Jack Blatherwick

Interdependence … a timeless lesson for wolves and hockey players

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

“The most important lesson a coach can sell is interdependence.”

This was Herb Brooks’ favorite advice for every team and for any individual who wants to play at a higher level.

There are two parts to the formula: 1) Each player tries to be a catalyst and make teammates better, and 2) each player uses teammates to make himself better.

Pass early, to get “Out of sight, out of mind,” in Brooks’ words. “Then, break to open ice for a return pass.”

A century ago, Rudyard Kipling had the same advice in his poem, “Law of the Jungle.”

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Hey NHL, get help from the squirrels

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Have you ever lost sleep over some pesky squirrels in the attic? I have. It’s one thing in the middle of the day when I’m pounding on the keyboard. But these critters are gnawing away on my rafters at midnight.

So, I bought the best squirrel trap money can buy. It’s the clear deal, like the vaunted 1-3-1-trap employed by the Tampa Bay Lightning to stifle opponents who are mystified by traps. I spread some peanut butter on the trigger, and sure enough it attracted squirrels. They ate my peanut butter and left the trap empty. I heard them laughing at me last night, so I decided to get up and start writing. 

The Philadelphia Flyers decided to make fun of Tampa’s trap, so a few seconds into the game, Chris Pronger (Flyers D) took the puck behind the net, stood there and laughed. The ref counted to 30, blew the whistle and called for a faceoff in the zone.

The NHL has this old, rusty anti-stalling rule that says, “The team with the puck must not stall and mock the team without the puck just because they refuse to forecheck.” Trust me on the interpretation even if the wording is a bit imprecise.

Tampa Coach Guy Boucher had the last laugh, though, as his team won in overtime. Actually, I’m not sure he was laughing, because the Lightning fans were booing both teams throughout a boring 1-1 game.

Fans paid big bucks without knowing in advance that Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette had planned this ‘in-your-face’ mockery of the Lightning’s style. The Flyers held the puck behind the net several times during the game, and players were challenging the Lightning to come out of their shell and play hockey. They even used some words I can’t print.

A ‘trap’ strategy has a chance to win only if there are brilliant counter-attackers like Martin St. Louis, Peter Stamkos and Vincent LeCavalier, along with the best goaltending of Dwayne Roloson’s life. Of course, with all that in the roster, any style could win. 

But ‘the trap’ has ‘em buzzing at NHL headquarters because this game was a sham. They’re even considering an emergency new rule, perhaps like the basketball 30-second shot clock to prevent the old four-corner stall, which resulted in boring games with final scores like 10-9. How does someone enforce a hockey rule that says, “A team must forecheck … hard?”

Neutral zone traps have been around hockey for decades, and the best players just laughed at them. Wayne Gretzky faced many defenses that sagged back, hoping he would dump the puck? Of course Gretzky wasn’t buying it. A trap wasn’t an insurmountable wall; it was just another challenge. 

When players aren’t ordered by coaches to dump the puck, they find creative ways to beat immobile defenses. They use speed, indirect passes and rushes that attack at various angles, not just straight up the ice. 

If a new football defense had everyone scratching their heads in the NFL, coaches would stay up all night finding creative ways to break the defense. Much of the offensive creativity in hockey must come from the players, so we’ll just have to see if Tampa’s trap continues to have the fans booing and the NHL office buzzing.

As my unsolicited contribution to the present solution, I’ll offer some advice to the NHL – short of a rule that can’t be enforced. I have a pack of squirrels running around my attic. They’re creative geniuses, and like Gretzky, they specialize in turning a trap into a joke. You can have the whole lot, but there’s just one thing – you’ll have to come and get ‘em.

 

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

 

 

Making the ‘A-Team’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Every great player in the NHL has several things in common with others at the elite level: rink sense, competitive toughness and work ethic are always at the top of the list. Some superstars are exceptionally skillful with the puck – some not as good. Some can release laser shots without being comfortable – others who can’t probably have the skills to maneuver until they are comfortable or pass to a teammate who is open. Some are incredible skaters, while others are average.

But one thing they all have in abundance is an inner confidence – an elevated level of expectation. For some it is cockiness, others might act humble, but it’s just an act. They all know they are able to change the outcome of games. Sidney Crosby probably isn’t the league’s greatest skater, shooter or stickhandler. He’s the best player because that is what he expects of himself.

For someone to have a future in this game as a goal scorer, the most important area for improvement is raising the bar of personal expectations. It is the kiss of death to spend an entire season in a designated role as a forward who contributes nothing more than hustle. That is why, when cuts are made, it is usually better for a goal scorer to play on the weaker team and score a ton of goals.

Confidence comes from success, and improvement follows. This is not to say it is bad to play “up” for a forward whose future is to be a grinding checker. But, for someone who wants to be a goal scorer, it is imperative to score by the bucketful – goals or assists – every season. 

The same could be said for making brilliant plays, being creative on offense and handling the puck in traffic. Practicing these skills is one step, but the most important experience is to try things in games and succeed more often than not. That doesn’t happen much for the final players to make the ‘A-Team.’ They get less ice time, have the puck on their stick for fewer seconds in games, and are given a shorter leash by the coach to learn by trial and error. On the other hand, the top players on the ‘B-Team’ can experiment, be creative and fail sometimes. They’re still given a free reign to create.

The hardest skill to coach is confidence – poise in highly competitive situations. Reality is the most potent teacher, and success is required to elevate a player’s personal expectations.

 

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

 

 

Knee Bend: The Importance of Dryland Training

Knee Bend, Knee Bend, Knee Bend!

By Jack Blatherwick

Let's Play Hockey Columnist

Diane Ness made this recommendation a couple weeks ago, and I write to underscore her advice. I will add an additional thought: Make this position the comfort zone by hundreds of repetitions off-ice. This position is the difference between skating and simply running around the ice.

For years, Mike Crowe was an Olympic Team coach and the director of junior development for U.S. Speedskating. He now does it for Canada, and this is one of the reasons for their success in the 2010 Olympic Games. When he was in Roseville for the World Junior Championships, I asked him if he would consider teaching youngsters to skate without using dryland training.

 

"How could you teach skating without dryland training?"

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Preparing for miracles

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

We call it a miracle – those pyramids in Egypt or the first step on the moon – or whenever an American team pulls off a major upset in Olympic hockey. I wonder if the participants really believe their work “defies all known laws of science?”

So I decided to travel back 4,600 years to a typical day on the job, just to see what the Egyptian workers were saying about miracles. There were 20,000 or so, and some had permanently twisted anatomies, because they had been hauling rocks for most of the 80 years it took to complete the project.

There was some grumbling we can’t repeat when I asked if this should be called “a miracle.” They had heard those rumors, and one of the group of 40 carrying a large boulder gasped, “As if someone just waves a bleeping wand and … voila … a pyramid!”

These were the ‘carriers.’ There were also the higher paid ‘carvers’ and, of course, the educated-elite site managers who used the latest technology to make sure the slant was up to the Pharaoh’s expectations. No twisted bodies in this group. They weren’t even sweating.

Hundreds of bakers made sure others had food to keep up the pace; physicians attended the injured; and in case the carriers were crushed beneath a boulder, there were undertakers to ensure that bones, found thousands of years later, would be properly attired.

Astronauts at the Apollo 11 landing site had basically the same response as the Egyptians. As Neil Armstrong stepped down onto the moon, I asked if they agreed with everyone that this was a miracle.

“What? Get back out of sight quick, before TV picks you up! Now we have to do this scene all over again. Stand over there behind the ship. (pause) One small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind. (pause) Ok, what were you talking about … miracle? A miracle defies all known laws of science. No way. This IS science. Thousands of intelligent people have been working as a team, 24/7 for this moment to happen. Don’t insult their efforts.”

“Sorry … maybe I’d better head back.  I think I’ll try the 1980 Olympic hockey team. They’ll be having their tryouts for the Games in Lake Placid in … uh … exactly 10 years.” 

“Well,” said Armstrong, “they have a tough test with those Soviets. Some have said it’s easier to land a man on the moon.”

July 1979, Colorado Springs: 90 of the best college hockey players are competing to make the Olympic team. Some, like John Harrington, knew the altitude (6,000 feet) would be a factor, so they moved to the mountains several weeks in advance to accelerate their training.

“I’m leaving nothing to chance,” John said. “This is too important. I’ve been sprinting up hills, skating every hour available, lifting weights, shooting pucks and I’m in the best shape of my life. If someone beats me out, that will be a miracle.”

“Miracle? What are the chances of beating the Soviets?” I asked, but Harrington was already starting up Pike’s Peak and ignored the question. Actually, he didn’t ignore my question; he answered it by running. Most candidates came to tryouts in great shape, and we tested speed and stamina on the ice – not in an irrelevant laboratory that measures qualities written about in textbooks.

Coach Herb Brooks wasn’t into Ivory Tower irrelevancy. He wanted speed and “hockey endurance like those damn Soviets” that Brooks competed against in two prior Olympic games.

When the team was picked, players were warned they’d be tested again on the ice, and that failing to prepare would mean they’d probably be cut when they returned for camp in a few weeks. This would be the major philosophy for the next seven months: Execute skills and make decisions at the highest possible tempo. Repeat and repeat relentlessly, with timed intervals for two hours or more – and, “You’d better not slow down … ever.”

There was much planning. Brooks’ over-riding philosophy was, “Always be better prepared than any of your athletes. But it will not be a six month vacation for them. You have my promise on that.”

He noted that others had tried to beat the Soviets by simply emphasizing great defense. “You can’t be on defense all day against them,” he growled. “You’ll take penalties, and that’s it. Game over. You have to beat them at their own game – puck possession and speed.

“How can you practice any other way?  What good is a SLOW conditioning drill on-ice or off? We have to shock them when they realize that another team in the Olympics can operate at their pace.”

So I brought my recorder to some of the practices in the next months. Mark Pavelich was recovering for a few seconds between shifts in which his line flew up the ice and back – then up again – making decisions on the fly, trying to pass perfectly without hesitation, and doing this while skating faster than ever before.

“Pav,” Brooks hollered. “You look like you’re portaging your canoe. Get your line moving.”

“He’s crazy,” Pavelich muttered under his breath. “It’ll be a miracle if we survive these practices for five more months.” 

That word “miracle” came up often in reference to surviving Brooks’ practices. I don’t recall anyone using it in reference to winning. That was more like “preparation.”

“Silk!” Brooks shouted at Dave, but really at the whole team. “You’ve got million-dollar legs and a nickel brain. But we’ll change that in a hurry. Everyone! Start thinking out here! Your mind must be quicker than your feet!”

So it went – repetition of skill, speed and decision-making, stopping only for short timed rest intervals. The pace was never comfortable. Other teams had practiced at comfortable speeds, and when they played the Soviets, they were on edge the entire night. With the 1980 team, speed of execution was one factor the coaching staff could control by training.

In many practices, Brooks would communicate to the whole team by picking on his favorite target (and one of his favorite players), “McClanahan, you think you’re fast? Remember this: The puck moves faster when you pass it.”

Nagy, the good doctor was wearing his familiar frown, “It’ll be a miracle if they all survive. I don’t think Herbie can keep this up. We won’t have any players left.”

“Yeah; he’s crazy,” I responded – but not quietly enough.

“I heard that, Cardiac,” Brooks snapped. “You’re an ivory-tower scientist; not a coach. We have to beat the Czechs, the Swedes and Soviets. You can afford to theorize. We have to train athletes to execute at a tempo that will shock those guys in red uniforms. If we don’t train with that intensity, we’ll be relying on miracles.”

 

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