It’s time to change the way we teach hockey, Ottawa author argues
Posted by Dean Holden at February 6th, 2014
by Don Campbell, 31 January 2014
Like an anxious kid about to graduate, Richard Bercuson is going to walk out the door this June and say goodbye to a 36-year career in teaching.
That’s not to say the educator in Bercuson is about to give up on his favourite subject — hockey.
A minor hockey coach for all his adult life at just about every level, from initiation through to junior age covering just as many levels of skill, Bercuson plans on continuing his crusade for changes to minor hockey while also trying to pass on what he has learned in over 40 years.
And, fancying himself a writer, he’s done just that by penning a new coaching manual called Inside Coaching Hockey.
This is no get-rich scheme to supplement a teacher’s pension.
Bercuson spent years formulating his ideas and countless hours putting it to paper, and the price tag is cheaper than a ticket to a local junior hockey game: $15 (plus HST).
If there’s anything left over after expenses, it goes right to Hockey Eastern Ontario.
At that price, it’s half what Hockey Canada is charging for its manual.
The two books have nothing in common except the sport.
“Mine goes into areas never touched,” said Bercuson, who also spends many a winter’s night behind the Metcalfe Jets Jr. B bench as an assistant. “Mine examines creativity. It looks at how to adapt a drill or how to play small area games.
“It’s not necessarily a drills manual, but something to study towards becoming a better coach.”
The 2013-14 season marks Bercuson’s 42nd behind a bench, dating back to his late teens after being cut from the Loyola College hockey team by Ottawa native Dave Draper, who went on to a storied career as an executive in junior hockey and the National Hockey League.
Bercuson admits that, even then, Draper could recognize talent. Draper saw right away Bercuson had little, at least on the ice.
That led Bercuson to the Town of Mount Royal peewee Rockets house league team, which needed a coach in the worst way.
“I wonder sometimes if days spent coaching house league are not more enjoyable than coaching AA or junior, but that’s another story,” he said.
Just the same, he was hooked. Soon he was attending a Level One coaching clinic offered by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. It went 10 weeks and he still has the notes.
“I found it fascinating,” he said.
Bercuson is a writer, too, and he’s done fiction and non-fiction works along the way, along with op-ed columns for newspapers (including the Citizen) and magazine features.
That’s why he’s so proud of his manual.
“I kept hearing the same thing from coaches,” he says. “Where do I start? Where do I go?
“Well our mission locally is to have the best-trained coaches in the country.
“Sometimes I sound a bit like I’m standing on a soap box. But I often wonder, if a great coach like Scotty Bowman had coached an atom team, what would he have deemed wrong with the sport?
“I have huge frustration with hockey, in that nothing is being done to adapt to more changes in the game at the younger levels. Other sports do it. Hockey does nothing.”
Bercuson wants change, dramatic change. He would like nothing better than to see an association embark on a pilot project to change the game at the younger levels and see it through.
His plan is simple: he wants to downsize the game, to give the kids a better chance to enjoy the game, have some success without the pressures of winning or losing. That would allow them to better progress with their skills.
His concepts are simple, too, like changing the weight of the puck …
“No other sport requires little kids to play with the same weight and size of puck as the pros use,” he says. “Baseball has different sizes of balls to throw and hit as kids grow up. Football too. It does not make sense for a young kid to be trying to handle a puck the same weight as the pros.”
Or size of the ice surface …
“Soccer probably has the best development idea with four-a-side play on small fields. Baseball does it too, with the pitching distance and the basepaths. Why can’t hockey try something like that?”
It sounds so logical.
“Hockey’s the only sport — in fact one of the only activities I can think of for kids — that has made practically no adaptations for age, size or development,” says Bercuson. “It would require tremendous courage from a leader or leadership group in an association to jump up and say that what we’re doing is ridiculous and we’re going to change it.
“We aren’t really developing kids. Coaches like to believe we are. We all believe so strongly in what we do. But we’re doing the minimum while our coaches are woefully underqualified and undertrained to do the job effectively, try as they might with the best of intentions.”
That’s not a knock on the people who are putting themselves out there to coach. Bercuson just has a different view of what’s most important at the younger levels.
“Creating a ‘kid-friendly’ hockey environment wouldn’t be popular with parents — at first,” he concedes. “That is, until they see kids really enjoying themselves and improving. Practice without improvement is meaningless.
“Much of what Howie Meeker has been espousing for decades is in fact correct: too many games, insufficient practices, few real technicians as coaches,” he said. “I’ve seen very few at any level who were technically strong, not just tactically. Lots of those. Everyone knows how to diagram a trap forecheck. Well, marvellous.
“There’s been recent hoopla about trying to attract newcomers to the game,” he continued. “How the heck then do we market cockeyed practice-to-game ratios, exorbitant costs, excessively long seasons, adult-sized rules?”
<Richard recently sent me a copy of his new book. It’s available on KOBO as an e-book and print versions can be ordered through Hockey Eastern Ontario. (You can also go directly to Richard’s site and order it from there.) I REALLY like it so far. Once I finish I will post a review; until then, I wanted to share this article. Here is what Roy MacGregor had to say about Inside Coaching Hockey:
“This is the way all our kids should be coached in hockey. It’s skill-based, superb use of space and time, wise about every facet of the game from starting out as a player to coaching at the highest level — and fun. And fun, surely, is what hockey was always intended to be. Congratulations to Richard Bercuson.” – Roy MacGregor, Hockey Hall of Fame author and journalist
Richard is bang-on regarding the size of equipment, playing surface and rules. We do our youth players grievous harm by forcing adult perceptions onto them far too early. It severely cripples their development and isn’t much fun either. We would be better off as a sport if we started educating the parents and coaches; indeed follow the paths of other sports. As Richard said, we need an association to show some courage and make these changes for the sake of our children. Then perhaps it will snowball… here’s hoping! – DH>