Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the NHLCA symposium in Philadelphia. The NHLCA was created to help NHL coaches get union like representation years ago, and for the past ten years they have been holding these symposiums. The place was packed with NHL head and assistant coaches. When I first walked into the meeting hall I saw Mike Babcock just standing there so I went over to say hello and introduce myself. He grabbed my hand and said “Hi, I’m Mike Babcock”. I responded, “of course you’re Mike Babcock, everyone knows you’re Mike Babcock”! It just shows how humble most of these guys are, that they still remember their manners and introduce themselves by name.
The session started with a fifteen minute opening from Scotty Bowman. He told a few great stories and got the proceedings going. Dave Maloney of the Rangers was the master of ceremonies and he introduced the first speakers from the USA olympic team. Coaches, Bylsma, Laviolette and Richards. Their presentation was about how they picked their team and once the team was selected how they put together a plan to make them a team. Coach Bylsma spoke about how he took the time to meet with each player on an individual basis and learn more about their game. Coach Laviolette spoke about how the team would work their forechecking system and Coach Richards covered the defensive zone stuff. All in all it was very interesting how they went about getting the team ready to play in Sochi. One thing they spent a good deal of time on was how they gave so much thought to the larger ice surface, and how to use it to their advantage if possible. When their time was up Bylsma made a few jokes about being out of work and did any of the other coaches in the room need an assistant.
The next group up was the gold medal winning Canadian olympic team coaches, Mike Babcock, Ken Hitchcock, Claude Julien and Lindy Ruff. The Canadian coaches concentrated on how they prepared their team for the gold medal game against Sweden. We watched a lot of game film and they each described how they broke down the film for their respective group of players. Again, a good deal of time was spent on how the larger ice surface would impact the way they played. Obviously they were confident with the talent they had, that they would be able to compete at a high level of success. Mike Babcock gave a lot of praise to Ken Hitchcock for his scouting and pre-tournament preparation skills. Babcock spoke about how each player on the team had to change something about their game to fit in better with the team concept. He pointed out the sacrifice that Rick Nash made by becoming more of a defensive player and not being so much a part of the offensive side of things. Babcock speaking about Nash was part of his closing comments and led to a very funny retort from Dave Maloney of the Rangers when he came to the podium. As Babcock was walking away, Maloney leaned into the mic and said, “thanks for making Nash such a good defensive player, maybe you could teach him how to score again”! An obvious reference to Nash’s lack of scoring during the Rangers Stanley Cup run.
At this point they split the group into different areas. The pro coaches went to participate in sessions about contract negotiations and time of possession discussions. The amateur coaches went to sessions about penalty killing, goaltending and coaching. I had the opportunity to go to either side and I chose to stay with the amateur guys because that seemed so much more interesting.
First up was Lane Lambert of the Nashville Predators. Lane runs the penalty kill and he did 45 minutes of non-stop video analysis and explanation of the Predator PK. I have to say, I think of myself as a guy who knows how to teach the PK, but this guy was from another planet good. He had a breakdown of every different situation you could face on the PK and how his team was trained to react to it. He spoke about how he watches video of all his opponents PP from the most recent five or six games and then goes to meetings with his PK units and goes over that video. I have to admit I am very jealous of the NHL coaches and all that video they have access to. He even had the Predators video coach with him. This presentation was one of the very best I have had the opportunity to sit in on through all my years of attending coaching symposiums. I suspect Coach Lambert will be the head guy someplace in the near future.
We took a break for a quick boxed lunch and I sat in a spot by myself. As I’m eating Barry Trotz walks up and sits across from me, followed by Ken Hitchcock, Mike Babcock, Todd McClellen and another guy I didn’t know. I’m sitting there thinking I hit the coaching jackpot. All of them said hello and included me in some minor conversation while we ate lunch. I told Trotz that my sons think that he and I look very similar and after looking at me for a few seconds he agreed. A few times people walked past the table and looked at the group of coaches and I’m sure some of them thought “who’s that guy with them”?
After lunch Ken Hitchcock gave a presentation that had nothing to do with X’s and O’s. Instead he spoke about how to be a coach. The difference between a coach and an instructor. He said a lot of us are good coaches, but not good instructors, and many are good instructors but not good coaches. He stressed how important it was for youth coaches to have coaches on their staff that are good instructors. By that he means, guys who can teach proper skating technique, or stick handling, or other skills that youth players need to concentrate on. He spoke about how he was a coach for a Midget 16 team for years and told some funny stories about issues with parents while he was coaching that level. He spoke about the importance of letting the players play hockey during practice. He said that he uses small area games plus full ice 4 on 4, and 5 on 5 games to give the players a chance to learn in real game type situations. Spoke a lot about keeping all the players busy and not running drills that have one player with the puck shooting on one goaltender. I have the very same philosophy and try to do those very same things at our team practices. He finished up with a few funny stories and a question and answer session. After his session I had the opportunity to just speak with him for a few minutes and he was a real gentleman.
Next up was Jeff Reese who is the goaltending coach for the Philadelphia Flyers. He showed a load of video with Steve Mason and how he works on all the minor pieces of the game in practice. He had a bunch of practice drills he uses with Mason and also spent a good deal of time showing goals against Mason and why he gave up the goal. Coach Reese was very detailed on how he prepares for practice and how he has a plan to get certain things out of his goalies at practice. One part I found very interesting was how he feels goalies don’t catch the puck enough anymore. He feels too many goaltenders let pucks hit them in the chest and then drop on top of them, causing potential needless rebounds. He showed many examples of this and I think he is correct. A very long time ago when I played competitive ice hockey I was a goaltender and I always tried to catch pucks whenever possible. Some very interesting stuff from a guy who specializes in working with the goaltenders.
The final part of the day was what I thought was by far the best part. They broke us up into small groups. My group had six other coaches. Three from the Pittsburgh area, one from Canada, another guy I know well from the Comcast organization, Pat Ferrill, who is a very good coach in our area, and one other from the Philadelphia area. In the small group sessions we sat in a circle and two NHL coaches would join us for twenty or thirty minutes and you could ask them anything you wanted to. So many guys passed through our group that they are too many to name, but I especially enjoyed speaking with Craig Berube of the Flyers, Mike Nolan of the Sabres, Mike Yeo of the Wild and Gerard Gallant of the Panthers. Each of them had an assistant coach with them and we talked about every subject we could think of. Not too often you get to pick the brain of a guy at the NHL level. Two seasons ago during the lockout I had the opportunity to coach against Peter Laviolette a few times and spent a good deal of time in the locker room hallway with him before and after games discussing hockey. This was just as good.
If you have the opportunity to attend this symposium next year, I highly recommend that you do. I’m sure you will learn something from attending. As part of our attendance they gave us each of the presentations from the coaches in PowerPoint format. I’ve added links here in case you would like to see them. Honestly, without the coach to speak over them they are less interesting, but maybe you will find something of interest.
I didn’t get a copy of the team Canada or Ken Hitcock’s presentation, but if I get them I will update this post.