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AHU Coach’s Corner: How to keep fun, smiling faces, palpable energy in hockey

 

Often times, you hear the rumor mills churning amongst a team’s fans and media as their team labors through a mid-season slump.

Everyone says, “This team needs to trade for some goal scorers.” However, more times than not, they already have plenty of goal scorers, even several who have scored in playoff games, just not many who get 40-50 during the regular season.

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Superstar goal scorers are not as important in the playoffs as scoring by committee – everyone believing they can score as well as fulfill responsibilities in other areas of the rink. Sometimes a little shakeup in the lineup or staff/personnel moves can go a long way to wake individuals up. Other times, the scent of the playoffs sparks new motivation in players who have slipped into a lull.

Some of those changes can cause a team to surge, prompting the same reporters and fans to rave about newfound goal production, yet there had been no trades to bring in scorers. What really has changed to make the team perform better? Was it simply a new voice in the locker room? Was it the idle threat that everyone is playing for their jobs? Was it a new approach to the game?

Often times, the change comes from something simple: smiling faces. Energy that is palpable. And “FUN” as expressed by every player and coach during interviews, practices, games and training sessions.

“Freedom to make offensive plays,” players claim. “It’s fun. We’re all responsible on defense, but the big thing is we feel free to try things on offense.”

it’s an ongoing trend whereas generations change, boundaries and restrictions are not as acceptable and respected as they were in generations past. The new athlete thrives on creativity with the structured and disciplined athletes being the exception.

It is conventional “wisdom” of recent years that asserts creative offense and solid defense are mutually exclusive, ruling out offensive playmaking that risks a turnover. Football coaches believe dozens of repetitions will reduce that risk. Hockey coaches reduce offensive creativity and say, “Keep it simple. Dump the puck.”

When the intrinsic fun of creating “hockey plays” (an expression used by retired legendary Boston University coach Jack Parker) – when that fun is removed – goal scoring is reduced, wins are harder to come by, video sessions become counterproductive, mistakes are exaggerated, confidence is eroded, practices are drudgery and players are disengaged.

That is how mid-season slumps grow. It’s not the word “December” that produces losing streaks. It’s the erosion of FUN – often by coaches who emphasize mistakes. Hall of Fame coach Bob Johnson was successful because he always found great effort and skill, even in the worst losses. He’d walk into the next morning meeting armed with highlight video of their best plays and declare, “It’s a great day for hockey.” The result? No slumps.

In youth hockey, it’s devastating to eliminate fun with the puck – it’s the end of development. Fun does not require a soccer game on the ice to replace practice. Hockey itself is the most exciting, fun game in the world, but only if the joy of puck control and playmaking are encouraged by coaches. Forechecking and backchecking alone won’t do it. They’re important and self-rewarding, but they’re not the main source of FUN.

It’s the puck. That’s where fun starts.

Coaches steal that fun when they insist on total control – handing the puck over to the other team when you get to center ice. After all, it’s that next half of the ice that triggers the imagination. Highlight goals are in the dreams of every kid – and that includes those kids with beards in the NHL.

The best coaches and parents understand that fun comes before goal scoring.

Kurt Goar is Arizona Hockey Union’s coach-in-chief.