COLORADO SPRINGS – Ever since Lou Vairo spent his own money to travel to Russia in the 1970s to pick the brain of legendary coach Anatoli Tarasov, the sharing of coaching information has been a staple of international hockey.
And as the world continues to shrink, the willingness to share ideas continues to feed into the melting pot of the USA Hockey developmental system.
Opening and expanding those lines of communication here at home has been the premise of this week’s High Performance Symposium, put on by USA Hockey in conjunction with the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Whether it’s been listening to presentations from some of the leading experts in long-term athlete development or discussing the nuances of the game over lunch at the Olympic dining hall or at various social events, 60 of the most accomplished youth, high school and Junior coaches in the U.S. came here to listen, learn and share some of their best practices both at home and abroad.
As an example of the global reach of the game, several international coaches opened their playbooks this week and shared some of their ideas on how they develop players in their countries.
“The lines of communication between countries have never been better. There are no more boundaries or barriers,” said ADM Regional Manager Ty Hennes. “It’s turning more into a global game where people are trying to grow the game rather than holding secrets close to their vest.”
Lars Marklund and Hans Wallson gave local Midget-aged players on the ice and the coaches in the stands a small glimpse of why their Skelleftea hockey club is one of the most successful programs in Sweden during a spirited 50-minute practice on Wednesday afternoon at the Sertich Ice Rink.
“The biggest difference that I saw between our players at this age and American players is the way we pass the puck. It’s more of a passing game in Sweden,” said Wallson afterward. “These players here today are used to skating with the puck. They need to learn that the puck moves faster when you pass it than when you skate with it.”
“I would recommend that U.S. coaches incorporate more drills into their practices that work on passing,” added Marklund. “It’s a lot more fun to practice when there’s more passing and more flow.”
Both coaches also suggested that they’d like to see players need to raise their compete level, especially during battles in front of the net.
“If you want to be a good teammate, you have to hit your friends harder than you hit your opponents,” said Marklund. “If you take it easy on them in practice, they won’t be prepared when they get hit in a game.”
The way hockey players are developed can vary from country to country, depending on cultural norms surrounding youth sports. In the United States, there has been more emphasis on competition starting at a young age. In many European countries, there is more of a patient approach to the game where coaches stress skill development at younger ages with a focus on ultimately developing players for national teams when they’re older.
“What we’ve done here today with the exposures to different cultures and to hear from people who are playing the same game but are doing it differently,” said Lyle Phair, who works with the Honeybaked program in Michigan. “The challenge now is how can we take what we’ve learned and make it work for what we’re doing.”
USA Hockey continues to take a page from Vairo’s playbook by incorporating some of the best practices in other countries and weaving them into the American Development Model, which is a top-to-bottom approach to creating more skilled and passionate hockey players at all levels. The organization also allows free downloads around the world of its revolutionary Mobile Coach app.
“With coaches here, them seeing Swedes and Finns talking about their programs will hopefully continue to open them up to new ways of developing players,” Hennes said. “Because no matter where you’re from, we’re all in this to develop better players and better teams.”
Tommi Neimila, a coach with the Finnish national team system, gave coaches a glimpse of his country’s patient approach to player development when he divided a group of local players into three groups and asked them to work on a specific skill for eight minutes. It was an abridged version of what the Finns do with young players over the course of the season. Every pre-school practice features 40 minutes dedicated to working on a specific skill twice a week for three months.
“When they’re finished we are 100 percent sure that they have mastered that skill before they move on to another skill,” said Neimila, who added that players typically work on three different skills over the course of a single season.
“If we try to do too many things in too short a time, we feel that our players won’t master that skill. It’s a very patient approach to skill development.”
Neimila understands that such an approach may not translate to the current state of affairs in youth hockey in the U.S., where a greater emphasis is placed on playing games at an early age. But as for a coach who is paid to develop players for the Finnish national teams and ultimately to play in the NHL, Neimila feels that his approach is the best way to accomplish these goals.
“As coaches, no matter if you’re an American, a Swede or a Finn, you want to make your kids better players,” he said. “We’re all human, and we all want to compete and we want to win. But winning a championship when our kids are 13 years old is not priority one for us. I can guarantee that winning a championship when you’re 13 won’t get you to the NHL.”