I was watching a weeknight playoff game the other day. It’s amazing to me how much these games bring out the best in players - and sometimes not the best. I will paraphrase Toronto Maple Leaf Head Coach Mike Babcock when, after winning game 5 in their series against Boston, talked about top players are truly top players when they perform in the playoffs. I suspect this was a little bit of a call out to the Leafs’ top players but, it is very true. The top players need to be the top players in the big games.
I think from the time of Peter Puck and Showdown coming on in the first intermission when I was a kid, I have always enjoyed watching Hockey Night in Canada between periods. Don Cherry and Ron MacLean are certainly entertaining, but I do find the “round table” between periods to be a little much. I know the show has to fill some time and certainly the panelists are very knowledgeable but at the end of the day, I believe they overcomplicate the game far too much. Unfortunately, while they dissect the X’s and O’s of what the teams are doing, as coaches, players and even parents, we get the feeling that if we aren’t doing the same things with our team, with regards to systems, then we aren’t really doing our jobs.
Watch this truly wonderful film called “Alike”. From Wikipedia, “The animated short is a story of the relationship of a father and his son who live in a society ‘where order and work ethic literally choke the colour and creativity out of its inhabitants’”.
In my new book Just Go Score!, I write about how coaches can foster creativity in their team’s play and not insist on players “writing their ABC’s inside the lines”. Hockey should be about finding ways to be creative (within some structure) and playing the game “in colour”. To me, the creativity in hockey is about generating offence and so the book focuses on what we can do as coaches to make sure our players can be creative and are encouraged to be creative. This will undoubtedly lead to scoring more goals and ultimately, find joy in playing the game.
Here is an excerpt from Just Go Score! from a chapter titled “Scoring Goals”:
At tryout time, my guess is that 90% of coaching staffs sit down to evaluate their players and decide that they don’t have much offensive talent on their team this year. The conversation probably goes something like this:
Head Coach: “Wow! The AAA team really didn’t leave us with much talent this year.”
Assistant Coach #1: “I know. We are going to be lucky to score two goals a game.”
Head Coach (shaking his head): “It’s really going to be a long season.”
Assistant Coach #2: “We better be really be good defensively or we are not going to win many games.”
Head Coach: “You are right! Here is what we are going to have to do: we are going to have to be the best shot blocking team in the league, make sure nothing gets to our net, get the puck out of our end every chance we get, goalies are going to have to be excellent at smothering the puck so there are no second chances, every time we get the puck over the center ice line we have to dump it in and never forecheck with more than one forward. That’s the only way we will have a chance to win any games.”
Assistant Coach #1: “Hey! I read this great article on how the New Jersey Devils ran the TRAP back when they won some Stanley Cups. We can teach that in the first practice. It will be great!!”
So here is the issue. We are so focused on winning games, not just as coaches but as adults in youth sports, that we totally miss the whole point of player development. Really, the conversation above should have turned when Assistant Coach #2 first spoke. His sentence should have been: “We better be really good offensively or we are not going to be very successful this year.”
So here are some random thoughts about what this might look like:
1) Set goals that are long range with regards to wins and losses. For the most part, at least two-thirds of the teams in leagues will make the playoffs (most of the hockey leagues in Ontario have everyone making the final playdowns). A team’s goal at the beginning of the year should be to make the playoffs and play their best hockey at the end of the season when the games matter most.
2) Focus most of your energy on getting players to play full speed and pressure the puck. The coaching staff should teach team tactics and systems that encourage these two things - not take away from them. Playing the TRAP after dumping the puck, blocking shots, playing a defensive zone system that looks a lot like six goalies in front of the net, doesn’t encourage playing full speed and pressuring the puck.
3) Find ways to get players to use and count on their teammates. Here are three ways to do that:
a) Create a mindset where players feel that when they pressure the puck that they are forcing a bad pass and ultimately having a teammate recover the puck. Most often the first pressure doesn’t recover the puck. Although pressure should be “stick on puck”, often it is the speed of the pressure that will get the opposition to cough it up.
b) Get players to recognize when they need to beat someone one on one and when they should be looking to create some time and space to feed the puck to a teammate. This is really crucial to player development.
c) My guess is that teams that have two “better” players on forward will tend to play them as centers on their first and second lines (this is probably true on defence as well). Unfortunately, this discourages players using their teammates effectively. Play your top players together. This will encourage players of like skill levels to use each other effectively.
4) Create and practice uneven man situations in practice. Play 2v1 out of the corners, 3v2, 4v3. Every time you practice these situations your power play gets better.
I am a big advocate of the development of offensive play. We should all metaphorically practice the power play at our first practice of the season. Stop focusing on finding ways to win with good defence and start focusing on winning more game with awesome offence. Your players will have more fun and they will develop their skill sets far more (and I will add that the fans (i.e. parents) will enjoy the game much more as well). There is a time and a place for the TRAP, but it should not be the go to system for all but “professional” hockey teams. Let players play, score goals and have fun.