With more girls playing hockey than ever before, the need for qualified coaches has never been greater. And while there are more similarities than differences in how girls and boys should be coached at the youth level, nuanced leadership can be especially inspiring for girls. That’s a tremendous opportunity for female coaches and even more reason to continuously hone their craft.
For many, coaching clinics are part of that process. Not only are they great for expanding strategic knowledge, they’re also terrific for making connections, especially as women become increasingly prevalent on the hockey clinic scene.
“There are a lot more of us in the room now, which is nice to see,” said Maura Crowell, women’s hockey head coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “And you don’t see women just sitting in the back anymore. They’re more comfortable sitting in the front and asking questions.”
Crowell has seen it from every angle, as both an attendee and presenter. Most recently, she spoke at the 2016 American Hockey Coaches Association Convention and listened during a female-specific coaches symposium in Minneapolis. She has a genuine hunger for knowledge, fed in part by coaching clinics.
“I’m always going to be a student of the game,” said Crowell, who served as assistant coach of the gold medal-winning 2016 U.S. Women's National Under-18 Team.
“I’m a big believer in learning, incorporating new ideas, and that’s what’s great about hearing from other coaches; what’s worked for them and what hasn’t; their different styles. It’s rejuvenating. It’s a nice way to reconnect with your passion for the game and remember that you’re a part of a great coaching community, male and female, because working with our colleagues on the men’s side is important, too. Understanding that we’re one community.”
Within that coaching community, Stephanie Wood stands out as another leader for coaches at the youth and high school levels. The former Northeastern University captain guided Austin Prep to a Massachusetts state championship in March while also serving as women’s hockey director for the Islanders Hockey Club in North Andover. In April, Wood earned 2016 All-Scholastic Coach of the Year honors from the Boston Globe.
Last October, she joined with Michele Amidon, USA Hockey American Development Model regional manager, to host a groundbreaking high-performance female hockey coaches clinic at Merrimack College.
“We had 80 attendees, which was all the room could hold, and probably 90 percent of them were females,” said Wood. “As someone who loves to learn and get better, I think clinics like these are definitely beneficial. There’s something there for everyone at every level to learn and get better. Every time you attend one, you learn, and you come out with something new.
“There’s also a huge benefit as a program director. I leave clinics like USA Hockey’s National Coaches Symposium (Level 5) and our high-performance symposium with a lot of resources that I can bring back to the coaches at my club; everything from practice plans and age-specific material to information on how to access and share all the resources available through USA Hockey.
“The more you learn, the more beneficial you can be to your players and colleagues.”
But not every clinic is created equal, as both Crowell and Wood will attest. They steer clear of those filled with promoters and book-sellers.
“What I’m looking for in a clinic, for me and my assistant coaches, is hockey talk – Xs and Os,” said Crowell. “I want to hear from good coaches and learn more about hockey specifics. I love talking about the power play for an hour.”
Crowell said deep-dive strategic discussions are at a premium for female coaches, who sometimes feel pressure to be secretive about their techniques. That furtiveness might be good for springing surprises on the ice, but it doesn’t advance female coaching as a whole, nor does it fit within the clinic ethos.
“Guys do a good job of talking about Xs and Os. They aren’t so guarded. They’ll talk about power play concepts for an hour over beers,” she said. “Women are reluctant. Females talk about different things. We’re so protective of what we do. But I’d like to talk with female coaches about what we’re actually doing on the ice – the systems, the Xs and Os.”
There’s no place better for those kinds of conversations than a summer coaching clinic, free from the gauntlet of games and practices that occupy coaches in-season. The challenge, of course, is carving out time and funding for a summer hockey excursion that delivers compounding returns rather than immediate revenue.
“Unfortunately, there’s still not enough push for people to get out to these clinics, especially on the youth side, and that hurts player development nationwide, at every level,” said Wood. “Organizations need to realize it’s an investment in their best coaches.”
That investment pays off again and again as associations develop a reputation for coaching excellence and constant improvement. It also pushes the hockey-coaching community forward as a whole, advancing the game for coaches, players and parents alike.
In any game, from 12U to pros to adult hockey, a single turnover can change the complexity of the competition, especially in crunch time. Make a poor pass at neutral ice, lose focus on a line change, get outworked on the forecheck or backcheck, and quite often the end result will be the puck in the back of your own net.
Simply put, a key for any team that wants to be successful is to be on the “right” side of the puck possession battle – to avoid losing the puck and excel at stealing it. It only makes sense that if you possess the puck more than your opponent, your chances of winning will increase. According to former NHLer Lance Pitlick, creating turnovers and regaining puck possession is a skill and one that can be learned, regardless of your age or stage of your hockey-playing career.
“If you don’t have the puck, you can’t score,” said Pitlick, who played 12 seasons in professional hockey, including time with the Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers. “A point I try to drive home to players is that we want to get out of the defensive zone as quickly as possible because those are hard minutes. Let’s get into the offensive zone, where the minutes are easier. Once you create those turnovers and spend more time with the puck on offense, it’s a better return on your (physical) investment.”
Pitlick is currently an off-ice stickhandling, shooting and puck possession guru, who has worked with over 1,000 players of all ages and skill sets, through two websites – onlinehockeytraining.com and sweethockeycoach.com. His web-based programs provide a step-by-step teaching model, with a library of video drills organized into instructional modules that can be accessed on any digital device.
Pitlick offers the following tips for adult players to get better at creating turnovers and regaining the puck as quickly as possible:
Take away time and space – For a less experienced player, an easy first approach is to try to take away time and space on the ice. Work on trying to get to the player with the puck as quickly as you can, forcing them to make decisions a lot sooner than they want to. This may make them bobble the puck and hopefully create a turnover.
Practice the tenacious forecheck – It’s not always the most talented team that comes out on top, it’s the team that outworks the other one. The forecheck is where most turnovers take place, either in the offensive zone or when there’s a rink-wide pass. It’s about gaining quick proximity to the puck and winning battles, especially along the boards. If you get close enough to a player with the puck, try to lift his/her stick with your stick, steal the puck and skate away as fast as possible.
Keep your stick on the ice – You always want your stick blade in what you think is the passing lane, so your opponent has to pass over or around it. If you have good angles and anticipation and keep your stick down, there’s a good chance you’ll disrupt things.
Come back to the house – When your opponents have possession, regardless of what they’re doing on the exterior, you know that eventually they’ll be coming to the net. So, tighten everything there, make sure they have to skate, pass or shoot through bodies to get a good scoring chance. It’s important on defense to “gap up” so it’s tougher to enter the offensive zone and possess the puck.