ARLINGTON — A decade of sustained success on the ice has had an impact off it for the Capitals and hockey in the Washington, D.C. area.
Long before last year’s run to the Stanley Cup, youth hockey participation had skyrocketed in the metro area by almost 5,000 players in the decade since the Capitals first made the playoffs with Alex Ovechkin in 2007-08, according to USA Hockey.
All of those players need good coaching. On Saturday at MedStar Iceplex, more than 70 local coaches gathered for a unique opportunity: a clinic run by Washington head coach Todd Reirden and three of his assistants.
The youth coaches watched a full Capitals practice, saw the drills NHL players are put through and later sat for an hour-long talk and question-and-answer session with Reirden and assistants Reid Cashman, Scott Murray and Tim Ohashi. The event was hosted by NBC Sports Washington analyst Craig Laughlin.
“Just to be here talking to [NHL] coaches you find out the small things matter so much,” said Toby Heusser, the head coach at Urbana High in Frederick, Md. and the Maryland Student Hockey League coach of the year. “It’s all about relationships and players trusting in you. It’s the little things that make you win Stanley Cups – or have any success on the ice.”
Coaches watched a video presentation from Ohashi, Washington’s video analyst, on some basic systems the Capitals use. They saw two goals scored in games based off drills Washington goes over time and again in practice. Murray talked about how to work with goalies, likely not be a strong suit for coaches who were skaters during their playing days and don’t necessarily know the intricacies of the position.
“When I was coaching, I’d just say ‘Get in the net there and stop the puck,” Laughlin joked.
The NHL coaches went over practice plans, tactical theories and coaching leadership and communication. The youth coaches took notes and listened intently as men with years of experience in the game at the highest levels told them the biggest lessons they’d learned.
“I’m a big believer in development,” Cashman said. “For you guys, your mindset at practice every day is ‘How do I develop my athletes?’ when they’re on the ice as hockey players and when they’re off the ice as young men and young women. How can I help these individuals maximize their abilities today?”
Cashman said that given the constraints on ice time and space, coaches should work in small groups as much as possible. Work with the forwards and have an assistant take the defensemen and goalies. With sometimes as little as 45 minutes of ice time to practice, going over wall play for 10 minutes will be as effective at pushing team systems. Working on defensemen cutting around the net hard is as important as 15 minutes going over the power play.
“As much as you want to win that next game and get ready for that next opponent, I would challenge you to focus on developing your individual skills, developing your individual relationships amongst your team,” Cashman said. “I feel very passionate about if you do that then team success will follow.
Reirden noted one of his favorite coaches at any level of hockey was three-time Stanley Cup champion Joel Quenneville, who he played for two seasons with the St. Louis Blues. Quenneville was honest with his players about if they would be in the lineup and if not they would know exactly why. Reirden said it helped players avoid wasting emotional energy asking themselves what they had to do to get back in or how much they would play if they did.
Quenneville once told Reirden that his passing was bad and he wasn’t playing. Simple. The next day Reirden showed up at the rink an hour early and worked on his passing.
“I knew exactly where I stood – good or bad. That’s the thing I’ve tried to do in my coaching career in college, in the AHL, in the NHL.” Reirden said. “Just be clear. Tell the players the truth – whether they like it or don’t at least they know what they have to worry about the next day.”
Reirden spoke about head coaches empowering assistant coaches to work with players. There has to be trust there, too. Coaches were given a copy of Saturday’s practice schedule with a breakdown of the drills. They asked how engaged players are in how the Capitals practice. They asked how coaches set up practice to match the intensity of game speed. They asked how the staff keeps its goalies involved when there aren’t doing shooting drills. And they got to see an honest-to-goodness Stanley Cup ring in all its glory and take pictures with the staff and Laughlin.
Heusser, the head coach at Urbana since 2010, sheepishly admitted he’d missed his daughter’s cheerleading competition to attend the seminar. He’ll definitely make that up to her later, but this was too good an opportunity to miss.
“It was a great day. You realize these guys are human beings who love the game just like we do,” Heusser said. “For the Capitals to do something like this for all the local coaches makes a big impact on me and my four-year-old son who loves the game of hockey. I’ll go home and show him all the pictures I got today and meeting [Reirden]. Giving us a few hours of their day, their life, it goes a long way.”
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