Hockey’s Greatest Teacher
Posted by Dean Holden at March 1st, 2015
by Jack Blatherwick, 25 February 2015
Scrimmage! That’s the short answer, and it’s right up front, so you can skip the rest of this opinion. We’re told by “experts” above us that there must be a certain number of practices for every game. I don’t remember if it’s two or three, but it’s like a duty. I’ve seen hundreds of practices, and even the best of them lack the intensity and fun of a scrimmage.
Decades ago, when the temperature fell below zero, no coach would consider a practice with kids standing in line. Toes and fingers would have frozen, minds would go numb and players would have enrolled in basketball. Today, toes and fingers are spared the numbness, even if the mind is not.
Andre Beaulieu, Hill-Murray coach from 1968-73, was one of the best I’ve seen, and he scheduled scrimmages practically every day. Maybe he learned this simple idea from experience as a player, or perhaps he learned it as a head coach in the NHL, or as a scout for decades. “You can’t beat players who have rink sense and experience,” he once said, and of course, he was right.
I rant week after week about physiology – about training for speed and agility. But years of coaching have proved that rink sense and experience are far more important. As an observer now, it’s so obvious that the winning teams are the ones that make the best instantaneous decisions, the ones who make plays and get to loose pucks. Igor Larionov made that clear when he said, “It’s not how fast you skate; it’s how fast you think.” Yet the need to win games has limited decisions to “systems,” to X’s and O’s. Where should I stand (stationary) for D-zone coverage or for breakouts?
Toss a puck out and start a scrimmage in practice, and watch the intensity explode. Learning takes an exponential leap, and neuroscience is showing us why. Passion and freedom from judgment are essential for real learning to take place. Every elite player tells us that low-stakes scrimmages are where their game was really developed.
Scrimmages are better than games in many ways. First, the puck is in the referee’s pocket 50 percent of the rental time in an official game, not in a scrimmage. More importantly, only the most talented players feel free to try new things and fail once in awhile in a “big game.” Weaker players don’t want to be the goat, so they just “keep it simple,” dump it in and get patted on the back for simplicity.
Simplicity? No one keeps it simple in a scrimmage, because there’s always the chance for that highlight play. And if it doesn’t work, it’s a lesson of experience, not abject failure, as turnovers can be in a weekend tournament. How can skills become part of the arsenal if they are not attempted in competition?
Scrimmages are limited by the Minnesota State High School League and USA Hockey. Is that because they know more than coaches? Is it because they don’t know what numb toes, fingers and brains feel like when a coach tries to explain the game of hockey?
“The game teaches itself,” the old-timers used to say. Hmm, not any more. The game is taught on dry-erase whiteboards.
Don’t miss this article by Larionov!
Category: anticipation, art of coaching, Ask the Experts, coaching culture, communication, creativity, decision training, feedback, flow, fun, game intelligence, leadership, learning, mindset, motivation, neuroplasticity, officiating, opinion, passion, philosophy, play, practices, recommended reading / books, skill acquisition, small area games, tactics, talent, teaching, unstructured play