Anatomy of a Modern Hockey Organization
The McGill Martlets: a case study
On March 2 2020 McGill University’s women’s hockey team secured a provincial title by sweeping Universite de Montreal in a best-of-three series. It was the program’s 15th title in 21 years since promoted from club to varsity status in 1999, but its first in three seasons.
(Photo: James Hajjar, courtesy, U. de Montreal)
In 2017 I was on the ice to celebrate with the team as its Video & Analytics Coordinator. Now I was 521 kilometers away in the hallway of the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena, watching the conclusion of the game on my laptop before puck drop in a Toronto Marlies vs. Binghamton Devils game, feeling no less proud.
"The Martlets hockey program is a process from start to finish and you can't evaluate our team (after a slow start) from September to October. You need to evaluate us for the progress we make over the course of the year. We have such a hard-working group and now that we've gotten to this time of year, our hard work is paying off. I'm happy for the players, they've played well, worked hard and won the RSEQ championship. We haven't won in a couple of years and it was terrific." - Peter Smith (head coach)
As Peter said, hard work is mandatory in a rebuilding process. But I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss some specific elements which the Martlets have successfully implemented since seeing off an Olympic graduating class in my last year with the team.
Video & Analytics
I first joined the Martlets in 2014. Peter was looking for a video coach and I was looking for a team with which to implement certain ideas. By 2017 my sights were set on another level of hockey, but the program’s continuity was assured by the presence of my assistant Tom Cote-Miller, an engineering undergrad whom I had coached years prior on College Jean-de-Brebeuf’s junior varsity hockey team.
Since my departure, the group’s membership has increased to three with the addition of Roderick Madeira-Mackinnon and Mikael Nahabedian. Over time, the scope of their analysis has expanded from microstats, lineup optimization and game-planning to passing network analysis and player tracking research.
Tom and Rod are graduating this year, and the team is actively looking for the next generation of analysts to carry on their work.
Martlets goaltenders have always enjoyed detailed one-on-one instruction from former McGill puckstoppers Amey Doyle, Kim St-Pierre and Charline Labonte. Since 2017 Peter has employed the same developmental approach with the team’s skaters. CWHL standout (and former Martlets captain) Katia Clement-Heydra became the team’s skill coach, helping players put in extra work before practice twice per week.
When Katia left to continue her playing career with MODO of the SDHL in 2019, she was replaced by Marie-Philip Poulin and Laura Stacey, two national-team players whose resumes speak for themselves. On the goaltending side, the team has added Genevieve Lacasse to provide additional coverage on the days when Amey, a teacher, cannot make it to McConnell Arena.
Another key addition to the PD group is Ariane Beland, a former figure skater. Peter and I have discussed the importance of dynamic posture, balance and efficiency at length over the years, and Ariane’s expertise has helped Martlets skate more fluidly and make higher-quality plays on the move at game speed, amplifying everyone’s else work in their respective specialties.
Peter and I talk every week, and our conversations often turn toward ways of creating offensive advantages. Between 2014-17 we were a top team in the country at overwhelming opponents with pressure, breaking out fast, hemming them in their own zone and putting pucks on net until they said “uncle.” But against teams adept on the counter-attack or those who played a very passive five-tight DZ coverage we had trouble putting the puck in the net.
Now I am happy to see the Martlets striking a much better balance between pressure and possession. Off the rush the players are frequently changing sides to find speed and open ice. When pressured they are able to cut back and create seam plays (thanks to the work done by development coaches). In-zone they have better instincts moving off the puck and maneuvering into scoring areas. The four goals scored against UdeM (video above) illustrate the essence of modern hockey: pressure the puck to gain possession, use both lateral and stretch plays to transition, then attack the net with deception and in a multifaceted way.
The Secret Ingredient
One can look at McGill’s coaching roster (by far the longest list in any level of women’s hockey right now) and come to the incorrect conclusion that it is financial might which enables such a well-prepared team. While the university does a good job of supporting the program financially, the money invested goes farther because of the culture instilled by Peter and associate coach Alyssa Cecere, the program’s only full-time employees. Then, they were happy to have me and gave me free rein on my work. Now, I am happy to go back and share everything I’ve learned to help the team move forward. The same can be said of their relationships with Katia, Marie-Philip, Laura, Genevieve, Ariane, Tom, Rod and Mik.
When an organization attracts good people, retains good people and give them opportunities to come back, great things happen.
The COVID19 pandemic has changed things for the team. It lost a chance to play for a national championship; its 2020-21 season is in jeopardy. But whatever happens I’m sure all of us will be present, however we can be, to help the team carry on.
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McGill Martlets 2019-20 Roster