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.”
The Referee Section of USA Hockey recently met during Annual Congress and discussed a variety of issues that will have an impact in the success of the officiating program. Many of those issues relate back to the successful completion of the registration requirements and the retention of officials.
Streamlining the registration process and maximizing the efficiency of our educational platforms are always a priority and the following Q-and-A will highlight those changes that every official should be aware of heading into the new season.
USA Hockey: What is the biggest change made to the registration requirements for this season?
Matt Leaf: With more and more seminars transitioning to a virtual format, the Referees-in-Chief (RIC) have determined that there really is no need for the closed book exams. So, level 2, 3 and 4 officials this season will no longer be required to submit a closed book (or modified online closed book exam) upon completion of the seminar requirement. Instead, the open book exams have been expanded to 75 questions for level 2 and 100 questions each for level 3 and level 4.
The RICs acknowledged that the purpose of the exams has always been as a means to encourage rule knowledge, so more effort was made to put together open book exam questions that will encourage the officials to open the Rules/Casebook in an effort to not only learn the rule, but more importantly, understand the spirit and intent of the rule.
USAH: Are there any other changes to the exam process
ML: The only other change to the exams deal with those who do not pass the original exam. Level 2, 3 and 4 officials will now be able to complete their retake exam 24 hours after failing their original exam. Level 1 officials will still need to wait seven days as we want them to slow down and take some time reviewing the rules so they can gain a better understanding and improve their chances for success on the ice.
USAH: What changes, if any, have been made to the seminars? Are all officials still required to attend a seminar each season?
ML: Yes, except for Tenured Officials, all officials are required to attend a seminar for the level that they apply for each season. So, a Level 1 official must attend a Level 1 seminar, Level 2 attends a Level 2 and then Level 3 and 4 seminars will be combined as one seminar in many cases.
Level 1 officials are strongly encouraged to attend a seminar in their own area and most areas will mainly conduct in-person Level 1 seminars. Although there will be some hybrid Level 1 seminars with both a virtual and in-person component, the key here is that every Level 1 official is required to attend a Level 1 seminar ice session. This may require some additional coordination of scheduling for these new officials, but the reality is this on-ice practice is so critical to any future success they may have on the ice that the RICs feel it is critical that the ice session is part of their educational experience.
Level 2 seminars will also include an on-ice component that Level 2 officials need to be aware of when they plan their seminar attendance. The vast majority of Level 3 and Level 4 seminars will be virtual and officials are encouraged to attend a seminar at a date and time that is convenient for them.
USAH: Have there been any changes to the curriculum for the various levels?
ML: The curriculum for each level was standardized prior to last season and is something that will continue to be updated on an annual basis. The specific presentations, along with the video examples, have all been developed in a manner that provides valuable information specific to each level with new presentations and updated video examples being used to keep things fresh and relevant. In addition, the seminar curriculum has been coordinated with the online modules to minimize duplication and to diversify the required education for each level.
USAH: How about SafeSport and Screening – any changes to those requirements?
ML: The background screening process will remain the same as USA Hockey is required to conduct a national screen every two years on any official who is 18 years of age as of June 1 of the registration year (in this case 2022). Both the background screen and the SafeSport training are mandated by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) per the Amateur Sports Act initiated by Congress.
For SafeSport, any official who was born in 2005, or earlier, is required to complete SafeSport training on a yearly basis. This may include the full training or refresher training that is managed by the US Center for SafeSport. Although it will not have an impact on registration for this season, there was a change in SafeSport that has been made where the training will only be valid for a 12-month period of time and it not consistent with an overlapping season. This will be addressed during the summer of 2023.
USAH: Are there any other changes or areas of emphasis that you want officials to be aware of?
ML: A significant part of the discussions that took place with the RICs focused on the importance mentoring plays in the success and, ultimately, the retention of brand-new officials. USA Hockey loses 50% of our new officials every season and improving that retention rate by just 15% will result in 1,000 additional experienced officials joining our ranks each year. We need to do a better job of bringing new officials into the fold and then supporting them in ways that sets them up for a successful and rewarding experience. The RICs feel strongly the best way to positively impact this issue is through mentoring.
Experienced officials should expect to receive information later this summer that outlines expectations of a formal Mentor Program and asking them to volunteer their time and expertise to become involved as a mentor. Once we have established a pool of officials that are willing to contribute in this way to the next generation of officials, they will be assigned a group of new officials they can reach out to and guide them through the registration process, seminar attendance, assistance in completing the open book exam and reaching out to prospective assignors when the time has come they are ready to work games. Once they have stepped on the ice, that mentor can continue to be a valuable resource for the new official and provide the necessary support needed to be successful. We will also be encouraging local clubs, assignors and officials’ groups to implement Shadow Programs that will complement the Mentor Program and positively enhance the officials’ experience even more.
With everyone working together towards a common goal, USA Hockey can become a leader in addressing the officiating crisis while providing a positive experience to our next generation of officials.