This summer, Chris Luongo returned to his alma mater, accepting an assistant coach position on Danton Cole’s new staff at Michigan State University. A 15-year professional hockey player, Luongo has worked as an assistant or head coach at Wayne State University, the University of Alabama-Huntsville, and most recently, an assistant coach with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. The Detroit native shared his thoughts with USA Hockey on how to help a youth hockey coach prepare for the upcoming season:
USA Hockey: What’s your overall advice to a youth hockey coach as he or she starts the youth hockey season?
Chris Luongo: When your team begins playing games, you can talk about what you want to do as a team an awful lot, but what it comes down to is that your players have to be able to execute the skills of the game to be able to accomplish any system-based or group-based ideas. So, the skating skills, or the puck skills, which include obviously puckhandling and passing – the skill side of the game is first and foremost and the constant development of your players’ skills. And early in the season, it’s about sharpening some skills that maybe over the course of the summer became a little rusty. Hopefully the kids have had a chance to be off the ice a little bit and do other things, so they’re coming back to hockey fresh. That’s the time to start at skill-based drills and skating-based drills to put you in a position where you can eventually start talking about and working on things you’re trying to do as a team.
USA Hockey: How do you define success in youth hockey?
Luongo: In every environment, as a coach you need to determine what is success. The easy way is to look at a scoreboard, and that can be very misleading. Sometimes you’re going to play a great game, and the scoreboard’s not going to be in your favor, and sometimes you’re going to play a poor game, and the scoreboard will be in your favor. That can be misleading. We always say that a perfect wins-and-losses balance, which would be a good indicator of a proper level of challenge is somewhere probably around 55 to 60 percent wins. Whether that gets you in first place or not doesn’t really matter, right? You just want to have a challenge level that’s going to improve your players, improve your team and therefore give them the best chance to continue to play at the next level the next year. But that shouldn’t be the only goal. If they’re not having fun, the kids aren’t going to be interested in playing the next year, so that’s obviously a big piece of that development puzzle and defining success in youth hockey, too.
USA Hockey: How does a coach go about keeping everyone on the same page during the season?
Luongo: That’s always a tough one. I think a lot of good, effective communication is key to keeping everyone on the same page. First of all, starting with your staff, make sure the same consistent message about expectations is coming from the coaches’ mouths. The next step is making sure that the players understand that consistent message within the room. Beyond that, it’s good, depending on the age of the players, if you allow the players to convey the coaches’ message to the parents. That helps them with their maturity and development. You also want to make sure that you have a line of communication and probably some periodic meetings with your parents so they understand what you’re trying to accomplish and they understand the message that has been given to the kids, but also allowing that message to be delivered by the players as part of the maturation process.
USA Hockey: Over the course of the season, there are probably going to be a few issues to work through with parents. How should you handle those situations?
Luongo: You commonly hear a ‘24-hour rule.’ Certainly any opportunity to remove emotions from those types of conversations helps to keep them from becoming confrontations. I think that’s a good thing, and it’s important to have that spelled out. You want to make sure that rules and guidelines are laid out beforehand, probably in what would be a beginning-of-the-year parent meeting, so that you’re not waiting for the first situation to deliver those guidelines. To some extent, those situations will never go away. Hopefully they occur because everybody is looking at the best interest of the player, the child, and certainly there can be disagreements about what’s the best way to go about their best interest, but if everybody’s heart is in the right place, hopefully at the end of the day you will all get on the same page and push in the same direction.
USA Hockey: How important is it for coaches to incorporate American Development Model principles into practices and their approach to the season?
Luongo: The players don’t get better standing around and listening to you. The ADM certainly remedies that, making sure that the kids are active, working on multiple skills, whether it’s through one station or three stations or whatever it may be. I think that’s been a great development for hockey in the U.S. A little bit of preparedness goes a long way in that regard. If the research can be done, prior to, instead of wasting expensive ice time trying to figure out what to do or doing something inefficiently – there’s nothing worse than kids standing around watching two or three kids do a drill and 10 kids in the line.
USA Hockey: Are you a supporter of cross-ice hockey at the 8U level?
Luongo: Oh yeah, I love cross-ice hockey. Even at the highest level, that’s incorporated into practices – for good reason. The ability to handle the puck and make plays in small spaces is what separates players; it’s not necessarily the outright speed. Part of the evolution of the game that you see is that when you had everybody playing full-ice, it was just the fastest kid on the ice alone with the puck a lot, and the other kids are a zone or two away from it. That’s not good for anybody, not even the fast kid. Obviously cross-ice hockey remedies a lot of that. It’s more challenging and it’s more engaging. The kids are closer to the puck, so the odds of them touching it are much greater and being in the play and keeping their attention at an age where they can easily drift. I think it’s a great way to go and sometimes it still mystifies me when people think otherwise, but you just have to keep working to help them understand.