Add up the total number of NHL games, international medals and hall of fame ceremonies and players like Keith Tkachuk and Chris Pronger could seem unapproachable for the average youth hockey coach.
Not, however, at the 2016 National Hockey Coaches Symposium. Pronger joined Tkachuk on a panel to open the meeting on Thursday night and the stalwart defenseman returned Friday to continue his education.
Pronger is earning his Level 5 certification here this weekend just like hundreds of other coaches. Tkachuk, a Level 4 coach, also praised the continuing coaching education programs offered by USA Hockey.
"It's like when they played, they want to learn as much as they can about the game," said Mark Tabrum, USA Hockey's director of coaching. "Now they're not playing and coaching youth players, but the same attitude and principles apply. What they did to become the players they were they're doing to become better coaches."
Pronger watched the speakers on Friday taking notes just like every mite coach in the room and attended the required breakout sessions as well. The opportunity to talk hockey and learn applies to both the seasoned NHL veteran and the mite hockey coach from Anytown, USA.
"You're sitting next to an NHL great and talking with them about hockey and learning from each other," Tabrum said.
Young Gordon Bombay once crumbled under his coach’s misguided in-the-moment pressure. Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill used that cinematic moment from “The Mighty Ducks” to illustrate how not to coach players in pressure situations.
“Don’t make the stakes higher than they already are,” said Blashill. “Instead, focus on the details of the process that lead to success.”
Blashill also referenced statistics refuting the idea that certain players can elevate their performance in clutch situations. Instead, he suggested, it’s more a matter of those players’ performance not deteriorating as much as others during key moments. His recommendation to coaches was to avoid propagating the supernatural Roy Hobbs expectation in high-leverage situations and “just get your athletes to perform close to normal.”
If knowledge is power then Ashley Bevan believes that the seeds of knowledge planted at the 2016 National Hockey Coaches Symposium in St. Louis will lead to a powerful performance at the upcoming World University Games in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Even with decades of experience, the coaches with the U.S. University Select Teams are here this week to add to their already impressive coaching credentials in preparation for the biannual tournament that takes place Jan. 29-Feb. 4, 2017.
Mixed in among the 375 coaches in attendance are U.S. University Men's Team coaches Sean Hogan of Ohio University and 11-year NHL veteran Rick Zombo, who now leads the defending ACHA champions from Lindenwood, Mo. On the women's side, two-time Olympian Shelley Looney and her assistant Brett Berger of Adrian College are also taking in the four-day event.
Being here not only gives them the opportunity to continue their coaching education, it also affords them the opportunity to get together to put plans in place for working with their respective teams.
"Having coaches who have achieved the highest level of education in the USA Hockey coaching program will greatly benefit our players and help breed success on and off the ice," said Ashley Bevan, senior director of the Adult Hockey program that oversees the World University Games.
The World University Games are held every other year, and USA Hockey has historically fielded men's and women's teams consisting of the top players competing in non-varsity hockey at programs around the country.
Zombo, a 12-year NHL defenseman, recently completed his sixth season at Lindenwood, and has led the Lions to three ACHA national titles. The opportunity to continue to work with these unheralded hockey players is bolstered by experience representing the United States in an international competition, even if it is half way around the world.
"The only thing I know about Kazakhstan is what I've seen in the Borat movie," Zombo joked during a rare break between sessions on Friday.
"But any time you get to work with a U.S. Team it's always a great honor. It doesn't matter where we play. Once you get on the ice, it's all the same. I don't worry about the logistics, I'm focused on getting our team ready to represent the United States."
One of the nation’s leading strength and conditioning experts, Mike Boyle works with a wide range of elite athletic programs from the U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team to the Boston Red Sox and beyond. He dedicated his career to elite player development, and through that effort, he reached some blunt conclusions. Among them is the need for more all-around athleticism.
“Our influx of elite U.S. players in the 1980s and 1990s was an influx of athletes, not hockey players,” said Boyle. “It was no coincidence they became elite; they weren’t early single-sport specialists. They were athletes.”
Today he encourages coaches and parents to shun “speed farming” their children, and instead, expose them to a wide variety of sports and physical activities that will improve their overall athleticism. Ultimately, he said, that will better position children to reach their full athletic potential.
Boyle also referenced volumes of data comparing the skill-development value of games, practices and training sessions.
“If we look at playing games as a way kids are going to get better, we are absolutely insane, because the mathematics don’t bear that out,” said Boyle. “More games is definitely not the answer. It’s irrefutable math.”
Instead, Boyle recommends the high-repetition environment of practices, along with the often-overlooked strength and conditioning work that can be done off-ice.