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Perfecting Practice

08/13/2016, 11:30pm MDT
By Jayson Hron - USA Hockey

Games get the glory, but practice remains a passion for Barry Smith.

“It’s really the only avenue to improvement,” said the Chicago Blackhawks’ director of player development.

He’s been a believer since the mid-1970s, when he led Elmira College to consecutive NCAA Division II national tournaments as a twenty-something head coach. That’s when Hockey magazine queried Smith, Jerry York and Murray Armstrong about using statistical analysis in player evaluation. All three cited situations in which they favored it, but only Smith talked about practice (see excerpt at bottom).

His classic comments unearthed during the 2016 National Hockey Coaches Symposium, Smith quipped about being “pretty smart back then,” before snapping back into the intense practitioner whose emphasis hasn’t changed much after four decades of coaching and seven Stanley Cup championships.

“It’s very important to quantify performance in practices so you can measure progress,” he said. “And I think players have to know how important practice is, which they will if you’re monitoring it.

“I don’t know if you have to time sequences like I talked about (in 1977), but you’ve got to evaluate who won the competition drills, because kids today don’t compete as well as they once did, due to the environment, and by having forced races and relays, whether it’s kids or pros making millions of dollars, they compete because they want to win that race. So you can use that competitiveness to add speed and intensity to your practice.”

When Smith was coaching in Elmira, quantified performance in practice was a weekly occurrence, and he always kept it competitive.

“You’d take a stopwatch and you’d say, ‘these three players have to get the puck over the blue line in a certain amount of time,’ and you’d keep track of it, and the next group, by players being competitive, they want to beat the group that went first or second or third, so you can have some fun with it,” said Smith.

Given a look at USA Hockey’s Activity Tracker, a tool used to quantify today’s youth hockey practices, Smith appraised it and added his own flourish.

“I would include an off-ice activity tracking section. I think it’s that important,” said Smith. “We have to utilize more off-ice training. Ice is expensive and it’s just not good enough to drop your kid off 15 minutes before they go on the ice. Especially with the hand dexterity now, with pucks and sticks, because kids aren’t doing it on their own now. How much hockey is being played in the street today? That hour is not being played. So associations have to find a way to make up for that hour.”

In addition to a healthy dose of off-ice training, Smith is also a big believer in small-area games on the ice, but he’s quick to mention that they must be done with a specific purpose in mind for maximum benefit.

“With small-area games, you’ve got to have a teaching point in every game,” said Smith. “Is it one-touch passing? Backhand? Stops and starts? Stick on puck? You can’t just play them without a teaching point.”

The critical need always, according to Smith, is to provide the high-quality practice necessary for young players to build a solid foundation of skills that can translate to higher-level hockey later. It’s not complicated, but it does require an emphasis on skill development at early ages.

“The fundamentals are so important, and if we don’t help the coaches of 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds teach the right way, it’s hard to change players who have been doing things incorrectly for a long period of time," said Smith. "So I think we have to bear down on 10, 11 and 12. That’s a great learning point.”


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