Coach Nielsen's Ice Hockey Drills

NHL Coaches Association Symposium

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.

Lane Lambert Nashville PK Presentation NHLCA 14

Jeff Reese Goaltending NHLCA14

TEAM USA – Coaches Clinic

Ron Rolson NHLCA14

NHLCA Contract Negotiations

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.






Filed under: coaching

6 Responses

  1. This is Awesome, thanks for sharing, Wish I was there, but you made me feel like I was, thanks again, Love your web site link as well. NDS.

  2. Tim says:

    I attended the Flyers Development camp yesterday and observed Coach Reese working with one of the goalie prospects (Madsen). He was working on catching the puck, but interestingly, Coach Reese had a very specific way he wanted Madsen to place the puck on the ice after catching it. Reese was not satisfied with how it was being done and they worked on something so simple, over and over.

  3. Frank Barone says:

    Bob, Thanks for sharing

    Frank B Montclair State University

  4. coachnye says:

    My apologies for the miss-print- sorry it should be Coach Nielsen!

  5. coachnye says:

    Hi Coach Nieksen,
    Thank you so much for sharing this great information, what time you must of had!
    You mentioned in the closing paragraph that this was the best time through the whole event but I was wondering when you were speaking with some of the NHL coaches one on one with whom and what were you discussing? Was there a certain drill or situation that put new light on a situation?
    Again Thanks for sharing
    Coach Nye

    • Coach Nye, most of my conversations with them centered around their career or how they did things on the bench. I really didn’t ask about specific drills, but I did ask each of them about how they ran practice and all of them said basically the same thing. The team comes on the ice first with the position coaches and then the head coach comes out for 45 minutes and runs all up-tempo team based drills. Each drill leads to another and they all said they spend very little time at the board.

      I spoke with Mike Yeo for a long time about what it’s like to be so young and to be in such a high pressure position. I asked did he have a difficult time getting the players to respect him because of his age. He said that since he has been coaching for about 15 years he earns the respect of the players by being able to prove to them that he knows what he is talking about. He said “knowledge and commitment helps build player respect”.

      Coach Yeo told a story of his first day coaching with the Penguins. He was right out of junior hockey and only had one year of coaching at Wilkes Barre under his belt when he found himself on the ice with Mario Lemieux working on the power play. He said he was very nervous when he thought that he would have to try and teach something to Lemieux.

      I forget the guys name, but he coached in the KHL last season and I asked him if he had the same issue in Russia that we have here, when it comes to players thinking they are “entitled” to play. He told a story about a guy who was the #6 D and had only 6 points through 30 or so games and was angry that he wasn’t on the PP. Seems like even at the pro level you have to deal with the crazy entitled athlete.

      I asked Craig Berube if he used any advanced statistics on the bench during a game and surprisingly he said he didn’t, not even face-off wins/losses. He said he sees those in the locker room between periods, but on the bench he goes by instinct and feel. While he was speaking to us he kept saying that he wanted to turn the Flyers into a puck possession team when he took over. He kept using that term over and over and finally I had to ask him what that term really means, because to me hockey is a puck possession game all the time. I sort of think it is a term that the talking heads on TV came up with to sound smart. He really didn’t have a specific answer, it was more along the lines of what I already thought. He said “I make sure the players are always aware of making plays with the puck and not turning it over, especially in the DZone”.

      I asked Gerard Gallant if he was excited about taking over the Panthers with all those young talented players, and he obviously said yes, but more importantly, he really seemed to be excited. He was going to Florida the following week to meet with the team and do some skates.

      I asked Lane Lambert about running the D and how he and the head coach interacted during a game. I asked was it him making all the line changes or did the head coach do that. He said he does all the line changes for the D and also makes sure certain pairs are on the ice against the other teams top lines.

      I wish I could remember all the questions I asked, but it was a lot and at times I was concerned that I was dominating the conversation and not allowing the other coaches a chance to speak. Again, most of the stuff I wanted to know about was basically “How cool is it to do your job!” I didn’t actually ask that specific question, but most of them centered around that theme.

      It was a really great experience and one I hope to do again next season.

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