To quote the legendary Scotty Bowman, if you’re not learning you’re going backward.
For the near 400 coaches gathering under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis this week for the National Hockey Coaches Symposium, it’s full speed ahead in the name of higher education.
The highlight of the USA Hockey coaching calendar, the National Hockey Coaches Symposium is typically held every other year for those coaches looking to attain their Level 5 status, the highest level of certification.
“The Level 5 is our celebration of coaching. It’s our biggest event, and that’s why we hold it every two years,” said Mike MacMillan, USA Hockey’s National Coach-in-Chief.
“The participants who are here, they want to be here. They’re thriving for more knowledge and trying to make themselves better coaches.”
Over the course of four days, they will listen to and learn from an impressive lineup of distinguished speakers, including NHL head coaches Peter Laviolette of the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings bench boss Jeff Blashill, along with AHL head coaches Dallas Eakins (San Diego Gulls) and Kurt Kleinendorst (Binghamton Senators). Long-time NHL coaches Tim Army and Barry Smith are also on the docket to speak.
Tracing its origins back to 1985, the National Hockey Coaches Symposium is the pinnacle of the USA Hockey Coaching Education Program, which annually hosts more than 725 coaching clinics. Over the years it has grown from a glorified coaching clinic into a celebration of the profession and those who have reached the highest levels of the game.
There are currently eight Americans serving as head coaches in the NHL, and another seven leading AHL teams.
One of the key characteristics that both the attendees and presenters share is an inner drive to improve their own craft as they look to help their players develop the skills they need to reach the next level of the game.
“This [symposium] is really for the passionate coach who really wants to learn and grow their knowledge about the game,” said Mark Tabrum, the director of the Coaching Education Program.
“When they come here they’re either learning something new about the game or it’s reinforcing their current coaching philosophy.”
And that passion also permeates from the presenters, many of whom will stick around after their presentation to listen to other speakers.
“Jeff Blashill may be coaching the Red Wings but you’ll see him sitting in the back of the room listening to other presenters,” Tabrum said. “That’s what makes these guys such great coaches. They’re always looking to learn more and improve their craft.”
Coaches will get more than just the X’s and O’s of the game. They will also hear from some of the most distinguished speakers in the fields of long-term athlete development, from Dr. Steven Norris, and the nuances of strength and conditioning with long-time fitness guru Mike Boyle.
This week will also be a celebration of St. Louis hockey, which has been in the national spotlight lately thanks to its track record when it comes to developing high end players. There were five local players selected in the first round of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, including the 5th overall pick Matthew Tkachuk, whose father Keith will join several St. Louis Blues alumni for a panel discussion during Thursday’s opening ceremonies.
“I think it’s great that it’s coming to St. Louis,” MacMillan said. “Not only success in this year’s draft but the city’s long history of hockey in the city has been phenomenal so for people around the country and probably around the world it’s become a big deal in the hockey circles so it’s great that we’re going there to celebrate coaching.”
In addition to the presentations, which range in topic from “Individual Development for Team Success” to “Fundamentals & Conceptual Teaching,” there will once again be age-specific breakout sessions where coaches can learn more about the age level they’re coaching.
It’s all part of an intense four-day session designed to raise the bar on both the coaching profession and youth hockey in general.
“Our goal is to make coaching better across the country,” MacMillan said. “By these coaches being here this week, it not only makes them better coaches, it ultimately makes our players better.”