Game Changers, Part Two: Video explosion makes for quantum leap in coaching

Erie Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch writes on the board before the Canada-Russia Series.
Erie Otters head coach Kris Knoblauch writes on the board before the Canada-Russia Series.

How is junior hockey developing a new generation of NHL player like Connor McDavid? Yahoo Sports is publishing a three-part series speaking to coaches and GMs – many of whom are former NHLers – across the Canadian Hockey League to find out how the game is changing.

As head coach of the Halifax Mooseheads, Andre Tourigny spends an inordinate amount of time watching video. It comes from everywhere: YouTube, websites, Facebook, TV feeds, and recorded game tapes. NHL games, junior games, international feeds – you name it, he’ll watch it.

The 42-year-old is on the lookout for anything that will give his team or his players an advantage either through a new idea or a teachable moment. That doesn’t even take into account the pre-scouting he and his staff do daily trying to parse his next QMJHL opponent.

So how much time does he spend watching video?

“Too much, way too much,” said Tourigny with a laugh. “But as a coach most of our life is about this. You work with the players and then they leave and go home, we’re jumping back on the video to make sure every detail about our team is covered. I’ve never done the math but probably 60 or 70 per cent of my time is spent on video.”

This is commonplace across the Canadian Hockey League. It’s no surprise more coaches are wearing glasses these days as eyestrain from constantly watching video on various devices takes its toll.

“It’s a lot of hours,” said Sarnia Sting head coach Derian Hatcher. “And there are three coaches too – I mean one of our coaches, honestly he watches video all day long pretty much.”

Thanks to video software programs like Steva, marking clips and breaking down individual plays – and players – has never been easier. Need to see a specific power play? An opponent’s penalty kill? Go isolation on certain player? Look at an entire shift? An entire game? No problem. All a video coach has to do is mark the clip and aggregate everything the coach wants to see. In Sarnia’s case, Hatcher’s players are sent a compilation of all their shifts after the game for them to revisit. It’s common for junior teams to upload games or player-specific videos for players to stream at home. Coaches can even see which players have viewed the content and which ones haven’t.

There’s very little that’s left to chance when it comes to preparing for an opponent.

“That’s the game now – execution,” said Hatcher. “You have a few individual plays and then execution – who makes the play at the end of the day. There should be no surprises, to be honest with you.”

For players, the constant barrage of media is something they’ve grown up surrounded by. Computers, tablets, gaming consoles and smartphones have always been a part of life. Marrying these tools with coaching means that players are able to see exact examples of what is trying to be taught. It’s come a long way from diagrams sketched on a dry erase board.

Many coaches find it’s easier to teach this generation of players because they are more accustomed to learning visually.

“Years ago when I did video with (players) it had to be really short and I couldn’t overload them with information,” said Tourigny. “Now they want it. They want more. They’re used to video on the iPad so it’s different. Now if you ask to do video with a player you’re not getting, ‘Oh my god here we go again,’ it’s the opposite. They want it because they want to be better – they’re more performance-oriented.”

Tourigny notes there’s more video work in junior because, unlike the NHL, many of these players are still learning what it takes to get to the next level. In the NHL, he says, it’s more about small reminders for players.

“In the NHL you do less one-on-one video sessions,” said Tourigny, who was an NHL assistant coach with the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche. “In junior you need to do quite a bit more because junior is like guys are at school so they’re learning about positioning and new things.”

In an era where information is so accessible, players have also been accustomed to asking more questions. It means coaches have to be more prepared than ever because their word is no longer unassailable. Seattle Thunderbirds coach Steve Konowalchuk believes the constant flow of video-based learning has made this new generation smarter about the game.

“Before video the coach was always right,” said the former NHLer and assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche. “Let’s be honest – back then no one was going back and watching games. Now with video they watch, they see things – players are smart – and when you’re teaching you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. Good players will come in and they’re going to ask questions, as they should, but you need to have an answer. Players are taught better so they ask more questions than they used to.”

They are also more prepared because they’re being coached better at every level. More and more NHLers and those with pro coaching experience are returning to the game to coach younger age groups. In the Western Hockey League alone there are seven head coaches with NHL experience as both player and coach. Another three head coaches have experience behind the bench of an NHL team. The same is true in the OHL (10 former NHLers) and the QMJHL (four former NHLers and four ex-NHL coaches). There’s a lot of institutional knowledge that’s being passed on as a result.

“Coaching has picked up in the last 10 years at the junior level,” said Windsor Spitfires GM Warren Rychel, who won a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 1996. “You’ve got many NHLers returning. Coaching has picked up in minor hockey because they’re seeing the same things we are on TV being done in the NHL. We live in a world where there are copy-cat coaches and minor hockey coaches watch junior and NHL coaches all the time.”

Go to YouTube and coaches are able to find anything: the Pittsburgh Penguins’ power-play breakout, the New York Rangers’ neutral-zone forecheck, the latest drills from USA Hockey and Hockey Canada. Both governing hockey bodies also have apps coaches can download to use with their players.

Hockey is a small world, and the coaching family is even smaller. There are more coaching clinics being offered for every level of the game and there seems to be more interest in sharing knowledge than ever before. But as Tourigny points out, in most cases it’s the big picture themes that are being shared and not the minutia that really makes a successful coach.

“It’s like the spaghetti sauce of your grandma,” said Tourigny. “She’ll give you the recipe, but she doesn’t give you the last little detail that makes the difference. That’s what makes the difference. So you can talk to a coach and go to a clinic and they’ll say all the good things, but the secrets they keep secret.”

As coaches are improving at the minor hockey level, so too are the players.

The days when hockey was considered just a winter sport are long gone. There is more focus on skill development, strength and conditioning, and diet at a young age. Sport-specific training has been honed to the point where there’s practically a personal coach or camp for everything. The abundance of these “teams” surrounding players is also in some instances changing the dynamic in the dressing room.

“If you go back 20 or 30 years ago the assistant coach’s job was his relationship with the players,” said Tourigny. “It was important for the players to have someone they could talk to. But that’s not true anymore. Now the player has an agent, a psychologist, a personal skills coach, a power skating coach – if he wants to talk to someone he has a lot of people around him. A lot of people he can talk to.”

More and more, families are spending inordinate amounts of time and money to focus on this sport-specific training. It’s become a huge investment for many.

“Minor hockey has become such a business now,” said Hatcher. “I really think it’s a pity. Coaches get paid a lot of money to coach and so in return, they’re supposed to win. I think it starts in minor hockey – it’s taking all the creativity out of the game.”

Konowalchuk believes that too much hockey, particularly at a young age, is resulting in burnout among players. He thinks there’s too much focus being spent on organized games for kids, when what they really should be having is fun.

“Now kids are growing up almost to become hockey players which is kind of sad to say,” said the 14-year NHL veteran. “I think the right approach is you play it and have fun with it – and if you make it, great. But that’s not just hockey, that’s with everything, there’s all this money in all these specialized things.

“You have to be playing the game because you love it. If you love it, you’ll work hard and you’ll keep playing.”

Game Changers, Part One: Life Without The Red Line

Tomorrow: Game Changers, Part Three: Defenders Of The Game