Chris Brown could claim to be a forward-thinking genius, but instead the men’s hockey head coach at Augsburg College, an NCAA Division III program in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is content to prove the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention.
With his program coming off a 12-14 season two years ago, Brown and his staff decided to shake things up last year. They sought to instill an aggressive culture in their program with specific offensive goals. A key one: scoring three different ways in every game – on a line rush, on special teams and within 15 seconds of winning a faceoff.
The result? Augsburg vaulted to a 17-9-2 and a berth in the NCAA Division III quarterfinals, scoring 23 more goals last season in the process.
“The whole thing just happened by accident more than anything,” Brown says. “I’m not afraid to admit it.”
But now that he’s found something that works, Brown can’t imagine doing it any other way. With this year getting underway, he’s preaching the same things again.
“The style created a mindset on our team that even we weren’t expecting,” he says. “I think we just created a buy-in from the kids because obviously you play because you want to score goals, and it’s fun to practice when you have the puck.”
Excitement is contagious
At Augsburg, the change to a more aggressive approach has infiltrated the entire program.
“I think it created a real competitive nature in practices. You’re keeping score in a lot of drills,” Brown says. “It’s more getting the kids to just make plays and understand that we’re a six-man offensive unit, since even our goalie is very involved in breaking the puck out. We want to support the puck wherever it is.”
When everyone is making plays, it’s natural to want to one-up your teammates.
“On Mondays, during video, it got to the point where the guys just had fun with it in terms of who scored the best goal of the weekend,” Brown says. “It wasn’t always the winning goal. It was usually the best-executed goal, which is the way to describe it.”
And the flip side of it is that an aggressive team is difficult to play against.
“We want to cross the middle of the ice. I think it’s really hard to defend when they know you can go east-west and you’re trying to go east-west,” Brown says. “I think that was a big key to generating a more aggressive culture.”
Expecting the unexpected
As such, there are no lines defined as checking lines, scoring lines, etc., in Augsburg’s new system. Certain situations might call for a safe or more traditional play, but other times Augsburg wants to thrive on the unexpected.
“I don’t use the term ‘role player,’” Brown says, noting that all but two of Augsburg’s 24 regular players scored last season. “We have those guys on our team, but we demand that they’re more than just role players and that they don’t just get the puck off the glass or shoot into the offensive zone.”
The style was particularly noticeable when Augsburg was playing shorthanded last season. The Auggies allowed just 14 goals on 98 power-play chances and they scored eight short-handed goals.
“Getting that production short-handed is such a big deal,” Brown says. “I say let’s go try and score, because more times than not, the power play guys don’t work as hard because they have an extra guy. Let’s take advantage of that.”
Translating to younger players
Lest you think this only works in college, Brown also coaches his 12-year-old son’s 12U team, where he preaches some of the same concepts.
Specifically, Brown wants to teach younger players to value the puck and work on tape-to-tape progressions instead of just dumping it to avoid danger. He also wants each player to understand every role on the ice.
“I told our 12-year-olds they should be able to play all the positions by now and when we’re on the ice there are no forwards and defensemen,” Brown says. “It’s five guys trying to keep the puck away from the other team and score goals. It’s so hard to get 12U defenseman to jump up into the rush. But it’s so effective when you can do it. They don’t have to be that skilled, they just have to be willing to do it. And it has to be something you promote in practice and that your players understand.”
That can be easier said than done at the youth level, and Brown concedes that coaches will have to learn to live with mistakes – as well as convincing parents that the reward for playing aggressively outweighs the risk, both as a strategy for winning and for development.
“The more you take systems out of the game, the more fun it is for kids,” Brown says.