Jack Blatherwick

Lopsided scores? It’s a non-issue

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

I’ve been asked several times over the years, “What do you think about that 15-0 score?” 

You know what? I think there’s absolutely nothing significant about it. It’s not a topic that deserves space in a hockey publication, but I’ve written some pretty undeserving columns before, so here goes.

No athlete is psychologically scarred by playing on a hockey team that gets trounced, no matter what the score, and no matter what the age. It’s a ridiculous thought, and we should put an end to running time and other schemes to “protect young kids from the trauma.” There is no trauma.

But certainly, the winning coach should not be accused of “running up a score.” Scoring is the object of the game, and there is already too little attention paid to producing goal scorers in Minnesota. 

No doubt, lopsided competition is not productive for either team; so I have a creative solution: Don’t schedule these games.

Administrators are just being lazy by scheduling games in which the lopsided outcome is known in advance. There are high school conferences that have had this issue for decades – games involving the same mismatched teams each year, and the AD’s sleep through it all. They like to rubberstamp the schedule for all sports in one clean swoop. Then, some AD’s with a football/basketball background (that’s 99 percent of all AD’s, of course) actually say the same factors should apply in hockey as in other sports.

Hockey is not one of the sports where the winning coach has constructive control of a lopsided score. Track coaches share this non-issue with hockey. They don’t say to their mile relay team in the last event, “OK, I want you to run your worst time ever, because the team score is getting out of hand.”

Nor does a wrestling coach tell his heavyweight, “Go out there, shake hands, and when the ref gives the signal to wrestle, just flop down on your back and get pinned, so the other team won’t be embarrassed by the score.” 

Coaches of golf, tennis, skiing and cross-country are all in the same boat.  Imagine a coach trying to keep the team golf score down … like, kick your team-mate’s golf ball in the hazard? 

A lopsided score is not a coaching issue in many sports, including hockey; all that matters is for each athlete to focus on his/her best performance and forget the score.

On the other hand, football, basketball and soccer coaches can, and should play their second string or maybe the third. This fall, I watched the St. Thomas seventh-grade football coaches actually risk losing in the last seconds with the opponent’s ball on the Tommies’ one-yard line. They kept all their top players on the sideline, to give others a chance. Hats off to some true educators. 

However, hockey is a different sport, and coaches must rotate lines. Furthermore, the second/third-line players are like piranha in these games, and are more likely to score than the first line. Good for them. Play on!

At one time in history, there was a 10-goal rule in the high school league. As soon as the differential reached 10, at any point in the game, the whistle blew, refs departed, the two teams lined up to shake hands and everyone in the stands wondered, “Huh?  What happened?” 

Personally, as a coach, I know that one well. It was a playoff game at Braemar, and the band kept playing that monotonous Hornet fight song after each goal.  (Sorry Hornets, it’s a good song – just a little monotonous that evening). 

Finally, with one minute left, the 10th goal hit the back of the net. We shook hands and were off to the golf course.  Someone at the high school league decided this would be kindler and gentler than playing out the last minute.

Another brilliant 10-goal policy was implemented by a team we won’t name. You were no longer allowed to shoot when the differential reached 10.

Of course, this made it a lot less damaging to fragile psyches when an opposing player skated through everyone, deked your goalie, then turned back toward the other net and skated through everyone on the return trip. Brilliant solution to a non-problem.

About those damaged psyches: A half century ago, the high school team I coached had no chance against varsity opponents, so we forfeited to many varsity teams and had constructive games with their JV’s. However, we did play some varsities, and we endured some lopsided losses – big-time lopsided. 

At a recent gathering of alumni from those teams, it was fun to see that some had become billionaires in business; some were physicians, lawyers, teachers, ranchers, farmers and even politicians. None played in the NHL, but there was a team owner in the group. I asked them if they had been through a lot of counseling over the decades to help cope with those lopsided losses.

“Are you kidding?” one of them said as he slapped my shoulder. “We knew it was your fault.”

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

 

 

Questions about smaller teams

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

After the column about smaller teams (LPH, Jan. 13), I received a very thoughtful email from a coach who has tried rosters of 10, and he pointed out certain problems:

(a) Skating seemed to deteriorate in games as players fatigued, because the 1:1 work:rest ratio didn’t allow for adequate recovery. 

(b) This meant that 80 percent of the practice time had to be spent on skating skills instead of 20 percent. 

(c) There was not enough time for systems, including PP and PK. 

(d) In practices, coaches used some competitive drills and small area games; but if some players didn’t show up for practice, the flow of the drill was non-productive. 

How do we overcome these challenges?”

 

Thanks for your email.  I offer these additional thoughts:

1. Skating improvement is not a major priority in games, no matter what the work:rest ratio happens to be, so skating becomes a project for on-ice and off-ice practice. 

A consistent 1:1 work:rest ratio never occurs for extended periods of time in a game. Faceoffs change that ratio dramatically. More importantly, a player should never skate full speed up and down the ice, stopping and starting at each end, like a 40 second skating drill. If they do play like this, they need to learn how to think. Rink sense is much more important than effort.  

Getting fatigued in games a few times at 12 years old will help them learn to play smarter. Reduce the number of players on the roster, and rink sense will improve, because players will soon learn that a good shift is not defined by brain-dead hustle all over the ice; it is defined by the bottom line: productivity.

 Every great player in the NHL likely played more than half of each youth hockey game in which he participated (in other words the work:rest ratio was worse than 1:1). They also scrimmaged for hours on the pond without standing in a snow bank for long recovery periods. Yet they became great skaters and great players. They used their head while competing, coasting for a second or two when it was the right thing to do, sprinting only when it would do some good, coasting again and sprinting again to score or stop a goal. 

This has been verified by high speed film, which was analyzed by sports biomechanists. It showed that in the most intense games, players actually accelerate for less than 1.5 seconds (on average), then decelerate for about the same time (sometimes coasting, sometimes moving their feet), and this is repeated the entire shift.

2. To improve skating fundamentals we must learn how to utilize dryland activities. This is business as usaual for speedskating coaches around the world.  They realize that off-ice facilities are better suited than the ice for teaching and repeating certain neuromuscular patterns. This includes posture, knee bend, quick acceleration and the strength needed to explode from one leg. 

On the other hand, ice time is irreplacable when combining these n-m habits into an efficient skating stride. So, the combination of on-ice and off-ice skating practice develops a synergy of learning that can’t be matched by one or the other.

3. Systems like defensive zone coverage, plus PP and PK, should be taught in dryland and by using the whiteboard. Ice time for practices is limited in youth hockey. Don’t waste it on systems.

Practice time should be devoted to fundamental skill repetition with a minimum of standing around for explanation. Teach on the fly. Besides the obvious skating and stick skills, the really important skills include competitive instincts, toughness, creativity, rink sense, poise, puck protection and defensive skills. Those are all pre-requisites to be learned before systems. Your small area competitive drills are excellent for developing many of these.

4. When fewer players show up for games, make substitutions from other teams. Too few players for practice is never a problem. Just be ready with Plan B, and work with individuals and smaller groups. Be flexible; change both your practice purpose and drills. Before coming to the rink, prepare for anything. 

Pat Westrum had three teams with rosters of 10 players and a goalie, practice at the same time in Apple Valley. There were different tasks in the three different zones. It takes planning and coaches must work as hard as the player; but it is worth it, because ice time is the most important factor in development … after passion.

Finally, if youth hockey players do get tired in a game ... that is great! That would mean a hockey game becomes a fitness challenge, like soccer, basketball or lacrosse, where developing fitness is part of the mission. Presently, practices might qualify, but games do not.

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

 

 

 

More fun and development? Stop the big-time production

Part 1: Smaller teams ... a no-brainer

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

 

If youth hockey is truly about fun and development, then the answer is simple: eliminate weekend tournaments for profit, reduce the size of teams, eliminate unnecessary whistles, scrimmage more without scoreboards, and practice skating and stick skills off-ice. However, simple answers on paper don’t equate to simple solutions, because adults are determined to make a grand production of every youth hockey game.

Part 1 of a three-part series: smaller teams ... a no-brainer! With 10 skaters and a goalie, each player gets more ice time, of course. But weaker players, especially, will play in crucial situations when previously the coach shortened the bench, sending the unmistakable message that you must already be a good player at 10 years old to play when the chips are on the line.

Games will be more of a conditioning challenge; kids might even come home tired. Wow, imagine that. In the present format, fatigue is from psychological tension, not physical exertion.

Hockey games do not fulfill two of the many important objectives of youth sports: to improve cardiovascular fitness and reduce America’s epidemic of obesity and type II diabetes. A youth hockey game (9-10 minutes of competition for an average player) could hardly be called a “workout.”

Consider these facts: in a game scheduled for a 60-minute rental period, the puck is in play less than half the time ... about 28 minutes!  With 15 players on a team, the average playing time is 9.3 minutes. If lucky, the weaker players might get one shot a game, bat the puck (not control it ) seven times and get off the ice quickly each shift, before they screw up. How can we expect improvement, passion or fun? 

The best players in the NHL are the smartest players. They’ve learned when to hustle and when to coast. They explode at just the right moment; that’s why they’re the best. 

Ben Smith, coach of three U.S. women’s Olympic teams and assistant on two men’s teams, believes that with so many players on youth teams, we are inadvertently teaching ‘buzz-bomb hockey.’ Players ‘hustle’ up and down the ice without thinking. If we had 10 players, they’d have to think in order to conserve energy, not just skating hard with no purpose.

USA and Minnesota Hockey can conduct the best clinics possible to help coaches do a better job in practice, and some day these clinics might make a difference. But increasing the competitive playing time will immediately help everyone improve.

Hold on a second! In bad economic times, how do we accomplish both things: increase ice time and reduce youth teams to 10 skaters and one goaltender? First, every practice will include two teams. Twenty skaters and two goalies ... a perfect number for practices. 

Next, eliminate expensive trips and tournaments. (This might cut in too much on parental fun, of course). Reduce the number of “official big-time” games that require two or three refs.

Scrimmage more without scoreboards and unnecessary whistles, such as the ‘can’t-tag-up’ offsides whistle, batting the puck with the body or hand, and even whistles for icing. Add dryland practice for skating and stick skills. Get more bang for the buck when we rent an hour of ice.

Keep the puck out of the hands of referees. For development and fun, the puck likes to be moving around the ice from stick to stick, doing all kinds of kewl things.

Stop traveling all over the place to compete, creating family schedules built around a 10-year-old hockey player’s day. Hockey is intrinsically fun and productive without bells, whistles and hour-long trips to another suburb or town. 

With only 10 players and a goalie on the roster, two local teams of equal ability can scrimmage more often. I promise ... kids will get better, even though the ride to the rink is five minutes instead of an hour.

The fun of hockey is intrinsic. Sticks, pucks, skates, dekes, shots to the top shelf, awesome saves, creative plays, 1-on-1 competition, good bodychecks ... that’s what elicits passion and improvement. It’s hockey that’s so great, not tournament trophies.

But more on that later.

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

 

Why scrimmages are better for development than games

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

I felt like that guy who isolates his camera on Alex Ovechkin or Sid Crosby, only mine was fixed on the weakest player in the game. In warmup, I carefully selected the PeeWee player with the poorest skills. This was easy; the skills kinda looked like mine. 

His team warmed up for a really “huge game,” one of hundreds of “huge games” that weekend, all under the same roof. Of course, there would be huge games on any weekend of the season, but this one – well, it was special, because that’s how it was advertised. Really big. 

Fortunately, buying a senior ticket allowed me to attend this mega-event for a more reasonable admission fee than parents were paying, the same parents who buy tickets to next week’s tournament, last week’s and every week. Come to think of it, the same parents pay the team participation fee for the tournament; and of course, pay a big chunk at the start of the season to enter into this bargain.

I videotaped the weakest player on the ice, because we rarely see what he does in a game; we’re busy watching players with the puck. No doubt, the top players improve in games: big games, huge games and mega-games. Not only do they have the instincts, aggressiveness and speed to get to the puck quicker, they have superior skills and poise that allow them to control it longer.

And they try fun things with the puck once they get it. They enjoy a longer leash from the coaches to try creative plays, because if they fail, their leash is not shortened.

So, don’t think the parents of elite players are going to vote for fewer games in a season.

Nor am I writing to vote for fewer games. This is about the way games are conducted.

Star players have more fun with the puck and less reason to fear failure. These are critical elements in development, because it increases their passion for hockey, and passion is the most important factor. Nothing else is close. 

Scouts rate potential based on skills, rink sense, toughness, speed, size, etc. Yet because it’s difficult to measure passion from the bleachers, scouts have to draft dozens of players to get one or two who eventually have an impact in NHL games.

The player I videotaped is not likely to become passionate about hockey. He got to the puck only seven times that game, and each time he just batted it toward the offensive end of the rink.

Total time of possession for all seven touches: about one second. No shots. No cool moves to beat an opponent. No defensive wins. 

His greatest reward was a pat on the back for getting off the ice quickly, so the good guys could take over. No wonder he’s thinking about playing the trombone next winter.

Adults clearly want the best for their kids, but to make competition more grandiose is a step in the wrong direction. As each game becomes a big-time event, it ensures that weaker players will try fewer things with the puck.

 No one wants to be the goat in ‘huge games.’ Therefore, if puck skills are inferior, “I’m going to try the simplest thing I can to avoid screwing up.”

Ideally, we’d like every player to try new things; experiment, create; raise the bar; control the puck long enough to find a good play. Otherwise, competition is counterproductive. 

The best way to help more players improve, not just star players, is to scrimmage more. Turn the scoreboard off, and stop promoting competition as a big event. Eliminate referees for some scrimmages and reduce unnecessary faceoffs; teach goalies to make plays rather than freeze the puck, thereby keeping things moving and increasing ice time.

By scrimmaging this way, intrinsic factors are accentuated: creative playmaking, winning smaller competitive battles, skating with the puck, shooting, defending, deking, making deceptive passes, controlling the puck. In our present format with so many official games, many of these intrinsic rewards are reserved for the top few. Weaker players have to settle for extrinsic rewards like team trophies.

Of all team sports, hockey is the most intrinsically fun. Bells and whistles, trophies, banners, tournaments and cheers are unnecessary. Of course, if players are asked, they’d say this adds to the fun, because they don’t know it can be done another way. Besides, it really is fun to stay in a motel and crash around the pool while parents are partying.

But this format of official games and big-time tournaments develops only a few players; it increases the cost dramatically; it intimidates most players from trying creative plays; and it reduces ice time and puck possession; and therefore, it reduces passion.

Without passion there is no development.

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.

 

 

Interdependence is not an obvious lesson for a star player or a winning team…and the talking heads aren’t helping

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Don’t bet the ranch on the most talented team in December — high school or NHL. A few years ago, every one was raving about a certain high school hockey team that had just waltzed through the holiday tournament without a close game. After all, it was undefeated and loaded with college-bound stars. 

Herb Brooks had read about the talent, and after seeing them win easily against a very good opponent, Brooks responded, “This team will need to develop synergy before it can get to the state tournament. Right now they’re a bunch of highly talented individuals, and the media attention isn’t helping.”

They had just scored a bunch of individual highlight goals that brought even more hype, but Brooks wasn’t buying it. 

“Right now 1+1+1 just adds up to 3,” he warned. “They need more trust, more interdependence. They don’t move without the puck, because they’re not sure they’ll get the pass if they get open. No trust. Too many stars, too much reliance on the goaltender and defensemen in their own end.”

Brooks was on a roll. He had been waiting to see them play, and his coaching instincts were building as he explained how their greatest assets could eventually become their weaknesses. 

“Maybe they have too much talent. They put sticks where their bodies should be – looking for breakaways instead of playing through bodies so a teammate can start the breakout. Teams don’t win in the playoffs until the most talented players become the hardest workers.”

In late February, after a remarkable season, the team scored two individual highlight goals in the section semifinals and lost 4-2. Synergy was still missing; the whole had not become greater than the sum of the parts. 

It happens every year; teams that win big throughout the regular season on individual skills, often lose in the playoffs, because they haven’t learned hard lessons. Watch the NHL closely, because the most talented players find it easier to score in-season than when team defense becomes a life-and-death matter in the playoffs. 

To win in the playoffs, everyone has to be committed to team defense and using each other to create offense. Championships are built on support, trust, interdependence, and work ethic, but you won’t hear those words on TV. It’s all about goals, assists, touchdowns, field goals, three-pointers and individual records. After all, it’s the ignorant mission of the talking heads to individualize team sports.

 “Synergy is the first and last job of a winning coach,” Brooks added, “but when you’re winning all the time, it can be a tough sell. The need for interdependence isn’t obvious to a player who has a lot of success, and the public fixation on individual accomplishments makes the coach’s job more difficult.”

In other words, to be the top rated team – the team with the most talent in any sport – is a long, hard step from being the eventual champion.

 

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.