Updated: Jul 24
Being an EXTREME latecomer to the greatest show on ice, I was a good twenty years
behind most of the beer leaguers in my area. Though I experienced an unimaginable amount of joy acquiring and refining the skills necessary to reach proficiency (skating, stopping skating, falling without injury, skating around other players, more skating, and eventually using a stick with a puck), it took me almost six months to begin playing anything that even closely resembled the sport of ice hockey.
Now eight years into my journey, I play with groups of varying skill and experience levels. In addition to my own playing, I have coached five years of youth hockey and am in my second year of developmental interscholastic hockey. I have invested significant amounts of time researching coaching curriculum in order to best develop the youth players I’ve coached. Since I’ve never been the most adept player, I believed it was my responsibility to be as informed about teaching the nuances and skills I may not be able to demonstrate, but surely my players would need to develop in order to reach their respective goals. As any earnest coach will tell you, it’s a labor of love which involves many unpaid hours and a significant amount of begging, borrowing and stealing of materials from other coaches.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share some strategic X and O style hockey knowledge that your team can learn and apply during games to improve each and every player’s ability to advance in hockey skill. But for now, I wanted to impart 5 simple things every beer league team can do right now to play better and have more fun.
Have a team leader, captain, “coach”
Beer (Adult Rec) League teams always have a captain. This is often the poor sap who
is responsible for attending league meetings, chasing down people for fees, and the ultimate punishment: responsible for buying jerseys. More often than not, this person is the defacto leader of the team. If that’s you, then it’s your job to be the leader and talk to your teammates about how to play. If this isn’t a role you’re comfortable with or are qualified for, then I recommend you talk to the most knowledgeable and ‘coach worthy’ player on your team and ask them to fulfill this role.
Having a knowledgeable and encouraging leader on the team will enable the less experienced players on your squad to ask questions and feel comfortable learning more about the game. This ultimately creates greater confidence and a sense of belonging, but if you’re competitive it can definitely impact your win / loss ratio.
A fellow beer leaguer posted in our hockey group the other day that his team actually stuck to 1-2 minutes shifts and that it was the best game their team ever played. Naturally this comment was met with good natured chirps about him being a liar. In all seriousness, this is the secret to both having the most fun on the ice and achieving greater team success. 30 - 45 seconds of ice at full effort is prescribed as the best way to play the game of ice hockey. When coaching a U16 team last season, I actually got out the stop watch to hold my team to 45 seconds. It drastically improved moral, personal responsibility of the players (especially the ‘heroes’ that were taking 3 - 4 minutes shifts) and earned us the season championship banner. Beer League is no exception.
The single weakest point of the adult game is back checking. For those of you who may have heard this term but don’t know it’s definition (and by most of the games I’ve seen, I’m hoping its a lack of knowledge and not a lack of heart which most greatly contributes to the lack of back-checking) here you go:
A majority of goals in Rec League hockey are scored either on breakaways or on the rush. When your team is in the offensive zone and the puck changes possession, having 3 forwards skating their hardest and chasing down the puck carrier will reduce the amount of time the opposing player has to think, limits the direction and locations to pass or shoot, and generally results in a turnover which sends your team right back on the offensive.
In all honesty, the greatest contributing factor to a lack of back-check is usually fatigue. If you’re limiting your shifts to 30-45 seconds, you should be able to eliminate that excuse from the team.
The key to building a great team is chemistry. The simplest way to build chemistry is by communicating. With any team, there must be a balance between positive and negative communication. Both can be effective to motivate teammates and get the best results. In both youth sports and Rec League, I can tell you that positive communication makes the greatest difference and at a minimum a 90/10 balance will produce excellent results.
There are three areas where communication must be stressed: On the bench, on the ice, and in the locker room.
When on the bench, get line mates talking to each other about things they’re seeing on the ice. Congratulate them for a great pass, shot, or positioning. Let them know the things they’re doing well. Everyone gets a little jump in their step when they’re called out for making a positive contribution. If you blew a pass, or played selfish, or made some mistake - apologize to a line mate. This shows that even though they might not understand it, you’re thinking about them and their role when you’re on the ice. When you want to try something on the ice, a set play, encourage players to shoot more and crash for rebounds, make suggestions between shifts. All of these communications are instructional, inclusive and encourage team behavior for your next shift.
On the ice is probably the most difficult communication to develop. As players are learning the game, it is often too much effort to speak (let alone shout) while engaged in activity. Hockey requires the mastery of multiple skills and simultaneous use of those skills. Calling for passes, telling a player where their pressure is coming from, making sure they know the game situation (man down, man up, 20 seconds, etc.) are all helpful to the developing player. The more you exhibit and encourage this behavior, the greater awareness your line mates and teammates will possess.
Lastly, but most importantly is communication in the locker room. I have yet to meet a hockey player who isn’t at least a LITTLE competitive. It’s in our DNA. The best thing a leader / coach can do is loosen the team up after a loss. Make sure that if you have a team you want to keep together that you get everyone talking in the locker room after the game. Better players can become frustrated with lesser skilled players. Lesser skilled players can resent the better players over perceived slights. It’s not called Beer League for nothing. Include everyone, joke around with better players, chirp each other humorously. Hand out compliments to players who are learning the game. I’ve yet to see an exception to this as well, when a leader on the team compliments a less experienced player in the locker room, 100 times out of 100 a few other players chime in and reinforce that ‘way to go’. These communications, while simple in nature, develop a bond within the team that will drive every player to improve and build chemistry both on and off the ice.
Next time, I’ll delve into the X’s and O’s, but these 4 tips are great to start with and often the most overlooked by teams at every level.
What your your observations about Beer League Coaching? Share them below. . .