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College Coaches Offer Up A Winning Formula

05/13/2015, 1:00pm MDT
By Harry Thompson - USA Hockey Magazine Editor

Keeping the game fun at the highest levels important, coaches say

COLORADO SPRINGS – Leave it to Frank Serratore to cut to the chase. Sitting on a panel with fellow college coaches Dean Blais and Jerry York, the head coach of the U.S. Air Force Academy hockey team could only roll his eyes when Scott Paluch, the emcee for the evening, introduced the trio as combining for more than 1,600 wins at the college level. That number, at least in Serratorre’s view, was a little misleading.

“I won my 300th game at the Academy earlier this season,” said Serratore, who owns an impressive record of 342-369-71 in 21 seasons as a college head coach.

“The next day I went on U.S. College Hockey Online and there’s a big picture of

[Michigan coach] Red Berenson with the headline that said that he won his 800th game the same night. That kind of put it in perspective.”

While Serratorre may be a little too humble having turned the U.S. service academy into a hockey powerhouse in his 18 years at the Colorado Springs school, he was quick to point out the obvious that he was sharing the stage with two giants of the game.

York is the winningest coach in NCAA history with 984 victories at Clarkson University, Bowling Green State University and for the past 20 seasons with Boston College. And Blais is certainly no slouch with a career mark of 373-214-57, in addition to leading the 2010 U.S. National Junior Team to gold in Canada.

One thing all three coaches have in common, in addition to a lot of victories under their belts, is a desire to keep the game fun for their players. That message came through loud and clear Tuesday night during a discussion with 60 top youth hockey, high school and Junior coaches who are attending the High Performance Symposium this week, sponsored by USA Hockey and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Having coached some of the best players and the top teams in the country over the past five decades, York obviously knows how to develop talent, and how to win. And creating robotic hockey players who aren’t allowed to think for themselves is not part of his coaching curriculum.

“We try to teach a lot of creativity,” said York, who has won five NCAA titles. “The game has become more structured, but we can get too paranoid with where a player needs to stand and what they need to do. Then it’s not a game all of a sudden.

“It’s not football where when you have the ball you’re on offense and when you don’t have the ball you’re on defense. In our sport you have the puck [and then] you don’t have the puck. If you can’t be creative and develop that with your players you’re going to have robots out there. We have to teach creativity and keep the game fun, because it’s a terrific game. You can’t spoil it by overcoaching.”

As the game has changed over the years, so too has Blais’s approach to coaching. A self-described yeller and a screamer during his days at the University of North Dakota, Blais has taken on a different philosophy of getting his players to play hard at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. And the proof was on display this season as he led the Mavericks to its first Frozen Four appearance.

“I was guilty for a lot of years of being so negative,” Blais admitted. “Now it’s ‘good shot’ or ‘good pass’ and having a smile on your face because the kids really respond to that. And I’m having more fun with my players right now then I ever have.”

For Serratore, being on the seemingly short end of the recruiting stick due to the Academy’s high standards and a five-year commitment waiting for players after their college careers are done, his job is to make the Falcons the hardest-working team on the ice. He does this in part, by implementing a lot of small area games into his practices.

“The college season is a long season and it doesn’t take long before the boys get sick of old Uncle Frank and his drills,” Serratore said.

“When we play small area games, the guys love it. You know they’re going to compete and they’re going to maintain their fitness level. Just a lot of good things happen. The residual effect is that they pick up things on how to play an unstructured style. Basically, it’s like the pond hockey we played when we were kids.”

If the coaches in the room were to take anything away from the discussion, Serratore hopes they will let their players play and have fun with it. They may just be surprised at the results.

“It’s important that you coaches at the youth hockey level are doing the right thing so that when those kids get to our level they have that foundation for the game and the hockey sense and that they haven’t been overcoached as youth,” he said.

“How do you become a great puck-carrying defenseman if you’re not allowed to make a mistake with the puck as a youngster?

“These are conversations that we’ve had over the past 20 years, so what we’re talking about tonight and this week is nothing new. There’s nothing to be taught, but more just being reminded of doing what’s right.”

And if parents want to know how to help their own son and daughter reach the college level, perhaps they could take a little grandfatherly advice from Blais.

“I see my hockey players play basketball I can go out and beat all of them. There’s not a lot of athletic ability anymore because they all want to focus on just playing one sport,” he said as part of a simliar reminder he makes to his own family members.

“When the season is over, it’s time to put the hockey skates away and leave it alone a little bit.”

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