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Bill Beaney’s Immeasurable Influence Honored with the Distinguished Achievement Award

By Nicole Haase, 06/06/24, 9:00AM MDT


Beaney helped make small-area games a mainstream part of hockey practices across the country.

Anyone in hockey who’s taken part in small-area games has been influenced by Bill Beaney, whether they realize it or not. 

A true innovator of the game, Beaney has had a remarkable career whose influence matches or exceeds that of much more well-known hockey coaches.

Beaney had a long tenure as the head men’s hockey coach at Middlebury College in Vermont from 1986 until 2015. He led the Panthers to eight Division III national championships from 1995 to 2006. He also spent time as the girls’ soccer coach and had a 28-year career at the helm of the men’s golf team, leading them to 10 conference titles. 

In a game that is rooted in systems and strict styles of play, Beaney has pushed the envelope. He’s been unafraid of blowback and eager to search out new ways to approach teaching and learning hockey. Always willing to try, and fail, Beaney knew that was often where the most information could be gathered, said Roger Grillo, USA Hockey’s director of player development. 

“To put it simply, he’s one of the best hockey coaches in the history of the game,” Grillo said. “A lot of people don’t know who he is because he stayed at one small school in central Vermont. The unique thing about him was that he loved the purity of teaching the game. A place like Middlebury at that moment in time allowed him to do that.” 

In recognition of all that Bill Beaney has done for hockey in the United States, he is the 2024 recipient of the USA Hockey Distinguished Achievement Award. Created in 1991, the honor is presented annually to a United States citizen who has made hockey his or her profession and has made outstanding contributions, on or off the ice, to the sport in America.

Having played under Charlie Holt at the University of New Hampshire, Beaney learned how to think outside the box, said Ron DeGregorio, a former president of USA Hockey. 

Holt himself was a forward-thinker and innovator, and DeGregorio believes that helped Beaney approach the game with an open mind and ability to not be bogged down in the ways things have always been done. Coming of age and developing his game under Holt helped Beaney understand that changes were needed in the way players and teams trained, practiced and played the game. 

“He did a lot of things that were way ahead of his time in terms of allowing the experience of playing the game through practice to be the teacher,” DeGregorio said. “He has an understanding that the coach doesn’t know everything and the experience of playing the games will allow development to happen naturally. He taught through trial and error and failure and as he did that, he had enormous success.”

Beaney knew that the old systems worked, but instead of being content, he looked at the state of the game and thought, ‘What if we try something new and it works even better?’

Small-area work replicated game situations over and over for multiple players in a way that full-ice scrimmages could not. They forced players to be quick in their decision-making and become more adaptable. They also isolated issues and allowed Beaney to pause and discuss situations with players immediately, which was crucial to his approach. 

He did not lecture, but instead made the players work things out forthemselves. It gave them ownership, forged teamwork and ultimately led them to learn even more than if Beaney just drew up plays for them. 

“He believed that you had to have a team with individuals who wanted to work together collaboratively to come up with some solutions that go beyond what a coach can come up with using x’s and o’s,” Grillo said. “He was replicating the chaos that happens in a real game and having the players respond to that chaos in a small area so that they knew how to collaborate together.”

Beaney himself summarized his philosophy on small games for USA Hockey Magazine back in 2010: 

“Our modern game of ice hockey is played with such high levels of speed and chaos that it demands that we adjust our training methods to meet the challenge.

Use of small area modified games gives us the opportunity to have our players learn how to develop the skills and understanding needed for success. Combining short drill sessions with many game situations help to create the optimal practice.

The use of these games allow for players to become good decision makers, forcing them to think independently and creatively to solve the problems in their own game. Coaches and players get the opportunity for proper feedback while keeping a positive flow to practice sessions. This form of communication (questioning) allows the athlete to better understand all aspects of skills for playing the game.”

That doesn’t sound ground-breaking now, but Grillo said Beaney’s approach was so novel that “there was a pilgrimage to Middlebury, Vermont, by some of the biggest hockey names in the world to see what was going on.”

Grillo estimates hundreds of coaches, from the youth level to the professional level, have learned from and been inspired by Beaney and his unique approach that modernized coaching and turned it from passive lectures to player-centered teaching. 

“He’s never going to let you off the hook,” Grillo said. “He’s going to challenge you to have a conversation with him and not listen to him monologue, which makes you grow as a coach and a teacher. You start to learn how to coach through questioning and how to give ownership to your players, which is a real special gift. 

“He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.” 

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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