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Tips with Olympic Coach Dan Bylsma

01/14/2014, 4:30pm MST

Hockey is the fastest, most exciting and fun game in the world, but even the top players and coaches can get stale in the middle of the season – even U.S. Olympic Coach Dan Bylsma. How does he keep his team fresh during the dog days of winter?

USA Hockey sat down with the Penguins head coach to find out.

USA Hockey: How important is it to keep practices fresh for youth hockey players?

Dan Bylsma: I think in practice, a balance needs to be struck from foundation skill drills that your players are accustomed to and can build on. Also, it’s important to incorporate drills and games that can keep it fresh, fun and competitive while still working on skill aspects and individual and team development.

USA Hockey: What about your players? Even with paid professionals, do you try to incorporate different drills to keep them engaged, energized and even have some fun in the middle of the season?

Dan Bylsma: Without a question. We use small-area games to engage the players in competitions within certain aspects of the team, whether it’s defending, whether it’s attacking offensively in areas, whether it’s creating odd-man rushes in small areas.

We have several games that we do have fun with and give back to our players.

USA Hockey: Do small-area games and station-based practices help you accomplish that?

Dan Bylsma: Absolutely. We have a game “Defend Away from the Puck” that we play in the neutral zone. We have an odd-man rush game – 3-on-2 and 4-on-3 – that continually leads to small-area attacks. They force the players to play in tight and also defend. They help us with both the defending aspect and offensive aspects for our team. It helps us to get some power-play concepts and to get some offensive concepts. It’s a competition. It’s a game. They love playing it, but it does accomplish aspects of our game we want to instill into our team.

USA Hockey: Do you or your players have a favorite drill(s)?

Dan Bylsma: “Activator.” It’s where you have to give and go with the activator to score a goal after you turn the puck over. “Defend Away from the Puck” is a game we play often. The 4-on-3 and 3-on-2 games in half-ice. These are all drills and games we like to play here.

USA Hockey: Some parents/coaches don’t see the point in small-area games or station-based practices. What’s your message to them?

Dan Bylsma: Smarten up. They’re great to engage five or six players at a time. There are more touches on the puck. They put players in small-area defending situations and in attacking situations. Give and go’s are incorporated into many of these drills. These are important aspects of developing players, player skills and team concepts.

USA Hockey: Do you think these drills/games are more productive for players?

Dan Bylsma: I think you can accomplish a lot in small-area games and station-based practices in terms of skill development. More touches on the puck and repetition that you don’t get in maybe a 1-to-5-ratio drill that you only get one or two reps from in the course of the drill. There are certain foundation drills that are important, but you can get a lot more touches and repetitions on the puck in these situations by having them in small areas and station-based practices.

USA Hockey: It’s important for coaches to have a season-long plan, but do they need to stick with that plan word for word? Or should they make adjustments to their practice plans based on player development and enjoyment?

Dan Bylsma: I think it’s very important to have foundation drills – drills that players are acquainted with and know. You can add onto those drills to add onto the skill level and the different aspects of the team and skill development. It’s important to interject some life and freshness and other drills into your team, be it competitions and small-area games to help with energy levels and freshness of the players.

USA Hockey: Can it be tough for coaches to stay energized and fresh throughout the season, too? What are some things you like to do on or off the ice to avoid “going through the motions”?

Dan Bylsma: Yes, it can be. I think coaches can easily come to practice as a second job. Having energy level and freshness throughout the season can be tough. I think competitions, team competitions, player competitions and games are all things that add to the enjoyment versus just going through the same drills throughout the winter time.

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No one has ever said that officiating, and especially officiating ice hockey, was easy. Rule knowledge, communication skills, fitness, skating and a natural presence are just some of the skills necessary to be a successful official.  Some possess more of these skills and those are the officials who advance to higher levels. But regardless of the level achieved or the skill set the official possesses, the one quality that should be equal among every official is a high level of integrity.

The national official staff members, along with our volunteer referees-in-chief and local supervisors, have heard growing concerns over a decreasing level of integrity among our youth hockey officials. It’s sometimes said that no one is holding them accountable. A portion of this perception is likely a typical “blame the officials” mentality, but some anecdotal evidence suggests there is also some merit to this concern. That’s alarming to USA Hockey, as it affects the credibility of our entire program, along with every member it represents. The blunt truth is this: even one official who isn’t on the up and up can and will damage the credibility of all officials who do take pride in the integrity of their work.

Whether we like it or not, officials are under a microscope, and by the nature of the business, are held to a very high standard. When we signed up for this officiating gig, we committed ourselves to represent the game of hockey, USA Hockey, our local group of officials and ourselves as people of integrity who accept the responsibility and guardianship of enforcing the rules in a fair and consistent manner. Most importantly, we must remember that the game is bigger than all of us and that the game itself is what we serve. Those who lose sight of that not only compromise the competitive fairness of the games, they also make life more difficult for all of the officials by damaging the credibility of the officiating community.

An example of this type of unacceptable behavior occurred last season. A Level 2 adult official tended to work his games with a chip on his shoulder. He often created confrontation with coaches, alienated his younger partners with inaccurate advice and disregarded their help in attempting to get some calls and rule applications right. Even though the help they were providing was correct, he chose to maintain his incorrect position that affected the outcome of several games. He also tended to identify certain players and single them out for various infractions and/or on-ice lectures as a means of emphasizing his authority.

Once the trends were identified, concerns were voiced by several parents and coaches to the local assigner and supervisor, who acknowledged they had never seen the official’s work, but would keep throwing him out there working the same teams and levels that had expressed concerns regarding his attitude. This included intentionally assigning him a playoff game involving the coach who was the most vocal in expressing concerns. This official was then instructed to “throw the coach out if he says anything.”

That playoff game went without a hitch – a tight 2-1 game with a couple of close off-side plays and maybe an icing or two missed. In the post-game dressing room, the official in question, in the presence of his partners and the officials scheduled to work the next game, said, “It’s always a great day when you can make one or both of the coaches mad. It’s too bad the white team coach didn’t want to play along today.” The partners sat there in silence until finally a 12-year-old Level 1 official who was working the next game said, “I don’t think that’s right. We’re not supposed to bait coaches.”

The official got dressed quickly and left the room without saying another word. Kind of ironic that it was the innocent 12-year-old that seemed to “get it” and instill a sense of accountability among those in the room. Imagine how any 12-year-old player feels on the ice when they see the official(s) displaying an attitude that is simply not to the standard the game deserves. And yes, more often than not, they can see through those who do not have the level of integrity expected.

Fortunately, these types of officials are few and far between. But they do exist and to simply stick our heads in the sand and not address the concern is irresponsible. Each of us, as officials, has an obligation to behave in a professional manner at all times and take our role seriously. We have made a commitment to approach each game with the understanding that the game is about the players and we should be invisible until the players require us to appear as a result of infractions that occur. Respect is a two-way street and simply putting on the sweater with the USA Hockey crest suggests respect is warranted, but only if supported by your actions.

USA Hockey has an obligation to create a non-threatening environment that promotes respect for officials and an opportunity for officials to improve through education and evaluation. USA Hockey does this through playing rules, points of emphasis, zero tolerance policies and comprehensive education programs for officials, coaches, parents and players.

In return, the game expects USA Hockey officiating members to bring a professional image to every contest and an attitude that creates a positive environment and makes the game better. We realize everyone makes mistakes – it’s part of the game. However, laziness or unprofessional behavior is unacceptable and being creative in rule enforcement and not holding players/coaches accountable for infractions will only make the next team of officials’ jobs much more difficult and set them up for failure.

The reality is that the game official must always hold themselves to the highest level of integrity and behavior both on and off the ice. Maybe that’s fair, or maybe not, but it is the expectation we are required to meet.

As we head into the 2015-16 season, ask yourself if you are willing to meet that expectation. If the answer is yes, welcome back and we look forward to a great season.

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Tag(s): Coaches