A sophomore slump was never on second-year head coach Maura Crowell’s mind. Instead, the University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey bench boss, who is also widely involved as a coach and instructor with USA Hockey, raised her expectations in Year 2.
On the ice, UMD’s improvements were tangible, improving on a 15-21-1 record from Crowell's first year to 25-7-5 this season, six consecutive weeks ranked No. 2 nationally, an appearance in the WCHA Tournament final, and a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Crowell's peers took notice, and she won 2017 NCAA Division I Women’s Coach-of-the-Year honors from the American Hockey Coaches Association. She spoke with USA Hockey about her coaching strategies and tips to maximizing development.
USA Hockey: What's a typical UMD practice like?
Maura Crowell: We're very strategic in what we do. It varies from day to day. Mondays are our hard days after the weekend – Sunday off – we're going to go hard on Mondays. We're going to do small games, less line-oriented type of stuff. We actually take Tuesdays off, and then, on Wednesday, we try to get more into special teams, and more line-oriented stuff Wednesday and Thursday, and gear up for the weekend. In general, we're really organized in what we do. There needs to be a good flow to practice. It's not always like we're going to start off simple; sometimes we want to throw a small game at them, especially during the second semester when you've been practicing since September and you have to keep it fresh. Throw in a game right away, get their attention, get the blood flowing, and get the compete level high. That's something that we always want. We're not going to stay on the ice for two hours. We want to go hard, get our work done, and be really efficient. We're pretty mindful of our players and their recovery, and their bodies, and everything else they have going on. We want to take advantage of the time we have with them, but not bury them out there at the board or with too much tactical stuff.
USA Hockey: Why the small-area games? What is it about them that fits well into a practice?
Crowell: It's the closest that you can get to a game-like situation. The only other one would be a scrimmage. Small-area games certainly put them in high compete level. Our players go hard; they want to win, especially when there's something on the line. You have to think quickly in a small-area game, obviously. It's tighter, so you have the puck for less time. You have less time to make decisions. You're encouraged to shoot. You can adapt the rules to whatever you want to focus on, but most of ours are going to include a focus (on shooting) because we need to get the puck to the net more than we do. That's always going to be there. It gets people excited about practice. You can make the best drills that you want, you can be as creative, but it's still a drill, and there's still a set pattern, whereas in a small-area game, there isn't.
USA Hockey: How much is skill work emphasized in practice?
Crowell: That was an area that we really improved and increased this year in practice. Year 1 of being here I was trying to set a new system, a new this, a new that, so Year 1 we didn't have as much time. Year 2, we really incorporated a lot of time for skill development, and they love it. Especially in the second semester. Again, the first semester, a lot of time is spent on setting the tone, ‘this is how we want to play, good habits, good structure,’ and in the second semester, that's where you can be creative. In January, when the kids weren't in school, we did almost entire practices of skills. A lot of it would be around the net, tight area, goal-scoring, scoring from uncomfortable positions, quick moves out of the skates, puck protection. We used small nets, big nets, shooting from the blue line or rolling off the half-wall and shooting between nets that the pipes are together. I can't explain that well, but it's really (shooting) in a tight, little spot. All of it was challenging for all levels, which is the great part of skill development. Even your most elite players can get better, and everybody seems to enjoy working on skills, I can tell you that.
USA Hockey: What goes into working with and developing a good relationship with your assistant coaches?
Crowell: That's one of the things I'm most proud of. I give my assistant coaches a lot of responsibility. As a head coach you want great, hardworking, passionate, dedicated assistant coaches. So how do you get them to do all those things? Yeah, you try to hire people with those characteristics already, but if you just keep them off to the side, and don't let them make decisions, and don't let them run drills, they're going to lose their passion. I always give assistant coaches a lot of responsibility. They're going to run drills, hopefully our defensive coach can take over the [penalty kill]; the offensive coach can run the power play, and I can oversee everything. But I want them to feel that responsibility, and as a result, they invest more in what we're doing, and they care more than if I was running everything and they could just push pucks around. They're held accountable, and that gives them a voice with our players, too. When players want to go talk to them about, 'Hey, what do I need to do to get more ice time?' When the assistant coach tells them something, it actually holds value. It doesn't always have to come from me. That's been really important, developing assistant coaches, and we have a lot of fun. Fun has to be a part of coaching. If it's not fun, why do you do it? We work hard, we laugh a lot, and we have really high standards. I try to find personalities that obviously I'm going to get along with. Usually there are former athletes that are really successful in what they did, but maybe it didn't always come easy for them. They had to work at it because that's how they're going to approach their jobs too, right? If you had to work hard to be a good player, you have to work hard in your job, too. I like winners, too, people with a history of winning. That means they're competitive and have high standards. It usually works well with me.
USA Hockey: How do you think your goalies are best utilized in practices?
Crowell: Our goalies actually enjoy practices. We have a goalie coach that comes in during the week and they get specific training. Small-area games, goalies love that. They love being competitive. If you incorporate goalies into defensive schemes – if you're working with your [defense] on breakout plays, let’s put the puck on the goalie, have her set it up a certain way, work on your communication between goalies and [defense], and that's a way to keep them involved. If you watch the way the U.S. women's team plays, their goalies are like a sixth player on the ice; they can start the breakout for you. If you can incorporate them into drills where they're handling the puck, it actually starts with them to start the flow of the drill, that's important, too. It's only going to make your team better to have them handling the puck, and making plays behind the net, and communicating with their [defense], and if we expect everybody else to work their butts off and have a high compete level, we expect the same from our goalies. If they're being lazy and leaving rebounds, you have to address those things. You create drills that are going to put them in environments where they have to make those saves or else the kids are going to keep coming at them, and coming at them, and scoring a lot of goals. You just have to be creative and keep them involved, and don't just keep them in the net and say, 'Stop the puck.'