During a recent Q-and-A session for youth hockey coaches in his home state of Michigan, Detroit Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill talked about how he starts practices with his NHL team.
Turns out, it’s not too different from what a 12U practice should look like.
The head coach of an Original Six franchise says his focus is on cultivating better players, not better systems or playing styles.
“I think the Detroit Red Wings in 2016, our greatest room for growth is the growth of our individual players,” Blashill said. “We can put a system in place, and once you get five players on the ice on the same page, there’s no system that supersedes another system. It doesn’t take that long to get systems in place. The growth of your hockey team is by the development of the individual players on your team. I’ve thought this all the time – individual development and winning go hand-in-hand because if your players get way better from the beginning of the year to the end of the year, you’re going to be a way better team at the end of the year.”
The long game
Blashill points out that taking a short-sighted approach to improving your team – working on systems during practice instead of practicing fundamental skills – may result in a few more wins early in the year, but it won’t help when it’s time for the playoffs. Players need to grow throughout the year, and they grow more by working on skills than on positioning and strategy.
That’s why there are a lot of similarities between his Detroit Red Wings practices and the practices USA Hockey wants to see youth coaches running – station-based training focused on skills and small-area games incorporated throughout.
“There are definitely lots of similarities,” Blashill said. “One, you’re going to see a component of habit and skill development. Those might be learning how to work your edges better, it might be working on your shooting, it also might be a little wall-play on breakouts, so that when the winger gets to the wall, he can execute his outs and we can keep control of the puck. You’re going to see that component.
“You’re going to see some component of what I would call, ‘part-to-a-whole’ system work. Not necessarily just working five vs. five – in fact we hardly ever do that. We might work a little component of the system. We may work on the ‘D’ getting back as fast as they can to the puck, having good support for their ‘D’ partner and getting it to that one player and then they go up the ice and shoot in a 3-on-0 drill, as opposed to just a 5-on-0 breakout.
We may do some system work, and then we’re going to play a small game almost every practice. A lot of those things go hand-in-hand with what USA Hockey believes.”
Blashill said that if he was coaching a youth team, he would focus on systems even less.
“Obviously every age is different - if I was coaching a squirt team, I would almost never work on systems,” he said. “They’re not old enough to worry about the systems, nor can they really execute them the way they want. At that age, your development is so critical that you are absolutely taking steps back by working on systems too much. I think most coaches understand that, (but) I think parents too many times want to see the systems in place. I get that you want to have all the guys on the same page, but I never saw a team that worked on systems all the time get way better or see individuals get way better through the course of the year. I think it’s a little bit age-related, but certainly we have a lot of the components with the individual development, the ‘part-to-a-whole’ philosophy and the small games that I know USA Hockey believes in, and so do I.”
Teaching hockey sense
Blashill also utilizes small-area games for his team’s training.
“I think small-area games are important for every player,” the Red Wings’ bench boss said. “There are a couple things that small-area games do. They help teach or enhance habits and read situations. Basically, they help teach hockey sense. Small-area games, for me, have replaced pond hockey. There isn’t as much pond hockey as there once was, so all those little instincts that you see players do where you say, ‘they learned that on a pond,’ now I think you learn those instincts in small-area games.
“The other thing they are is that they are fun and competitive. Your players are always going to get better at things with the more passion they have towards the game or the drill. Most players have way more passion for playing small-area games than they do for doing the drills. I watch a lot of kids go half-speed through drills, but when they play a small-area game, they’re going full speed. So between small-area games helping to teach those instincts in a fun environment and a competitive environment, and the other thing I would say is I think competition is critical, too. When you’re trying to work on skating, well, there are two ways players get faster. One is by competing against somebody else, so create races when you’re working on skating, and two is by being chased by somebody, so create a game where they’re getting chased. If you do those things, you’re going to get better for sure.”