For The Coaches

For The Coaches

So far (in my 19 years of professional hockey) I have had 30 different head coaches. Some were good, some were bad. Some I couldn’t understand (Russia or Finland), and some I wish that I hadn’t been able to…A lot of good ideas, some bad ideas and several different motivational techniques. Some have given me tips for on and off the ice that have stayed with me throughout my career and I have done my best to pass them on. I’ve seen huddles, body checking, handshakes and prayer before leaving the dressing room to hit the ice. I can’t definitively say that one worked better than the other and it is up to each coach as to what he or she feels will get the most out of their team.

Coaching isn’t just systemic strategy and motivating the 20 players that are looking at you for guidance. It’s managing 20 personalities, styles and different levels of talent into a collective group that believes in what you are teaching them. Every player has his or her role and you are filling a vital role as well. You have to alter your style of coaching from day to day and not coach that day based on what happened at home prior or at the rink yesterday. A team is like a puzzle. How will you fit the 20 pieces together to make it whole?

I’ve had coaches that couldn’t design their own practice to save their life, but had the 20 players ready to skate through a wall for them. Others were the smartest in every room that they walked into, yet couldn’t bring the players together and actually seemed to enjoy belittling players. What works for some won’t work for others, and no coach can have the same systems or style year after year and not get stale. Listen to your players and sense their body language and focus in practice and games. You will be able to sense if they need a wake up call or if you should ease up on them a touch.

Most of your teaching will be done in the dressing room and during practice times. However, practice time is best used when the coach is not talking, so have a clear practice plan and use the allotted ice time for improving your players. Make corrections before or after practice so that you can be sure that the player is focused on you and can fully understand without being distracted. During games, you won’t have time to teach, as it is important to always be in control of the bench, line changes and controlling the flow and mood of your bench.

A coach in 2017/2018 has unlimited tools at his or her disposal. An NHL coach, for example, is able to watch an iPad video replay that tells him immediately which of his players made the mistake leading to a goal. He has an assistant coach wired to a coach in the press box telling him whether or not to review a goal that may have been off-side. He is able to teach systems in practice and then rely on a skills coach to develop his players while the nutritionist, masseuse and strength coach get the player ready for competition.

However, that may also make it harder. There can be a lot of conflicting voices in a player’s ear. He sees his highlights on YouTube, his personal skills coach from the summer may be telling him to try the moves they worked on in July, his agent is pushing him to shoot more to reach that number of goals to cash in on the next contract and he is fully aware of his Corsi or Fenwick data, thanks to hockey analytical Twitter.

A coach has the unenviable job of taking each player and massaging his ego just to the point where he won’t think of it during the game. Get him to mute the outside noise and only hear his teammates and coaches. Not easy, but vital. Hockey itself is too fast to worry about what your skating coach has told you to do with your hips, for example, when a 230 pound defenceman has you lined up for a big hit 5 feet from the boards.

So, as a coach, what can you do to be successful in modern hockey? I think systems are important. But tailor your systems for the team that you have. A team’s effort and willingness to work hard will have more value than the best systems. Most reading this will be in minor hockey or a lower level of amateur hockey. Keep it simple, keep the passes short and don’t be too technical. I’ve seen 9 year olds trying the NHL powerplay drop-pass breakout…I’m not saying it isn’t fun for the kids to try new things, but I doubt a 9 year old PK system is so tough to beat that you need the drop pass to disrupt the timing of the penalty killers. But, I’ve been wrong before…

If they are young kids, teach them positioning but give them freedom to be creative. Watching 6-7 year old defencemen stand on the blue line so that they are in a “safe” position is teaching them to be hesitant. Teach young wingers to not post in a stationary position in their own zone and stare at the passer. Rather, have them get used to taking a look up ice to see where their opponent is while they begin moving up ice with some speed. Centres at all levels can learn routes to have themselves facing up ice when they receive the puck, rather than heading straight towards the passing winger. Systems at a young age should always be by far secondary. Teaching young players fundamentals and repetitions of practicing them at game speed will be most important.

I have come up with a simple acronym that can apply to coaches at all levels;

C.O.A.C.H.

Clear– Everyone knows what is expected of them. They are aware of their role and what each player must do for the team to be successful. There are no questions as to what his/her responsibility is in every aspect of the game.

Optimistic– Have faith in your team. They need a leader and you are the one they are looking for. Gave up a goal? It will happen. Move on. Things will get better. Losing streak? Things could be worse, you are all still getting the chance to play (or coach) hockey. Get through it together.

Adaptive– See something that isn’t working? No chemistry in your lines or pairings tonight? Change it now. Injuries? They happen too. Roll with it. Prove to your team that the team is bigger than any one individual. They won’t quit on you.

Current– Times change. So should your systems. Players are faster nowadays, so why slow your own team down? Also, players have changed. Be aware of how you speak to players, and be cognizant of your body language on the bench and in the dressing room.

Human– Your players will make mistakes. How will you react? Will you apologize if it is you that was at fault? How well do you know your team? Speak with your players and find out things about them away from the rink. They will appreciate it. Hockey, in the end, is a game.

Lastly, be the reason that the 8 year old winger on your team wants to continue playing hockey. Be the reason that a 4th line player thinks that he is just as important to the team as the top scorer. And be the coach that can make an average team great.

Good luck this season.

Thanks for reading.

Jeff Ulmer

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

Liked “FOR THE COACHES”? Check out FOR THE ROOKIES.

Hockey; Our Beautiful Game.

Hockey; Our Beautiful Game.

“The Beautiful Game”… Football, for those outside of North America. We have renamed it soccer. And I suppose in a way it is beautiful. Green grass, a shiny ball, players racing back and forth on the pitch. But now freeze that pitch, throw some razors on the hardest shoes you can find, give those players a weapon and allow them to hit each other with their bodies and that weapon while chasing a frozen piece of rubber disc around on the frozen pitch. Shoot that disc past a mask-wearing player with hard pillows on his legs and big oven mitts for gloves? I’d say in a way that that’s even more beautiful.

Canadians live and breathe hockey; it’s in our blood. It is far and away our most popular sport and you can even find hockey on Canadian currency (back of the 5-dollar bill). Americans have closed the talent gap considerably that once existed at one time between the two countries and are now considered nearly on par with the Canadians. The Russians, Swedes and Finns are known as Olympic contenders and other European countries are gaining on the powerhouses as well. Passion, pride, cohesiveness between teammates, trust, honesty, integrity…. they are all words spoken in describing hockey. But one word is synonymous with the sport of hockey; competition.

Competition. For everything. It’s not a sport for everyone. If you’re waiting for your turn, then prepare to wait forever. If you want the puck and you want to score, you need to compete to get it, compete to keep it and compete some more to score.

Of the 4 major sports in North America, only hockey is the sport that doesn’t give each team equal chance at possession. There is no bottom of the ninth, kickoff return or inbounds to give your team the ball (puck). It’s a 60 minute battle for possession and competition to see who can not only win the puck but keep it long enough to make a scoring play.

Football may have more body contact for the 10 seconds or so of each play, but no game is played at the speed of hockey with the constant motion of the athlete for an extended amount of time (shift length) that hockey has. Baseball players have their turn at bat and in the field need to be ready for the ball to be hit to them, while a pitcher’s heart rate will be high with the stress, movement and effort of pitching, but hockey has 12 bodies in constant motion for an entire shift, which could be up to 50 seconds. Basketball comes the closest to constant physical exertion, but there is no real body contact allowed, thus having players exert less energy. (If you don’t agree then try skating after taking a big hit that stops all of your momentum).

In hockey, the greatest players in the game sit on the bench and don’t handle the puck for the majority of the game. Your body needs a 2 minute rest after 50 seconds of maximum effort. Thus, the best forwards in the world will top out at 22-23 minutes of 60 and defencemen 26-28 of 60. As a result, hockey is a team sport in which you must draw on all of the players to contribute. It’s why at the end of the game, all players feel as if they’ve contributed and you rarely hear a hockey interviewee substitute “I” for “we”. In football, baseball and basketball, the star players handle the ball the entire game and each get a fair shot. An at-bat, 4 downs and a possession arrow in basketball all give the players their chance at creating offence. In hockey? Get it yourself. Earn it.

Football coaches must design several plays and relay them through the quarterback or middle linebacker’s helmet radio to call each play. Baseball players have their individual chances at the plate, having been guided by a hitting coach or, if in the field, a fielding coach. They have time to check the signs from the third base coach and check him for when to take an extra base or score a run as well. Basketball coaches have the ability to draw plays to get their player a good look for a shot and can relay the code of the play as the starting 5 head up the court. Hockey? No time. Coaches have taught the players some technique or systems in practice but once the game starts it is up to the players to produce. Teaching is over and the coaches rarely ever get a chance to correct systems or individual mistakes during the game, with the exception of the 2 intermissions. A coach turns into a motivator, intimidator or a cheerleader once the puck is dropped.

The best hockey coaches, as can be the case in the other sports, are the coaches that can deal with negative results and get players to remain positive and focused through inevitable miscues. A hockey bench is a small and confined place. It’s like sitting on a large couch with 15 sweaty friends while your dad and his 2 friends stand behind you. There is nowhere to hide, and believe me, you can feel it when the coach is staring bullets at you from behind your back. You can sense frustration, positivity, pride and nervousness from the coaches and there is nothing better in any sport than having a positive coach that believes in his group.

So, next time you are at a hockey game or even watching a game on TV, look for the demeanour of the coach, the flows of the line changes, the maximum effort of the participants, the post-shift exhaustion of the players and really how little the top players are even on the ice. You’ll see a team of 20 players, backed by coaches that, after 60 minutes (and sometimes more), are exhausted. Win or lose, they will huddle by their goaltender and look at each other to congratulate each other on an honest effort. There is nothing better than playing hockey and being given not only a chance to play, but to compete together as a team and try to win.

Enjoy the season.

Thanks for reading.

~Jeff Ulmer

jeffulmer44@gmail.com

2017 NHL FREE AGENCY PREDICTIONS

NHL Free Agency

Free agency day! It’s like Christmas for hockey fans…Will your team sign the big stud free agent or will he stay where he is for the “hometown discount?” Does his wife like it where he is? Kids in school? What about his workout buddy, has he sold him on how good it is where he plays? Isn’t his agent tight with the guys in Toronto? The Rangers have money to spend…Montreal has holes…everyone needs a Shattenkirk-type defenceman! A lot of questions, to be sure, and nobody knows the answer to any of them…so shouldn’t we just wait and see how it all plays out? Nah, let’s guess and see how right (or wrong) we are…here are my best guesses.

1. Kevin Shattenkirk
-Every team does covet a Shattenkirk-type. But not every team can afford a free agent powerplay quarterback that is looking to cash in on a max term contract. Yes, he didn’t play his best in the playoffs, but if you’re looking for a guy to take the keys and drive the powerplay bus, Washington already has a particular Russian shooter that needs his shot attempts…and Ovechkin is probably the better choice taking most of the shots anyways, to be honest. With strong defencemen over in the West, I think he stays out east and cashes in.
Best Guess? 
 
New York Rangers (7y/6.5 per)
2. Alexander Radulov
 
-A 30 year old that hasn’t had the 80 game grind that most 30 year olds have had…but he has played for Team Russia quite a bit, making his seasons just as long. However, the hunger and “want” that he plays with is noticeably different than his first stint in the NHL. Now with a family, he seems like he “gets it” now. I could see a team giving him 5-6 years, and he will be in high demand. I could also see him waiting a few hours to see who comes in with a 6-7 year offer (while Montreal waits) before ultimately making his decision.
Best Guess?
 
-Montreal Canadiens (5y/6m per)
3. Joe Thornton
 
-Quietly, “Jumbo” hits free agency, after being one of the top assist men in the NHL seemingly forever. Every team could use him, but it will be a team with some cap space that can give him and his family a multi-year deal that will land him. I’m assuming he’d love to stay in San Jose if it can work for both parties, but this being his first crack at being wooed by several teams, let’s assume his family is ok with a drastic move. Would he like to join Shattenkirk in the “Big Apple” and play with his old Davos teammate Rick Nash? What about LA? I would like to say the Rangers but if they land “Shattdeuces” I think they would look at a cheaper option.
Best Guess?
 
-San Jose Sharks (2y/4.5m per)
4. Patrick Marleau
 
-Let’s stay with the “old Sharks” theme. Marleau has been a Shark forever. Wouldn’t he just stay? Couldn’t they have just found a way to keep him on the old “hometown discount?” I’d have to think that there is a reason he’s going to free agency…but his kids and wife must want to stay in San Jose, no? So many questions. For fun, let’s say they are fine with a big move, as maybe a move closer to his home province in Saskatchewan is what he is after…the Flames could use a speedy veteran to pair with those youngsters.
Best Guess?
 
-Calgary Flames (2y/3.75m per)
5. Karl Alzner
 
-Another guy who has waited a while to be wooed by some other suitors. It sounds like Washington will move on, and Alzner has quietly become a steady, dependable D-man to play some big minutes against opposing teams’ top lines. He hasn’t missed a regular season game for years and he won’t be as expensive as a Shattenkirk. Every team would be smart to check in, but only a few may want to spend big money on a non-powerplay guy. He’d be perfect for the Leafs but they won’t want to dip into their “Mathews/Marner/Nylander fund” two years from now…Ottawa would work but he may choose another spot. Buffalo may offer more than he may take but I will take a stab at him wanting to try a Canadian city. We’ll see.
Best Guess?
 
-Montreal Canadiens (5y/5m per)
6. Martin Hanzal
 
-Size, skill and plays centre. Again, every team would want him. Few will be wanting to go for a 4 year commitment or longer but I think he will get that. I imagine that he loved the desert and would return there but may be looking away from the rebuild after getting a taste of the playoffs again with the Wild. It seems like everyone knows his name and that he is good, but a lot of fans haven’t seen enough of him to say…let’s say he wants a taste of a different western market and a shot at winning now…and there is one team that looked extremely thin at centre when their #1 centre was lost for the playoffs. Johansen could use some help down the middle….
Best Guess?
 
-Nashville Predators (4y/4.25m per)
7. Justin Williams
 
-Sorry, had to make #7 Mr. Game 7….he’d be perfect in Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Pittsburgh or back in Washington. He is such a smart player that you can’t go wrong having him on the ice in big situations, hence the big goals. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind winning with the group that they have assembled in Washington and he looks like a perfect complement for Kuznetsov with the Capitals. Will he want a change of scenery? Will the Capitals spend the money they won’t give Shattenkirk or Alzner and keep Williams while they have Ovie and Backstrom nearing the twilight of their prime? I just think he has the perfect fit there.
Best Guess?
 
-Washington Capitals (2y/3.75m per)
8. Michael Del Zotto
 
-This one just seems like the perfect situation to snag a guy that needs a reclamation project. I’m sure Rangers fans will be quick to point out the “Del Zaster” he can be in his own end but he can skate and may just need a fresh start with a team that can give him some 2nd unit PP time and play him with a “stay at home” defenceman that can cover for him. He can shoot, skate and will have some suitors…I think he is a left-handed version of Justin Schultz, and things have turned out well for him and the Penguins on that reclamation project…
Best Guess?
 
-Pittsburgh Penguins (2y/3m per)
9. Thomas Vanek
 
-He can score. And he’s relatively cheap. Put him on a good line and have him stay around the net on the powerplays…he will nab his 10th 20 goal year. There are a lot of top centres around the NHL that would like to have a smart winger to play with and who isn’t afraid to score from the “dirty areas”. I think a lot of teams check in on him and he goes with his best chance to play on a good powerplay unit…he’d look good playing with the top lefties that they can run out there for the Oilers…
Best Guess?
 
-Edmonton Oilers (2y/2.75m per)
10. Michael Stone
 
-Right handed defenceman…big, can skate and he’s only 27. The only problem is that he made 4 million last year, which may be about as much as most teams will want to spend, and he is bound to create a bidding war after Shattenkirk and Alzner are off of the board. He’d do well to wait for a few hours and let the big dogs make their choices before he makes his, but he will still get a nice contract. Buffalo seems like they are waiting to spend some money on a younger top 4, and Ottawa would like to have him join Karlsson and Ceci as right shooting D-men, I’m sure. The Oilers could do worse as well…
Best Guess?
 
-Ottawa Senators (4y/4.25m per)
Speed Round
 
Several key pieces remain…let’s take a shot.
Sam Gagner (CLB), Andrei Markov (MTL), Radim Vrbata (ARI), Ryan Miller (BUF), Brian Elliott (PHI), Dmitry Kulikov (DET), Shane Doan (EDM), Dan Girardi (TOR), Nail Yakupov (ARI), Jarome Iginla (BOS), Drew Stafford (PHI), Mike Fisher (NSH), Nick Bonino (TOR), Chris Kunitz (PIT), Antti Niemi (PHI), Jonathan Bernier (NYI), Jaromir Jagr (FLA), Scott Hartnell (TOR), Johnny Oduya (VAN), Patrick Sharp (CHI), Benoit Pouliot (MTL), Brian Gionta (NJD), Ales Hemsky (DAL), Ron Hainsey (PIT).
 
Thanks for reading…feel free to leave your predictions or comments. Let’s see how it all shakes out.
Jeff Ulmer

For the Rookies

Jeff Ulmer NYR

For the Rookies

Everyone is watching you. Most coaches, GMs and even a few of your older teammates will know whether you have a future in hockey or not during the first few times that they see you on the ice. And in some cases, just by having a conversation with you. Can you prove them right or wrong? Sure. But that’s up to you.

Some players are stars from their first few seasons of playing hockey as kids and translate that into solid careers. Others are so used to having easy success that they can’t take some adversity and may be out of hockey after a year or two of playing professionally. I’ve played alongside both.

Some are late bloomers that decide that they want to take hockey seriously and do whatever they can to make a living out of the sport. They may have been cut from several teams but simply won’t take no for an answer. Meeting adversity head on may have given them the strength to translate failures into new opportunities and learn what it takes to be a professional hockey player. I’ve seen plenty of these as well.

Whether you play your 4-5 years of junior or your 4 years of college hockey, you will end up in the same place as several other players. On a hockey team, or trying out for a hockey team, and then it is entirely up to you. Talent will earn you a shot at being a professional hockey player but it is the passion that you show in wanting to improve that will keep you in hockey.

Set your path. You will be given an opportunity to showcase yourself in different situations at first. If you are successful, then congratulations. If not, you may not be written off yet. Most organizations will give you a few years to establish yourself as a player. And if they see you as a player that doesn’t fit in their organization? Then another team may give you the chance that you need.

Most players fail to make a team at some point. Very few are blue chip prospects, World Junior stars and then full-time NHLers for 15-20 years. Yet, every NHL team has to carry 20-22 players on their roster, with several prospects ready to be called up. Also, as I can attest to, there are plenty of opportunities in Europe to make a successful living in hockey.

Over the beginning of your career you may be immediately projected as a “powerplay guy”, “checker”, “grinder” or even “defensive D-man”. Coaches, scouts and others are not always right, however. Being a grinder isn’t sexy but if you have some offensive skills and are willing to play a “200 foot game”, any coach will find a spot for you. So do what you can to learn to do both.

Use your strengths to help you get to a certain level of hockey but improve your weaknesses to stay there or move higher. If you know your shot is weak but you can skate like the wind, then keep skating but work on your shot. A “powerplay guy” can become a very effective penalty killer and a “defensive D-man” can learn to be more offensive. Watch the veterans, learn some tendencies and try your best to grow as a player and a teammate.

The people that make decisions for a hockey team are not looking to see whether you can score a fancy goal on a shootout attempt, although that may help. They are looking to see how you react when your teammate didn’t pass to you on a 2 on 1 chance or whether you will give a defenceman on your team a pat on the shin pads after he was beaten for a goal, telling him to forget about it and that he will “get him next time“. They will read your effort in practice, whether you skate until the end of a drill or stop in front of the net after a shot attempt.

Are you a good teammate? Being angry if you don’t record a point when your team wins or showing your frustration if you get called off of the ice are a few examples of poor teammates. A reputation for having characteristics like that will stay with you for your career. You will learn that doing your part to help your team win games is the most important and that personal statistics will soon become forgotten by others. Your teammates will notice if you don’t backcheck, intentionally move out of the way instead of blocking a shot or seem jealous of a teammate having success. However, they will remember how you invited everyone when you went for lunch after practice, consoled a teammate in a slump or maybe even helped some of the equipment workers carry some bags in from the bus after a long trip.

Learn the names of the people that work for the team, whether they are volunteer equipment people or working in the office for your team and remember them. Ask veterans for advice, as they were rookies at one point as well, and if they tell you something that you really don’t believe is right, thank them anyways. Respect for your organization, coaching staff and teammates is important. You, however, are also important and a key member of the organization. Know that in your mind but don’t act like it. Your attitude will contribute to your value within the organization.

If a coach tells you something that you don’t believe is right, don’t argue. Acknowledge it and don’t give him another reason to doubt you. Most coaches can live with mistakes if an honest effort is put in. So don’t worry about making a mistake. We all do, and you will. Learn from them and trust that you will learn over time, because you will do that also.

Just as most players do, I have failed at several points in my career. I still fail myself or my team occasionally. Am I scared to fail? Hell no. I wasn’t drafted. I wasn’t handed an NHL contract after graduating from College. I had to prove myself in my first year of pro hockey that I deserved to be given a chance. And by doing that, I was given another chance, and then another. I know that I have earned those chances and I want the puck in tough situations. If I fail, I will want it again next game. In my nearly 1,000 career games I’m almost positive that I have just as many failures as successes, I just have learned to take them as a lesson and clear my mind for the next shift. At first, that wasn’t as easy to do.

“You have an NHL-calibre shot and you skate well. Most teams already have their top 6-8 forwards set for the next few years though. If you would play like more of a pest, I think you could be a regular in the NHL.” I heard that from a coach in the AHL during my second pro season. I played that way in the AHL for a while but then went to Europe and had scoring success. I came back to the AHL the next season and scored more so I did less of the “pest” stuff. That was my best, albeit last, season in North America. Maybe he was right. Maybe not. But who knows? There were several opportunities waiting in Europe nonetheless and I have no regrets.

As an older player (30) coming off of a high scoring year in Germany’s DEL and then a stint in the Russian KHL, I made my way to the top Swedish league (now the SHL) in Modo. We had several big-named players. Niklas Sundstrom, Mattias Timander, young stud Mats Zuccarrello and even Peter Forsberg for a stretch, as he was attempting a comeback. All of those players were tremendously talented hockey players and great people. However, we also had a young defenceman that was a top prospect. I had come to the team in early December and had played well in my first few games, scoring a hat trick in my second game and showcasing a big slapshot that would put me on the point on the powerplay. The referee would call a penalty and on I would go, giving the young prospect a tap on the shin pads as he skated off, to watch and learn from the bench as the veterans played the powerplay. Not once did he complain that some 30-year old Canadian was getting minutes on the powerplay (that he or someone else could have been playing) in Sweden. He partnered with Timander and would continually ask him questions and emulate what he saw from watching the older players. I would sit next to him on a few bus trips and chat with the prospect about his family or life in Sweden and came away impressed with his maturity for a 17 year old kid. He still remains to this day one of the best skaters that I have played with and I am not surprised with the success that he has had in the NHL. Victor Hedman (the prospect) learned from some of the best leaders in Swedish hockey, grew up in a humble and hard working town (Örnsköldsvik) and never once showed entitlement or bitterness at losing ice time to veterans, despite his popularity and potential. He has turned into arguably one of the top 5 defencemen in the World, and his attitude is a big reason why.

So be prepared to work hard, laugh a lot, gain friendships and ask questions. I’m finishing up my 18th year of hockey in an up and down career that has taken me through 13 countries and I learn something new each and every day. If you can deal with failure now and again but keep grinding to see your successes realized, then you might just have a future in hockey.
Good luck.


Jeff Ulmer

Hockey DB – Jeff Ulmer

Elite Prospects – Jeff Ulmer

JU

jeffulmer44@gmail.com