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.

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