The Smart Hockey solution (Part 1)
We’re learning very quickly, as evidenced by the European and Soviet invasion into the NHL over the last fifteen years, that the North American system, or lack thereof, for developing skilled hockey players is immensely inadequate. Although the 2002 Olympic and 2004 World Cup results would seem to indicate otherwise, when you consider all the relative data, there is a trend that should sound an alarm to players, coaches and parents in North America that the time to reevaluate our approach to training players is now. Consider these facts:

In 1982, nearly 83% of the players in the NHL were Canadian, approximately 11% were American
In 1992, 66% of the players in the NHL were Canadian, approximately 13% were American and 21% were European.
In 2002, 54% of the players in the NHL were Canadian, 13% were American and 33% were European.
The Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, and Sweden account for less
than 18% of the total number of players in the world, but in the 2001-2002
season 36% of the NHL’s top 50-point scorers were comprised of players
from these 5 countries.
In the 2003 All-Star Game, 6 of the top 12 starters (50%) were European,
3 were American and 3 were Canadian.

A typical North American reaction to this information is, “it’s in their blood”. That’s not true though. The Europeans learned the game from us. Another reaction is, “hockey is all they play over there”. This is not true either. Soccer is all they play over there. In fact, we have almost 4 times as many registered hockey players in North America (955,329) as they do in Europe (258,919)1. So you might logically conclude that our players don’t have as much access to ice time. The opposite is true again. We actually have more than 8 times as many indoor rinks (5,850 versus 714), which means North American players have twice as much access to ice time as our European peers. And even with these huge disparities, 5 tiny European countries – Russia, Sweden, Czech Republic, Finland and Slovakia, which account for just 18% of all the registered hockey players in the world currently provide 33% of all the players in the NHL. If the current trend continues, and all indications from the last three drafts are that it will, these five countries will provide more than 50% of the players in the NHL by 2010.

So what’s the deal? Why is it that there is such a disproportionate percentage of highly skilled players coming out of these 5 countries? The answer is two part and actually quite simple. First the Europeans employ a 5:1 practice to game ratio as compared to our 2:3 practice to game ratio. And second, European coaches emphasize skills development using a linear skills development progression program, which was developed in the former Soviet Union.

For the past ten years, North American elites at the very highest levels of the game have recognized both the problem and the solution to fixing North America’s inadequate skills development training systems. Experimental teams like the US National Junior Development Team (NJDT) were created to see how the best US players would fare if trained properly. The results have been nothing short of spectacular. In just 3 years over 61 of the 179 players (34%) that have passed through the NJDT doors have been drafted to the NHL not to mention the #1 pick overall in the 2000 draft. Almost 80% of the players who have played a season for the NJDT went on to play either Division 1 College hockey or Major Junior A and this is just a small sampling of the possible results when our players are trained properly under competent coaches. Unfortunately disseminating the NJDT model across the entire North American system is impossible due to costs and time.

In 1997, Smarthockey realized something had to be done about the way hockey players were being trained in North America. It was obvious that the Soviet method for developing a player’s skills worked. So after nearly three years of research and development, in 2000, Smarthockey catalogued over 260 Russian ice hockey progression-training exercises on a 4 hour DVD and created it’s first of eight skills development training systems, which have focused on disseminating Russian Progression Training Systems using innovative media technology solutions – the most recent solution being the “Vincent Lecavalier – 21 day workouts”.

There’s an old saying, “Work smart, not hard”. At Smarthockey we say, “Work hard in a smart way”. We know it’s self-defeating to work hard in a system that doesn’t work, but when you work hard in a system that creates measured and noticeable results the desire to work hard becomes infectious and success becomes guaranteed.

The Smarthockey Training System® is exactly what it implies – a smart hockey training system based on proven Russian and European Progression Training Systems that have produced results for over 50 years. We didn’t try to reinvent the wheel – we just improved upon it. The Smarthockey Training System® eliminates the doubt of whether or not you’re training in a smart way and leaves the question of “How good do I want to be?” totally up to you. It’s a question of how hard you’re willing to work, how dedicated you are to the sport, and how much you’re willing to sacrifice to achieve your goals. The great thing is you’re empowered to decide your destiny. Smarthockey simply shows you how.

1 Taken from 2002 IIHF Statistics
The success of the Russian and European skills development progression training programs can’t be ignored. It’s time we faced up to the reality that the Russians and the Europeans know how to train their players and coaches better than we do here in North America.

For the last 50 years the Russians and the Europeans have developed and refined the most efficient and effective methods to develop elite level hockey players. As a result a significantly higher percentage of players who play and train in the Russian and European systems become highly skilled elite level hockey players compared to the percentage of players who play and train
in North America.

We need to change our philosophical approach to how we develop and prepare our players at every level of the game. It’s nonsensical to think we can develop highly skilled players when, from the time they are eight years old, they play 80 games a season but only practice 40 to 60 times a season. It’s even more nonsensical to believe that they can become highly skilled players when more often than not the coaches teaching the players have little if any significant hockey experience and absolutely no access to a clearly defined outline for proper skills development.

It’s time we understood the difference between “Coaching to Win” and “Coaching to Develop Skills”. We need to understand why it’s counter productive to have our players compete in 80 games a year. We need to know how to implement a North American Skills Development Program which follows a linear progression of development. We need to understand how we can change league schedules to accommodate a 5:1 practice to game ratio. And we need to understand how we can make the game fun again.

In the following section, Smarthockey presents its case and its solution.

The North American Coaching Dilemma

European coaches have access to clearly outlined skills development systems adopted from proven Russian training techniques, which they use to systematically teach and monitor their players’ individual development. European coaches employ a 5:1 practice to game ratio, which enables them to focus on both their players’ skills development and on their team systems.

On the other hand, North American coaches do not have access to clearly outlined skills development programs. And worse, for the most part, North American amateur youth hockey leagues have adopted a 2:3 practice to game ratio.

It’s Smarthockey’s contention that most North American coaches don’t “coach to develop skills” because, one, they don’t know how and, two, they don’t have enough practice time with their players.

Due to league imposed practice to game ratios, North American coaches at all levels are forced to choose between teaching players individual skills development or teaching them team systems – known as the “Coaching to Win” versus the “Coaching to Develop Skills” dilemma.

A coach who is “coaching to win”, focuses on team systems like breakouts, forechecking, neutral zone positioning, power plays, man-down, etc. The coach assesses the ability of his athletes and then uses his players like chess pieces in a well orchestrated and rehearsed strategy to beat the coaches of other teams.

On the other hand, a coach who is “coaching to develop skills” is only concerned about making his players better by concentrating specifically on their individual skills like basic puck control, dynamic puck control, basic skating, dynamic skating, shooting, dekes, one-timers, passing and one-on-ones. The coach assesses the playing ability of his players and then follows linear skills development systems teaching his players how to be fundamentally skilled players who can be placed in and excel in any team system.

The “Coaching to win” philosophy works and is acceptable at only the highest levels of the game. Professional, collegiate and junior level coaches are hired to win. At these levels a coach’s job depends on his winning percentage, and by this time his players should have received enough individual skills development instruction throughout their careers to be competent players.

Inversely, coaches at any other level of the game, whether it is High School, Midget, Bantam, Pee Wee, Squirt, Mite, or Mini-Mite, should only be concerned with how to most effectively develop the individual skills of their players so that their players can ultimately perform in any team system at any level. Team systems at the lower levels should be basic and winning percentages should be an afterthought.

The reality is that if a coach is a good teacher, his players’ relatively superior individual skills inserted into simple team systems will ultimately win games against teams with less skilled players. Unfortunately, the majority of North American coaches don’t subscribe to the “coaching to develop skills” philosophy, and if they do, most coaches don’t know how to implement it. As a result, more and more North America players are being taught how to be position players who rely on size and physical play to dominate their opponents
but for the most part don’t have any skills.

The next opportunity you have to watch a game or practice, time how long the best player on the ice actually handles the puck. In 2002, USA Hockey officials observed 4 Championship games – 2002 Olympic Gold Medal Game, 2002 Midget National Championship, 2002 Bantam National Championship, and the 2002 Pee Wee National Championship. The USA Hockey officials picked players who were expected to be key performers for each team.

Canada VS. USA
Player Ice Time # of Shifts Puck Possession Possesion per Shift
Sakic, Joe 15:25 27 79.5 seconds 2.9 seconds
Modano, Mike 19:47 28 58.1 seconds 2.1 seconds
Amonte, Tony 12:51 22 46.6 seconds 2.1 seconds
Average 16:01 25.6 61.4 seconds 2.3 seconds
Canada VS. USA
Player Ice Time # of Shifts Puck Possession Possesion per Shift
1 19:09 22 53.8 seconds 2.4 seconds
2 17:43 15 29.6 seconds 1.9 seconds
3 27:09 27 112.9 seconds 4.2 seconds
4 13:32 16 24.1 seconds 1.5 seconds
5 16:25 17 26.9 seconds 1.6 seconds
6 10:31 15 52.8 seconds 3.5 seconds
7 19:26 24 54.7 seconds 2.2 seconds
8 13:49 15 34.1 seconds 2.3 seconds
Average 17:13 18.9 48.3 seconds 2.5 seconds
Canada VS. USA
Player Ice Time # of Shifts Puck Possession Possesion per Shift
1 15:58 18 34.1 seconds 1.8 seconds
2 20:02 21 99.8 seconds 4.7 seconds
3 19:14 19 77.9 seconds 4.1 seconds
4 12:33 14 26.3 seconds 1.8 seconds
5 16:21 20 52 seconds 2.6 seconds
6 19:48 20 75.9 seconds 3.8 seconds
7 23:34 24 97.3 seconds 4.0 seconds
Average 17:13 18.9 48.3 seconds 2.5 seconds
Canada VS. USA
Player Ice Time # of Shifts Puck Possession Possesion per Shift
1 17:36 23 43.8 seconds 1.9 seconds
2 18:34 22 35.4 seconds 1.6 seconds
3 15:09 21 30.6 seconds 1.4 seconds
4 12:56 18 47.3 seconds 2.6 seconds
5 15:56 21 41.8 seconds 1.9 seconds
Average 16:02 21 38.4 seconds 1.8 seconds
What can we do?
As evidenced by the US Hockey Observation Project and based on the success of the Russian and European hockey systems which employ a 5:1 practice to game ratio, clearly games are not the optimal place for players to develop their skills.

Smarthockey is a firm believer in the philosophy of, “If you can’t beat them join them”. Clearly the Russians and Europeans have developed superior skills development progression training systems that work. There is nothing wrong with admitting that they are training their players more effectively than we are in North America. It’s okay to copy what they are doing, but it would be even better if we took what they are doing and then improved upon it.

Dr. Yasha Smushkin, a Russian skills development instructor, used to always say, “To be best, it is easy. Do everything the best player can do and then just a little bit more”. In other words, duplicate everything the best player can do and then improve upon it.

Based on Smushkin’s philosophy, we not only need to provide our coaches with a clearly outlined skills development progression training system which can be implemented into team practices like the Europeans do, but we also have to provide a training guide and a way for players to work on their skills anytime and anywhere in structured yet simple format. In addition to providing training programs to coaches we need to provide a way for coaches who have little or no hockey background to be able to effectively teach his or her players the necessary skills to become an elite level player via the use of a virtual instructor.

Change the “Practice to Game Ratio”. There should be between 5 and 10 practices for each game. Currently most A, AA, and AAA teams, from Mite to Midget, have 2 practices a week and 2 to 3 games a weekend. This Practice to Game Ratio is counter productive to a player’s skills development training especially when you consider the average player only touches the puck for 45 seconds a game and 90 seconds a practice. We need to provide more time for our coaches to teach players the necessary skills to become competent players.
The United States and Canada need to develop a simple, comprehensive, individual skills development curriculum that can be implemented on a national basis and taught by coaches with varying levels of playing and coaching experience. Practices need to become more productive. The U.S. and Canada need to outline a practice-by-practice curriculum of “Skills Development” exercises. These exercises should be disseminated using the most up-to-date software or web technologies, which can be performed during the first half hour to 45 minutes of each practice. The goal should be to develop a Training System that enables coaches with any level of experience to teach players how to develop their skills in a linear progression of development. If coaches can’t perform the outlined exercises they should be able to bring a laptop computer out onto the ice so players can watch the drills demonstrated by the instructor on the DVD. Furthermore, coaches should be able to measure, plot and compare each player’s individual skills development against a national average (see www.sportquest.com). This way coaches will know how their players are doing compared to a national databank of players and exactly what they, as coaches, need to concentrate on with each player. Ultimately this gives coaches the ability to assign “Hockey Homework Assignments” to their players.

Change the league schedules. Leagues should schedule 6 - 8 round robin tournaments a season or one tournament a month. This format does a couple of things for players, teams and parents.

During non-tournament weeks, teams can schedule two practices
during the week and two practices during the weekend for a total
of four practices a week.
Since tournaments are only held once a month, players and parents
only go on the road once a month, which drastically cuts down the time,
travel and expenses usually associated with hockey.
With fewer games and more time between each game, tournaments
become more meaningful inspiring a higher level of competition.
Make players and teams who can’t afford ice time aware of equipment like the C|SAW® Chassis Technology and Smarthockey Training Ball® which enables teams to use tennis courts or basketball courts to conduct practices. This equipment gives organizations a cost efficient way to achieve a 5:1 Practice to Game ratio, while still affording their players and coaches the necessary time to work on skills development and team systems.
Provide players and parents a simple off-ice training guide for personal skills
development accompanied by a catalog of drills that they can reference and use (e.g. Smarthockey Training System). The same material we provide to the coaches should be given to each player at the beginning of each season. Coaches should assign “Hockey Homework” to players throughout the season and should assign a “Summer Program” at the end of each season. Players who don’t have access to ice time can simply perform the drills outside using the C|SAW® Technology nd Training Ball.
Encourage players to play pick up hockey with friends using the C|SAW® Chassis and Smarthockey Training Ball® on tennis courts, basketball courts or cul-de-sacs. Players need non-structured environments where they can play hockey for fun.
In the Preliminary Round of 2002 Olympics, Canada lost to Sweden 5-2 and tied the Czech Republic 3-3. Canada has almost 8 times as many players as either country and almost 11 times as many rinks as Sweden and 33 times as many rinks as the Czech Republic.
In the Preliminary Round of the 2002 Olympics the U.S. tied Russia 2-2. The U.S. has 7.5 times as many players as Russia and 29 times as many rinks.
In the Medal Round, Canada only beat Finland 2-1. Canada has 9 times as many players and 17 times as many rinks.

How is any of this possible? Why aren’t Canada and the United States exceedingly superior hockey countries?

The answer is simple:

“Even at the age of 10 or 11, when you go to hockey school, the quality of the coaches is tremendous [in the Czech Republic]. That is one of the problems for the U.S. The coaches [for children] are just not as good. Even small guys need good coaches, to learn how to skate, to pass, and to play.”2 Jan Hlavac, left-winger for Vancouver Canucks and member of the Czech National Team

For arguments sake, let’s say that the best player in any given game controls the puck an average of one minute each game and let’s say that same player controls the puck for an average of 2 minutes during a typical practice. That means that during a 60-game 40-practice season the best player on the team only controls the puck for 2 hours and 10 minutes a season. But what’s alarming is that the average Puck Possession per Shift is only 2.5 seconds. “The numbers showed that stick and puck skills can’t be developed in a game. It proves you can accomplish a lot more in practice with the puck than in a game.”3

Kevin McLaughlin, USAH director of player development

Players can’t improve their individual skills during games because there’s simply not enough time, which makes constructive, structured on and off-ice skills development exercises taught by competent coaches and instructors that much more important. “We’ve been saying this over and over. The more quality repetitions you get with any given skill, the easier it will be to turn that skill into instinct.” 4

Bob O’Conner, USAH Coach-in-Chief

If a player works half an hour a day using the Smarthockey Training System™ over a 60 day/12-week period (summer break), that player can duplicate more than 15 seasons worth of skills development training in a single summer.

2McLaughlin, John, “Hip Czechs,” Delta Skywriting Magazine, December 28, 2001
3Thompson, Harry “The Numbers Game,” American Hockey Magazine, October 2002, pg. 14
Smarthockey hopes players, coaches and parents recognize and appreciate the sheer volume of work that went into the entire Smarthockey Training System®. It was our way of giving back to a game that has given so much to our families and to us. Believing the mantra, “Actions not words” I hope that the Smarthockey Training System is not only seen as a hockey skills development tool, but that the results players and teams observe demonstrate that hard work, dedication, humility and a good plan are the ingredients for success in every aspect of life.

Smarthockey would like to thank you for the opportunity to impart our knowledge of the game to you. We hope it makes a difference.

So good luck, work hard, have fun but most of all be Smart.

Gard Mayer

If you have any questions or comments concerning the Smarthockey Training System, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us.

4Thompson, Harry “The Numbers Game,” American Hockey Magazine, October 2002, pg. 15


 
 





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