Over the weekend, I got behind a pro hockey bench for the first time since the 2019-20 AHL season.
What a treat to be able to hang out, talk hockey and compete alongside the PHF’s Connecticut Whale.
I’ve enjoyed working as a consultant coach for the team since last season, but it’s simply a different experience being there in person, leading video meetings and coaching from the bench.
Here are a few tidbits from our weekend.
Seasoned coaches know that the rink’s temperature can heavily influence their in-game experience.
Modern NHL rinks are climate-controlled to maximise fan comfort. Some facilities, like the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Scotiabank Arena, are downright warm when 19,000+ fans pack the building. This is a good thing for those wearing designer t-shirts and dresses, but not such a great thing for ice quality. In any case, NHL coaches are perfectly fine in suits and ties at ice level. I even know of one particular bench boss who goes commando, but that is neither here nor there.
The same is not true at lower levels. As a player I’ve dressed in arenas that felt colder inside than out (Colisée de Laval in the dead of winter). More than one of my head coaches at the minor hockey and university levels have taken to the bench in a winter coat.
Knowing all this, I pack the same thermal undergarments I wear to play shinny hockey. At Canlan York, the Toronto Six’s home rink, having that extra layer under my suit feels just about perfect. I had already been there multiple times to watch my clients’ GTHL games, so now I’m dialed in.
If someone close to you is a hockey coach, get that person some thin, warm clothing as a Christmas present. The lower the level, the warmer. Dri-fit works, or go with Merino lamb if you’re feeling fancy. They’ll love you for it.
The Pre-Game Warmup
After the two-game weekend series, I am more convinced than ever that the traditional on-ice warmup is irreperably broken.
So broken, in fact, that I think it actually leaves players less prepared to execute at game speed than if they just sat down, closed their eyes and imagined themselves playing hockey for a few minutes.
I won’t expand on that thought here, because there are some things I’d like to try with my team this season. If they work, then we’ll play better and win more games. If they don’t, I guess we can always go back to the status quo.
“Drop the Puck Already”
…is my thought as the officials mill about after the national anthems. On game days coaches spend a lot of time waiting, so we’re all raring to go. But we wait because the pause gives broadcasters one last chance to show some ads before the opening faceoff.
I guess it’s a small price to pay so that thousands across the world, in addition to the hundreds in the building, can tune in and invest themselves in our game.
Chance & Opportunity
I look ten feet to my left.
Connecticut forward Kennedy Marchment is closely related to two NHLers, and yet, in my opinion, she’s by far the best hockey player in her family. The critical difference: uncle Bryan and cousin Mason were born with XY chromosomes, not XX.
I look fifty feet to my right.
Toronto assistant coach Angela James might be the greatest women’s hockey player ever, but she never played for Olympic gold unlike Hayley Wickenheiser, Caroline Ouellette and Kim St-Pierre. The critical difference: Hayley, Caroline and Kim were born in the 70s, not the 60s.
I look down at my feet and think about the times I regretted not being born in Canada, not learning to skate earlier (or better) and not having parents who pushed me to get good at something they just didn’t get.
And then I feel super lucky, all of a sudden.
I hope Kennedy and Angela feel the same about their hockey journeys, too.
Communication on the Bench
One of my biggest takeaways from working with Sheldon Keefe is that coaches yell at the wrong people.
During a Marlies (and now, Leafs) game, Sheldon is yelling all the time. But usually not at the refs or at the players on the ice.
Instead, he’s loudly narrating the game through a particular lens, one designed to teach the players sitting on the bench. Being next to him gives you a clear perspective of how he wants his players to react in different situations and the difference between good and poor execution. It’s his way to help players build their hockey IQ.
On the Whale bench I opt for a similar approach, highlighting favorable patterns of play and giving constant remainders of what we want to accomplish.
My content and delivery can always get better, but more urgently I now have a pretty sore throat.
Get your favorite coach some herbal tea and cough drops this Christmas, too.
In case you haven’t checked, we lost both games against TOR. 5-1 on Saturday and 3-2 on Sunday. Our players made mistakes and so did I.
There was that goal we allowed because I didn’t double-shift our top D pair at the end of a period.
There was that half-baked set play that I didn’t spend enough time explaining, or did we not even need it in the first place?
There was the timeout we never used, and the goalie pulled too late.
But after the game I tell head coach Colton Orr that we’re on the right track. TOR beat us 6-0 in our sole meeting last season, after all.
The way I see it, right now we’re the best team in the league at getting better.
If that trend holds, we’ll be going places.
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