Jack Blatherwick

Establish your own priorities for off-season training

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

If your goal in hockey is to be as good as you can possibly be, there is no more important question than: how should I spend my time and energy? You already know you’ll have to work hard and long, but it’s just as important to have a good plan, so your efforts transfer to results.

For the best plan, trust yourself if you’re old enough to read this article. The answers are simple, inexpensive and fun.

You’ve been taught to ask adults, but this can be confusing at best. Besides, you already know what the experts would say: buy their program. They’d like you to think that the more expensive the program, the better it is.

The problem with this approach is that there are so many pieces to the development puzzle, and if each piece is developed separately, there is no coordinated athleticism like a Randy Moss.  There is less chance of multi-tasking like Sidney Crosby. This is “compartmentalized” training. The end product is a bionic super robot, not a smooth, skillful athletic wizard like Michael Jordan.

NHL players would tell you that the most important experiences in their development were simple, inexpensive things like unstructured pond hockey or playing other sports. But experts are tempting them with expensive gimmicks, so don’t ask NHL’ers what they’re doing now; ask what they did to get there.

USA Hockey recently presented some incredibly important advice; but unfortunately it was disguised in condescending rhetoric and pseudo-scientific graphs and charts about optimum windows of opportunity.

What they should have said is, “You have only one chance to be young. Use this golden opportunity wisely.” In other words, don’t think it is best for your development to play a schedule with 50 high-stakes games, trophies for weekend tournaments and cheerleaders in the stands. Adults want the best for you, so they try to make a season of youth hockey look like a mini-NHL production. But grandiose productions do not equate to the best developmental experience.

In this hyped-up environment where winning is so important to adults, they make poor decisions. Structure replaces creativity. You are told to dump the puck in, don’t control it — that a “coachable player” goes where the X or O is drawn, not where intuition or rink sense would lead you. Another poor decision: teams are too large, and you have no chance to become a Wayne Gretzky playing one-third of a game. Whistles and faceoffs waste valuable ice time. Scoreboards, coaches, screaming parents and the pressure to win make it intimidating to learn by trial and error.

However, the winter structure has ended, and now you have the chance to plan your own development. Don’t start by asking a strength/conditioning expert, because you’ll hear about their priority. You may go to that person later, but first, you have to decide your own priorities, not someone else’s.

Start with a simple question: what are the qualities most important for success? Every coach, scout and player would agree. Success in hockey depends on rink sense, stick skills, skating and athleticism, plus mental qualities like confidence and toughness.

It is now a simpler puzzle. Rink sense: get a parent to buy some ice time, organize a group of friends and scrimmage all summer. Stick skills and skating are more about practice than advice, but as a serious golfer might do, you may seek help first — then practice, practice, practice.

Athleticism, confidence and mental toughness? Play other sports. And for the strength and conditioning, reduce compartmentalization where you can. Make sure your training is highly athletic, like your mental highlight tape of Randy Moss, Alex Ovechkin and Michael Jordan.

 

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Don Cherry’s NHL

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

In Don Cherry’s NHL, everything is done his way. First, as he’s been insisting for thirty years, there’d be no Americans, no Europeans and no Russians — “no FOREIGNERS” to use his words.

“They’re going to ruin the bleeping game,” he proclaimed in his endearing style. It was 1981, and the first wave of non-Canadians were creeping into HIS league. “That bleeping European style, weaving all over the bleeping ice, criss-crossing, regrouping, cycling. Bleep all that fancy stuff.” (Note: rather than bleep out every other word, we’ll keep it simple, and just erase them.)

I recall a Czech coach speaking before Cherry’s presentation at a coaches’ seminar. The topic was “Transition and Offensive Attack,” and the Czech coach was drawing arrows every which way: right, left, backward, forward. Then it was Cherry’s turn. There was a long pause — unusual for someone whose mouth usually moves quicker than his brain.

“Transition? I don’t bother with transition.” And he drew one arrow, straight north. “That’s our attack. Get it deep and kill ‘em. ‘Transition’ is one of those American college words. They’re going to ruin the game with stuff like that.”

“Europeans are soft,” he has insisted for three decades. “They don’t like getting hit in the face with a stick.” For this he’s an expert on national TV. “They don’t even know you’re supposed to fight when you make eye contact,” he continued. “What do they know about hockey over there? And those American college kids; they’ve got it too easy. They won’t last in the NHL.”

Herb Brooks never made it to Cherry’s list of favorite coaches. After all, when Brooks coached the New York Rangers, he enlisted a bunch of “foreigners.” There were Swedes, Finns, Canadians and, of course, American college kids — you know, the foreigners in New York City. The Rangers were doing all kinds of outrageous things, like passing, weaving, making fancy plays and ruining Cherry’s league.

“They’re going to wear out their bodies with all that off-season training,” he predicted. “It’s not like the good ol’ days when players rested up in the summer.” Note: ‘Resting Up’ is the title of Cherry’s off-season manual featuring lots of beer, fishing and carousing to get ready for training camp.

If Coach Cherry were to grant a special permit into the NHL for a Russian or two, he certainly wouldn’t allow them to steal all the post-season hardware at the annual awards dinner in Toronto. Imagine the grimace on that pompous face when a boatload of trophies is packed up and sent off to Moscow.

So it was no surprise when the Don declared recently that he didn’t approve of the celebrations by Alex Ovechkin after each of his goals. The heart of the problem is that a Russian plays in Cherry’s NHL, scoring and celebrating the way young Canadians do as they dominate World Junior Tournaments. It’s called youthful exuberance, and it doesn’t recognize national borders.

Ovechkin celebrates each new day that has some hockey on the calendar. He can’t help himself; it’s just fun to be at the rink. Like all goal-scorers, Alex lives to see pucks sail into the net. However, his celebrations are just as spontaneous and passionate when a teammate scores, or when his goaltender makes a great save.

In the long grind of an NHL season, Ovechkin’s youthful passion often lifts the spirits of teammates and coaches. He has fun in practice. He has fun in dryland workouts. He passes on his emotion to kids who idolize him, underprivileged kids who get to see games, because he buys their tickets. He has fun signing autographs, and he’ll do it for an hour or more after a long practice.

He has fun, and fans around the world have fun watching his spontaneous outbursts of emotion. But not Don Cherry. It offends his sense of humility, I guess. We’re supposed to know that players, not TV commentators should keep a humble, dignified demeanor at all times. He puts on his clown suit, and clips on a polka dot tie, and in his very subdued way he shares his wisdom with youngsters across Canada,

“Kids, don’t celebrate goals. It’s ruining the game.”

Better to break sticks over an opponent’s head. That’s Don Cherry’s NHL, and he’s been miserable since 2005, when officials re-introduced the rule book to HIS league.

 

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Blatherwick on USA Hockey: “Oops”

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

When you shoot from the hip, you can easily shoot yourself in the foot, and after these past four weeks, USA Hockey has a very sore foot.

The Internet was filled with doubt regarding USA Hockey’s proposal to elevate their role from education and support to regulation and control. Their January decree was about requirements, not suggestions, regarding ice time, game limits, season length, athletic development and coaching decisions.

Several districts around the country couldn’t see how the American Development Model (ADM) fit their needs, so after meeting face-to-face with reality, Ron DeGregorio, President of USA Hockey, issued a statement saying, “While there is widespread support of the Long Term Athlete Development principles (LTAD) … it is clear that we need additional time to discuss how the HPC tool (High Performance Clubs) can work within the various regions throughout the country.” (Hint: it’s a summer program).

Well, USA Hockey, you had plenty of time to come up with something that fit the various regions, but the taxpayers never asked for a complete overhaul of their current structure. So, you ended up with a bunch of square pegs and round holes. And why the rush to a bad decision? Did this have something to do with $8 million from the NHL? It’s noteworthy that your letter contains an appeal for constituents to send a thank you note to the NHL, specifically to the committee that evaluates your progress in this new plan. It’s also noteworthy you give yourself a 10-year period before your proposal could be fairly evaluated. Smart.

Now, after your decision and retraction, you ask for input. That’s a fairly late invitation, don’t you think? But it’s a good start, because with 55,000 coaches working to find better ways to develop players, their solutions will be more creative than if you make blanket requirements like, “HPC’s will be required to run (feeder) programs that follow the LTAD model.”

Your January declaration was loaded with phrases like “coaches must” or “Clubs are required to.” Think how arrogant that must sound to someone who has coached youth hockey for decades and knows you haven’t. So it’s great you now realize that USA Hockey should function as a partnership with coaches, allowing creative ideas to flow in both directions. After all, Colorado Springs is not Washington D.C.

It’s also nice to see you’ve softened your approach, from naïve and arrogant in January to a hint of humility in February. You say you’re willing to “adapt” your LTAD program to the needs of individual coaches. That’s nice.

Actually, a reasonable person might assume that coaches should expect nothing else. Perhaps that would be more welcome: assistance with plenty of adaptability, not marching orders. The whole idea that someone sitting in an office in Colorado wants to make decisions for a coach in Massachusetts or Minnesota or Michigan — I find that incredible. How do you justify condescending treatment of coaches who are your partners, not your subordinates?

You say there is widespread support for the LTAD principles. The presentation has some very colorful charts, but on close examination, it should also raise questions. I’ve read this same LTAD program many times in the last decade. It’s taken from other sports in foreign countries. There’s a lot to like in these guidelines; but there are also concepts that don’t fit hockey as well as the sports for which they were written; and there’s some advice that would be highly restrictive for someone who is motivated to be the next Crosby or Ovechkin. It’d be like telling a young Tiger Woods he’s allowed to touch a golf club only three or four times per week.

That’s just an opinion, but if I form this opinion, or you do, does that mean everyone must agree? Does “widespread support” mean that the majority rules — that a coach in Roseau must follow the widespread opinion? If that’s the case let’s vote quickly, so Roseau will stop winning our state tournaments. They believe the key is lots of ice time, so the community gets together and builds more arenas per capita than any place in the world. Shouldn’t someone tell them to reduce their “ice touches” to LTAD levels, so they aren’t so darn good?

Or maybe we should consider that if a town that size can produce such amazing results by increasing the ratio of arenas to people — well, maybe they’re right. Or is the secret really genetic? Or coaching? Or unstructured hockey? Or maybe they got their hands on these LTAD principles back in the early 1950’s and just didn’t tell us.

In Minnesota, we’ve chosen five-month seasons in youth hockey, so kids can participate in fall and spring sports, aligning with one of the guiding principles for developing athleticism. In Sweden they like longer hockey seasons, and play other sports in the summer. Minnesotans participate in optional hockey in the summer, finding a less-structured approach than in the winter. Is it necessary to declare one model right, and all others wrong?

Speaking of right and wrong, first you decided you were right, and everything “must” (your word, not mine) be done your way. Then you decided you were wrong — all this happening in the same month. That’s a classic when it comes to “shoot-from-the-hip” decisions. With respect to athlete development, the reality is no one’s all right, and no one’s all wrong.

In the past few days, you seem to have discovered that even you aren’t always right. Welcome to the club, and keep in mind that creative new ideas for developing athletes will most likely arise when 600,000 minds, not six, are working on the project.

Otherwise, out of these 600,000 creative minds, someone’s bound to ask, “What do we get in return for our $19.3 million? Or perhaps the NHL oversight committee might challenge the wisdom of sending $8 million to an organization with a bullet hole in the foot.

 

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Solutions to a non-problem

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

I take it to heart when friends in USA Hockey remind me to be positive – part of the solution, not the problem. OK, but I’m at a loss trying to figure out what the problem is.

Is it a national problem when the U.S. junior team doesn’t win international tournaments? Or is it about the Olympics? The men’s and women’s teams had poor results in 2006, silver medals in 2002. Maybe that’s what President Ron DeGregorio meant when he said, “We don’t like second place.”

Maybe it’s that the USA doesn’t have enough superstars in the NHL. Should we revamp the entire structure because a couple Russians are atop the scoring stats? After all, we have to search all the way down to the second name to find an American, Zach Parise: 35 goals and climbing fast.

Now there’s a model to copy, if you’re trying to make hockey better. Set your long-range goals high – very high. Make intelligent training decisions, and follow through with every ounce of energy you have. Never stand still: skate, stickhandle, shoot and train off-ice. When a coach has you stand in line, don’t fall asleep. Stickhandle through feet, or pick a spot on the boards and shoot for accuracy.

If the national problem is “we can do better,” OK, I buy it, and here’s my top five solutions beyond the good ones found in the USA Hockey proposal. Understand, these are opinions from an observer who has never coached young kids who can’t tie their skates yet. So in the spirit of respect for youth coaches who have the patience to go where I dare not, let me suggest the following as a start:

1) Ice time – without limit at any age. Extra practice is optional, of course, but I mean “unlimited.” When team practice ends, provide unstructured ice time for skills, keepaway games and scrimmages. For kids who suffer “burn out,” hey, there’s always basketball. Success is determined by the quality of the experience, not the number of dues-paying members. For a winner like Zach Parise, there’s no such thing as too much time on the ice. So how do we get this ice time? This should be our highest priority as a hockey community, finding ways to make this affordable.

2) Add many inexpensive practice arenas. Cut construction costs by 60 percent or more from the inflated numbers quoted by architects. This is where Minnesota Hockey and USA Hockey can really contribute. They’d collect ideas from every corner of the globe, draw up one plan for a no-frills practice arena, complete with inexpensive dryland training areas and send it out free to hockey associations. This cuts out local architects’ fees and eliminates their monumental fluff, added to impress spectators and raise the project cost. (Sorry, architects. This is not my input. It is nearly a direct quote from the head architect of a large design/build firm). Hockey associations should also try to eliminate general contractors if there is a competent sub-contractor or volunteer in the hockey association. Attorney/parents might contribute with a little legal work, and the price is reduced drastically – but that’s just the start.

No heaters are added – none, so spectators stay away. This is an arena for practice. It has dryland training space with shooting and stickhandling areas where spectators would otherwise need bleachers and an expensive lounge. Port-a-potties or stripped-down restrooms replace the expensive versions; dasher boards are built by volunteers; there are no scoreboards; and one “warming house” serves everyone. This is the 21st century version of the old outside pond. USA Hockey uses its collective negotiating power to get reduced prices on refrigeration systems, Zambonis, dasher boards and creative construction possibilities like steel or fabric buildings (Try a Google search for Tension fabric buildings).

3) Smaller ice sheets, the size of Noel Rahn’s Velocity Ice Center in Eden Prairie should also be considered. These are great for all ages, not just beginners, because they increase the rate at which decisions occur in confined spaces. On the other hand, larger practice rinks should have a drop-down divider at the center red line, allowing for two scrimmages at the same time.

4) Goaltender learning areas with a small patch of ice, like the Robb Stauber Goal Crease should be part of each practice arena. Robb makes a good point about our irrational approach to developing goalies compared to skaters. Goalies are not trained in a sequential way, whereas beginning skaters first learn to skate and handle their stick before playing in games – supposedly. Stauber notes that we put goalies into situations for which they have not been trained. For example, without previously practicing goalie-specific skating or movement drills, they are told, “Get out there and stop the puck any way you can.” Of course, they face rushes or power plays with several lateral passes, so an unprepared goalie competes by flopping and sliding across the crease rather than moving correctly. Bad habits at this early stage can become a lifelong style.

There should be times when goalies leave the rink to practice in the learning area while shooters are repeating shot after shot inside the rink. Six portable shooting targets would be standard in each practice rink, eliminating the long, boring lines where shooters wait for goalies to get ready. With targets, two or three players can shoot at once at the same station. This way there are more shots plus better development of goalies, and all we need is a small patch of ice in the corner of the arena.

5) Passion and constructive fun must be at the top of every practice plan. Bob Richardson is a longtime NHL scout, coach, and director of development programs that produce college and professional players. He would say, “Every practice must be so fun, so challenging, and so charged with energy that players leave the ice asking, ‘Wow, when’s the next practice? I can’t wait!’”

Don’t look for that kind of passion in a drill book.

 

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Blatherwick on the American Development Model

By Jack Blatherwick

Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Thanks to Hal Tearse for addressing the American Development Model (ADM) which includes a plan for developing skills and athleticism, called the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) program, plus a proposal to place the top players, 13-18 years old, into regional elite clubs, called High Performance Clubs (HPC’s). He pointed out some very constructive aspects of the program, along with the assurance that there is nothing for Minnesotans to fear in all this. There have been rumors flying around, so Hal used his most soothing tone to inform you that committees will be busy on your behalf, and they’d welcome input from “stakeholders.”

I have to say, I don’t feel very soothed. USA Hockey has always been a runaway bureaucracy, receiving $19.3 million annually from players and coaches; but now they propose to raise their level of control. With the exception of safety and medicine, no committee should ever be empowered to send out “requirements” (their chosen word, not mine) to grass-roots educators. Research conclusions on development of athletes are so dynamic and questionable, they can vary 180° in the same scientific journal, let alone over time.

That’s the nature of most human sciences, but research on children is even more difficult than on adults. The only thing certain is uncertainty, so it is naïve and arrogant for USA Hockey to tell you they have the answers regarding development of athletes. Worse yet, they propose to mandate ‘requirements,’ not offer ‘advice’ or ‘guidelines.’ Example: “The HPC’s will be required to run 8U, 10U and 12U programs that follow the LTAD model as a feeder system…”

Besides being highly presumptuous, requirements are a monument to inflexibility. They stifle creativity at the grassroots level, rendering 350,000 players and coaches without a challenge to explore and contribute ideas to this evolving science.

If the proposal is accepted without modification, USA Hockey will dictate the terms of development for the top players from local programs, selected for participation on HPC’s. For the associated “feeder” programs starting at 8U and up, national requirements must be strictly followed with respect to number of “times on the ice,” practices, games, lengths of seasons and off-ice training. Before voting (oops, that’s a joke; you don’t get to vote, so before making your input) you should check these requirements at the two websites listed below.

Much of what they have copied about the sequential development of an all-around athlete is sound advice and has been around for years. Some of it, of course, does not fit hockey as well as it fits other sports. For example: we skate; they run. But the advice is to limit skating and not running. The proposal uses graphs, charts and words like “scientific research,” and it can look impressive (perhaps intimidating) at first glance, but when studied closer, it should be obvious there are concepts that are highly debatable.

Having read and re-read these pages, I’ll summarize my input (as a non-stakeholder) in four parts and comment on some of the “science” next week:

(1) Regarding High Performance Clubs (HPC’s): At some level of maturity, elite players should compete and train together, but “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” Run HPC programs in the summer, allowing plenty of time for participation in other sports. Don’t take top players out of their local winter programs and weaken the base upon which any national development depends. Furthermore, the proposal to extend the winter season of high school age players in the HPC’s has the same effect as junior leagues. It removes these players from other sports — the very thing LTAD concepts warn against. All-around athleticism is critical to development.

(2) The LTAD plan for athletic development has many good features, but it’s applicability to hockey is not as clear as the proposal claims. In this field, there are as many contradictory opinions and false claims of scientific “proof” as there are people waiting in line to charge for their “expertise.” It’s like the multitude of diet plans to “lose that extra 10 pounds.” Each one claims to be based on “good scientific research,” but next week there is new research that points in the opposite direction.

What is done at the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor is exactly what every coach must do: take in all the information you can and then coach on the basis of your gut feeling. They do it their own way. But to say to the entire country, “you must do it our way” is outrageous in it’s temerity. In reading their proposal, don’t expect to find words like advice, guidelines or suggestions, but there are plenty of “requirements” and “Clubs will be required to....

(3) Since USA Hockey is proposing to raise their level of control, it might be a good time to ask: As a “stakeholder,” is your hockey experience better because of USA Hockey? You might take out a piece of paper and list all the benefits. Why has their mission evolved from education to regulation? Could that be called a failure to educate? As a coach, do you need more regulations to develop your players? Would your annual dues be more wisely invested in your local program?

(4) When looking for a model of athlete development, you don’t need to copy Europe, although they have good ideas from which we can improve. Consider American football. By any standard, there is no more successful sports model anywhere. Local decisions regarding training are never dictated by a national body, and local dues stay home, to be used for coaches, training and equipment. Maybe that’s why they were overlooked; they don’t pay tax to a central body.

Why is the football model so successful? High schools around the country are each associated with their own neighborhood youth programs. Competition drives the high school coach to work on behalf of his local athletes at all ages. Football was the first team sport to establish off-season training, and compliance is greater than in any other sport.

USA Hockey defines success partly by performance of its top athletes (see Ron DeGregorio’s letter on the website). Using this criterion, it’s hard to argue with the success of the National Football League. Youth and high school sports programs might be more appropriately judged by traditions that strengthen local communities, not national teams. If you drive anywhere in the country on a Friday night in the fall, you see lights over football stadiums and participation by the entire community. This relationship between high school and community is certainly one of the great traditions in our country, as are the State High School Tournaments in all sports. Perhaps that’s a better way to define success than whether the U.S. junior team wins or loses by a goal in a World Tournament.

If the high school football development model sounds familiar, it should, because Minnesotans copied this structure for hockey. This was perhaps John Mariucci’s greatest legacy. USA Hockey calls this “unplanned,” but it appears they mean “unregulated.” Or perhaps they mean “untaxed,” because it irritates them that high schools have never sent annual dues to Colorado. The implementation of this program in Minnesota is not perfect, of course, but that does not mean the basic model needs replacement.

In following through on Hal Tearse’s request for input, I’ll offer two relevant quotes from Herb Brooks. He advocated a similar elite development program, but it was to be implemented during the summer with dryland training and/or participation in other sports in the spring and fall. As to whether the program would dictate to local coaches how they must train, Brooks said, “It’s about guidelines, not rules. Do you think we should tell Henry Boucha how to coach his kids in Warroad — or Bobby Orr in Boston?”

Herb had this reaction about my inability to summarize research with a simplistic answer, “Cardiac, the more you study, the dumber you get.”

He was right. There are so few “facts” in exercise science that are not debatable, it is the height of arrogance for anyone to say, “I’m right, and the entire country will do it my way.”

 

The ADM proposal has a large volume of literature. To reduce your search time, I suggest the address at the bottom. Then click on High Performance Clubs on the left (then on Overview). Also, click on Documents and Materials in the middle. www.usahockey.com/ADM/default.aspx?NAV=AF&ID=

 

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