Don’t Underrate Scrimmages
Posted by Dean Holden at March 3rd, 2012
By Jack Blatherwick
“There’s a lot of hockey learned in a scrimmage.”
These were the words of the late Dave Peterson, coach of the 1988 and 1992 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Teams. He was conducting a clinic from the bleachers for youth coaches in upstate New York, and rather than have his Olympic team demonstrate drills, he just had them scrimmage.
“Watch for things the players do that they wouldn’t have to do in a drill,” he told the coaches. “The anticipation, rink sense, preparation before they get to the puck — these are all learned in competition, and might not be learned in drills. Watch the way a puck carrier uses deception before passing, or the way a player without the puck, moves to get open for a pass — the way a defender sizes things up to decide how to handle a given rush. Each rush is a different situation in a scrimmage. If you’re doing 3-on-2 drills, each rush is the same, and defenders can compete without thinking.”
Jack Parker has been the head coach at Boston University for almost 40 years, and is one of the most passionate teachers in the game. At a youth coaches’ seminar this spring, he was asked what he thought was the most important characteristic to look for in a potential college recruit. Without a pause he answered, “The ability to make a hockey play.” Then, as is Coach Parker’s way, he elaborated for an hour, mostly to say that youth coaches should not overrate their ability to teach the game.
“Hockey sense is learned in competition,” Parker said. “Kids need to be given chances to think, not just told which cones to skate around. They are taught systems, but not taught how to make hockey plays. They might learn that on the soccer field. Competitive instincts might best be learned on the baseball diamond. We should not drill our young players to death.”
Peterson began coaching when there was no intimidation from elite thinkers. No one in an office building across the country was telling coaches there should be a certain number of drill-oriented practices for every competition. The truly elite thinkers were players — the ones who had creative ideas on their minds and magic in their sticks. They wanted to scrimmage in every practice, because they knew this is where they acquired that genius.
Besides that … practices were outside. Scrimmaging was the best way to keep everyone moving, and fingers from turning to icicles. But even today, if you ask great players about the most important factors in their development of rink sense, invariably they’ll point to competition of some kind. Many recall unstructured pond hockey scrimmages. Some talk about important games. Others think about scrimmages without scoreboards and referees — just hour after hour of playmaking.
I saw a quote recently by Pat Micheletti (the former goal scoring phenom at the University of Minnesota) in which he said there is no doubt players of today are bigger, faster, and stronger. “But,” he added, “I’m not sure they’re as smart or skillful” as players from past eras.
Hockey by the book can do that. It can stifle passion and reduce creativity. I asked a brilliant NHL playmaker this fall where he acquired his incredible anticipation, vision and rink sense. I wasn’t ready for the reply. “Roller hockey,” was his short answer. “Just scrimmaging with no rules.”
Now there’s something that’s not in the elite thinkers’ book. And Dave Peterson’s clinic for youth coaches: not one drill to demonstrate how to skate, shoot, handle the puck — that’s not in the book either. Maybe the drill book isn’t the place to start when we want to develop hockey players who are passionate and know how to make plays.
Come to think of it … what else matters?