coaches about the position in an attempt to gain an edge. He can look effortless at times while firing pucks for goals, but there is a lot going on in his hockey head leading to that shot.
Barber's dad was a pro player and always emphasized to Riley how important it is to skate well. While emphasizing that a good shot is important (and boy did his dad have a great wrist shot) skating was paramount. Barber's shot, something that sets him apart from a lot of players in the NCAA, was really developed by Mike Donnelly and Craig Channell at their shooting school (www.powershothockey.com) in Livonia, Mich.
The school, done off ice, works on hand skills and shooting skills. Donnelly, a scoring sensation at Michigan State, was a longtime NHL'er and once a linemate of Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles. He does a lot with weighted pucks and emphasizes proper technique. Whether it is teenagers, pros, or eight year olds (like a certain mite I know who plays his youth hockey in Long Beach, N.Y.), the concept of holding the stick properly, follow through, weight distribution, and mechanics are first and foremost.
Barber said his mechanics were pretty much developed by the time he started to work with Donnelly as his career headed into the USA NDTP. He learned that with the constant use of the weighted pucks, his process improved through repetition as he realized "you can't shoot weighted pucks properly without a perfect mechanics." The heavier pucks actually helped his shot improve because of his focus on all of the little things that went into having a great shot. Nick Bjugstad, while at Minnesota, always told me the same thing about his Uncle Scott's shooting school in the greater Minneapolis area.
There are countless stories about the impact of youth hockey coaches on young players. With the constant improvements being made in the US coaching ranks by the ADM model and Coaching Education Program, both initiatives of USA Hockey, our kids are being coached as well as they ever have. They are also being taught on a curriculum that is encompassing the newest trend, latest technology and research youth hockey has to offer.
You might not always agree or understand what is being done by your child's coach in practice or game situations. However, when you get a chance, say thanks to him or her for caring enough to put in the time and effort to enhance their hockey experience.
Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hockey.