Friday, January 20, 2012

Practice, We're Talking About Practice!

Yes young hockey players, I am talking about practice.  PRACTICE!  Not the game that you give your all for, I am talking about practice.  I know what you're thinking and I can probably see that head roll with a shoulder shrug when you think about heading to the rink for practice.  Well, I guess you kind of have to deal with it because practice is a HUGE part of the game.  And, to me, arguably, the most crucial part of it.  You'll spend more time at practice than you'll ever spend in a game...guaranteed!  Teams that practice hard - play hard.  Teams that practice with no organization and not at game speed - well, they get beat.  Practice as you play, play as you practice.  It works both ways.  I, as a coach, LOVE practice.  I love being on the ice.  I love watching that look on my players face when they all of a suddenly get something and they see how it makes them better.  I also love to see my players in a line with their hands on their knees trying desperately to breathe because they just worked their tails off in a skating drill.  (FYI, if you can't breathe, get your hands off your knees and stand straight up.  Your body is like a straw, bend it, nothing gets through.)  Welcome, young hockey players, to PRACTICE!

A good coach is one that will spend days at a time planning practice.  If you only have one practice a week, those sixty minutes are that much more important.  If the kids spend too much time taking a knee while you are drawing a drill on a white board - you're wasting everyone's time.  Ice is precious (and rather expensive).  Use it for skating, skills and positioning...not drawing!  When you make it to college or the pros, you have time for that stuff.  In youth hockey, not so much.  With that being said, players, practice is for YOU.  It's not for the coach to get better at coaching (even though that's part of it as well).  It's for you to get better as a hockey player.  When a Coach sees you in a game, he begins to learn your game-speed.  When you're at practice and you're going 99%, I guarantee you, your Coach knows it.  Do yourself a favor, use practice for what it's there for - to get better.  If you're not going all out, getting outside of your comfort zone, you're simply not getting better.  Get on your edges, don't be afraid to fall, don't be afraid to send a pass a bit too hard and off the mark - it's PRACTICE.  If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough.  If you're not losing an edge on a corner, you're not skating fast enough.  If you're not out of breath after a skating drill, well, I will see that and will take care of that with some of my favorite drills.   If you practice lazy hockey, you'll play lazy hockey.  That's what this all boils down to.  Coaches expect you to go into every single game, every single shift and give it 110%.  Take that 110% and make it 200% and that's what I expect at practice.  You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him/her drink.  I will have a practice plan.  I will have good drills for you to learn more about the game and sometimes we will have a practice that is 100% fun just to keep your legs and mind fresh.  I've done my part before we even touch the ice.  When your skates hit the ice, it's time for you to do YOUR part.  Work hard.  Skate hard.  Test your limits.  Get better.  It's on you.

When I think of practice, I think of opportunity.   I don't think about - oh gee what can I do to have more fun.  For me, it's an opportunity to help my players sharpen their skills, not sharpen their whining about their skates being dull or the ice being less-than perfect (and really, what is perfect ice?  Is it frozen?  Good, we're all set).  It's an opportunity for us, as a team, to work on a passing drill so we can effectively get out of the zone, not to do a twirl because it's cool.   I yell and scream and about 99% of the time, it's not because I am yelling at a's because I need to be heard and players, you need to LISTEN.  Communication is one of the most important details of the game of hockey (and at every single stage in life.  If you can't master the art of listening, you can't effectively communicate).  One that can easily be worked on and perfected...where boys?  Practice!  Very good, now I know you're paying attention.  As a Coach, there are few things worse then taking a minute to explain a drill in the locker room and then asking a player, "what's your responsibility?"  Only to be welcomed by that blank stare because, well, they simply weren't paying attention.  You chose to play the game of hockey (wise decision by the way).  You chose to get to this point.  You chose to be at practice tonight (another wise decision).  Now, pay attention.  Take note of the picture of Team Canada at practice just above.  These are some of the best hockey players in the world...without question.  For all you Crosby haters out there, yes, he is in there with it.  They are all paying very CLOSE attention to Coach Mike Babcock.  Why do you think that is?  Even at that level, you certainly don't want to forget your responsibility during a drill.  ESPECIALLY if the Coach just went over the details.  Pay attention hockey players.  It's good for the Coach's health (but great for your endurance if you're not).

Sidney Crosby doing puck control drills around cones at practice.  Yes hockey players, even the best in the world still have to practice the basic skills.  Why?  To stay sharp.  The second you become complacent is the exact moment in time is when the competition leaves you in the dust.
So kids, do yourself a favor.  You want to be a better hockey player?  Then practice at a speed at which you think you cannot handle.  Get outside of your comfort zone.  If you take your foot off the gas in practice, you just won't get better.  The Coach will (should) do his/her part to be prepared for practice for you to learn.  Once you hit the's on you.  Read the quote below from former NHL Superstar Eric Lindros.  Honestly, I could have left this entire blog at that, but, then what's the point?.  Well said, Eric.  Well said!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Play Like a Champion!

If you ask 100 players, coaches and parents what it means to play like a Champion, you may very well get 100 different answers.  I thought long and hard what it meant to me and furthermore, what I expect my players to believe in when it comes to playing like a champion.  Is it 100% about winning?  Not even close.   Is it working hard every single shift and respecting the game, as well as your opponent throughout?  Sure, why not.  Is it skating hard to the net and spraying the goaltender?  Nope!  It is what you make it out to be as a part of your team.  Give your all, every second that you have, and you will know the feeling of playing like a champion.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of listening to many great coaches and former NHL players/scouts talk about the game of hockey at my Level IV USA Hockey Coaching Clinic in New Jersey.  All of the speakers were great.  Shoot, the late, great former head of NHL Scouting E.J. McGuire was there.  Always a pleasure listening to a guy like that.  One of the speakers I thought was above them all was one I really enjoyed listening to and wanted to hear more from.  He was professional, he was courteous, he was knowledgeable, creative and, I think one of the biggest things to me, was rather young and where I wanted (WANT) to be as a Coach.  He's the head coach of the Division I College Hockey Program at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.  Any guesses?  That coach - Derek Schooley.  I connected with him on twitter and simply asked him, what's it mean to you to play like a champion?  His answer...priceless!

Here he is simply stating that no individual is greater, or bigger than that of the team.  It's a fairly simple thing to understand but for some reason, there are a lot of young and quite talented players that just don't get it.  Getting it, understanding it, living it - that's half the battle.  I often use the term PRIDE when it comes to coaching my team.  To me, using PRIDE is playing like a champion.  PRIDE, for us, stands for PLAY with RESPECT, INTEGRITY, DISCIPLINE and ENERGY.  If you bring PRIDE to every single shift to help accomplish the mission of the team, then you will be playing like a champion.  When I am on the bench and I see a player make a mistake, I will often ask them to tell me what he just did out there.  Every once in a while I will get an answer that is what I have preached about over, and over, and over again NOT to do.  (Such as turning the puck over in a grey area when you feel backside pressure - just DUMP IT)  I leave it at that because he knows.  Pay attention to detail, play with PRIDE, work hard and get some!

Some people may define playing like a Champion as one who recently won a championship or is on a winning team.  In my honest opinion, that's not what we're looking for here.  It's much, MUCH deeper than that.  You can be on a losing team or simply losing a game and STILL play like a Champion!  Respect.  Honor.  Integrity.  Discipline.  Courage.  Learn it.  Love it.  Become it.  Every true warrior has the heart of a champion.  When Herb Brooks was looking for the players to make up his 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team (Miracle On Ice), he wasn't looking for the best players out there...he was looking for the right ones.  The ones that knew how to play the game, respect the game, and would outwork anybody out there.  He wanted guys who would get the job done - period.  That's what any Coach would love to have.  I would rather have a team filled with guys who give you everything on every single shift and will play as member of a team.  As opposed to a team filled with talented "individuals".  So, do you play like a champion?  Be honest with yourself.  Do you?  Do you come off the ice and say to yourself, "I played that shift like a champion?"  Do you take a selfish penalty and ask yourself, "was that the character of a champion?"  Do you slam your stick against the glass (or the bench) because, in your opinion, you didn't play a perfect shift?  Do you ask yourself these questions?  If not - you should.

Every time you step out on to the ice, think about it this way.  It's your own personal commercial.  It's one shot, one 45 to 60 second opportunity to leave an impression on someone.  What do you do with it?  How do you want to be remembered?  Do you want to be remembered as a hard worker?  A lazy skater?  A selfish individual?  A team player?  Someone who gives everything they have?  Or simply someone who just doesn't look like they want to be there?  Every time you step out onto the ice, it's your time.  It's your chance to leave an impression.  So, when you get off the ice after each shift, ask yourself a question.  Did I play like a champion would?  Well - did you?

Play like a champion - every shift.  Every opportunity.  Give it everything you have.  When you do, the sky is no longer the limit.  You can reach heights greater than you thought imaginable.

In sports, tradition means more than simply having a sign, a band or whatever it may be.  This sign isn't just  a gold sign with blue text stating "Play Like A Champion Today".  It's more than that.  It's mean so much more to many University of Notre Dame Football players who have donned the ND.  Before every game, the Irish begin their march to the field touching each sign in the hallway for good luck.  This one, it's a simple reminder that you're about to be a part of something that's bigger than you!  It's Notre Dame Football!  It's the history, it's the fans, it's the game.  No one man comes to mind when I think of Notre Dame Football.  It's not about one man. It's about the LEGEND that is the Irish!

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Importance of Pre-Game Preparation

First off, let me say that if you do not approve of me using a quote from Joe Paterno, I can't help you there.  It's a quote, take it for what it's worth.  Now, time to move along.

Hockey players, as I am sure you know, are quite an interesting group of individuals when it comes to pre-game preparation.  Some people have a routine, others just simply go with the flow.  Some shut down and listen to music while going over the game with visualization techniques in their head while others are just off-the-wall crazy and having fun (that was me!).  Some tape their sticks and others put every bit of equipment on the same way every single time.  This is all well and good, I don't think any coach is going to tell a player what to do in this sense.  What I am talking about here happens long before you ever set foot in an area.  Eating.  Sleeping.  Check-listing.  It's all a part of game-day and each is just as important as the next.  To start - Your body is a machine, plain and simple.  It needs fuel.  Now I am not a nutritionist nor do I try to act like one, but I know what a body needs in order to be fueled correctly.  When you get into your car to prepare for a road trip, you're not going to stick oil in the gas tank.  You're going to give it exactly what it needs, gas, in order to get you where you need to go.  So why don't you do the same thing for your body?  Who knows.

Gary Roberts is an ExNHLer (pictured left) who was well-known around the hockey world for the way he took care of his body.  He played his tough, physical style of game into his 40's and was a factor until the day he decided to hang up his skates and call it a career.  Could this be attributed to being lucky and not being injured all the time?  Sure, why not?  Could it be attributed to his genes and the fact that he was a bit of a freak of nature?  Yeah, that may have played a role as well.  The only thing that can be proven is that when it comes to Gary Roberts' longevity in a tough, no-nonsense type of league, he lasted because of the way he took care of himself.  His workouts, meals, pregame routines.  It was a religion to him.  Now that his playing days are behind him, rest assured he is still having an impact on the NHL.  Because of his reputation as a fitness and health guru, many current NHLers have sought guidance from the individual known throughout the league as "Scary Gary".  He has since started the "Gary Roberts High Performance Training Center" in North York, Ontario, Canada (  This is where he trains NHLers and others on the "right way" to take care of your machine, to prepare it and maintain it.  If you're a young player or parent and have signed up for Twitter, I urge you to follow him at @GaryRobertsHPT.  The stuff he puts out via the social networking site is pure gold.  For instance, in one of his tweets, he decided to make his own version of a balanced diet food chart.  This is what it looked like:
Fairly simple, wouldn't you agree?  This is a great segue into STEP ONE of game day preparation - fueling your machine.  This is very likely the most important step when it comes to being prepared to play the game of ice hockey and parents, sometimes you only fuel this fire (for better or worse).  When you're getting ready for a game you have to understand how it will impact your body.  If you don't have enough fuel in your system it will greatly impact your performance on the ice, as well as recovery time.  As we all know, in youth hockey, sometimes recovery is VITAL when it comes to our schedules as we may have multiple games in a very short span of time.  Eat Right!  Plain and simple.  Drive past McDonald's, Burger King, move away from the fancy burger joints and head to Subway, Olive Garden, even a pizza place would suffice.  Load up on Carbohydrates.  This is challenging, especially in the morning.  If you have a 6AM game, prepare yourself the night before.  That's right parents, don't go down to that hotel bar and help your young hockey player get prepared for the next morning.  Go pick up some bagels, WATER and the like and eat just as you wake up.  It's a challenge but you can do it.  Coke-a-cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Red Bull, 5-Hour Energry and all that other fancy energry crap, not a good choice for a pre-game drink.  Grab water, Gatorade, Powerade, something like that to help revitalize and hydrate your machine.  Take care of your body first thing in the morning and it will take care of you.  In between games, again stay away from those places mentioned before, stay away from those drinks, grab some carbs, something that will rebuild your machine.  Go back to your hotel, take a nap, clean up, freshen up and get ready for game two.  Sounds pretty simple, right?  What did you not see in there?  X-Box, Playstation, pool, that's right, NAP was about it.  Rest the machine so it can be ready to go when called upon.  Speaking of naps...

Coach Wagner on NO sleep!
STEP TWO - Get PLENTY of sleep before a game!  This one is tough, especially when you're visiting a hotel on a fun little road trip.  I coach U16 hockey players...try telling a bunch of 15 and 16-year-olds to go to bed at 10.  Two words - good luck!  If you're a player, this is ON YOU!  You want to be the best you can be on the ice?  For you, for your team.  Simple - get some rest!  By no means does this mean four hours of sleep because you were playing XBox all night long.  Sorry.  If you have a 6AM game and need to be at the rink by 5:15, this means going to bed by 9PM so you can get a good, solid 7 hours (and that's only if the rink is within a few minutes).  This is a hard task to complete but it's an absolute necessity.  As a coach, I love watching the other team walk in with wrangled hair, shirts untucked looking like they just rolled out of bed, mismatched socks - the works.  It makes me wish I was a player again so I could get moving before they even wake up and realize there is a game going on.  BUT, there is always that wonder - how many of my players got sufficient rest?  If they're smart and want to play a great game, then it better be all of them.  What step two boils down to is simple, get plenty of rest.  Don't go swimming until all hours of the night, don't play XBox until 2 AM, and by all means, don't play games right outside the coach's door while he's trying to sleep.  Your body is a machine, it won't be at its full potential unless it has rest.  Even the king of the jungle gets tired and needs a nap.

STEP THREE - Look/Act like a hockey player!  This one is quite simple and something I often stress.  There is a common phrase heard around sports, "if you look good, you'll feel good.  If you feel good, you'll play good."  This starts with how you look/feel walking into the arena.  If you look like Harry and Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber (kind of like Jonathan Toews and Adam Burish in the picture to the right), my guess is that you'll play like you could have starred in that movie.  When you walk into an arena you have to understand, you're not just there for YOU.  You are there representing the organization in which you choose to play the game of ice hockey.  Dress appropriately.  You're a hockey player, not a clown.  Strangely enough, there can be a small intimidation factor that can come into play as well.  When I see opponents walking into an arena, I never think twice about a kid who is dressed in a set of sweatpants or the first shirt they could find in the dark.  I got worried about the teams who look like teams.  Either wearing a team warmup, a tie and slacks.  Simple fact is, they look good, they look confident.  Before we even step onto the ice I was thinking about them, their game and the way they were going to play.  Hockey players dress like they deserve to be there.  Like they fought to be there.  Check out NHL Superstar Claude Giroux (pictured below).  Suit, tie, nice shoes - he looks good, he looks confident.  I only wish he would have combed his hair.  Simply put, he looks like a hockey player.  Your coaches should layout a pre-game uniform for you and your team so there is some sort of uniformity.  Don't bend it, don't try to do your own thing.  Look like you're a part of the team because no one man is bigger than the team - period.  "If you look good, you'll feel good.  If you feel good, you'll play good."

 STEP FOUR- Check, check again, and triple check your equipment.  This is short and sweet because it's the easiest one of them all.  Before you leave home, go through a checklist.  Make sure you have your equipment, and I mean ALL of it.  Don't leave your skates, jerseys, gloves, helmet or any other piece of equipment at home.  If you do, don't walk up to a Coach smiling because you realize that you made a mistake.  No Coach wants an excuse, just a solution.  This is a silly mistake that shouldn't happen.  There's a lot you need to get through a game.  Don't forget ANY OF IT!  It's not up to Mom or Dad to pack your bag for you, especially if your a Bantam or older.  If you're younger, well, that's up to you. That is all, just don't forget your equipment. When it comes to having your equipment, take accountability for your actions.  If you forget something, don't sit in the locker room with your head in your hands.  Try to find a replacement.  Take action.  Don't wait for the Coach to say "what's up?"

When it comes down to it, preparing for a game is 100%, without a doubt, on YOU.  Not the Coach, not your parents, not your buddy bringing XBox on the road trip.  You have to take responsibility for being prepared.  I don't care if you're 17, 14, 12 or something along those's on YOU!  If your parents say "let's stop by burger king and get you a quick meal".  Say "No thanks, rather have a sub packed with protein and carbohydrates so my body is ready to handle the rigors of a hockey game."  Hockey is a very demanding sport.  When you're coming off the ice after a shift or when the game is over, your body didn't just sweat out water, it sweat out fuel.  When the game is over, you will notice that your equipment is a bit heavier than before the game started.  Everything that is in that equipment has to be replenished.  What happens when you don't refuel the gas tank in your car?  Can't go anywhere, can you?  You're stuck.  You have to put fuel in the car so it's ready to go and get you where you need to be.  Same thing with your body.  You can't wake up after 7 to 8 hours of sleep and expect to have enough energry to play a hockey game.  You have to wake up, early, to start fueling your machine.  It's on you.  Don't ask your parents to get you up.  Don't ask anybody to remind you.  Just get it done!  No excuses!

So in closing I leave you with this - a challenge.  Next time you have a hockey game begin a new routine.  Make sure your food is equal to fuel.  Make sure you get enough sleep, and by all means, MAKE SURE you have everything you need to be ready.  That includes clothes, skates, gloves, EVERYTHING.  Be prepared, always, because it's on you!

Photo By: Frank Walsh of Frank Walsh Photography (

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Art Of - Keeping Your Feet Moving

I am sure that so many young players out there often hear coaches screaming - "KEEP YOUR FEET MOVING!"  This is a simple thing to do and easy to understand.  Now, don't get me wrong, I understand, as should you, that there are times when you should "save your legs" while out on the ice.  During your shift, you're not going to be flying around like a chicken with your head cut-off for its entirety.  There are moments when you just simply need to keep your feet moving.  It's simple.  Don't stop skating.  Crossovers.  Stride.  Quick.  Strong.  MOVE!  (I hear my coaching voice come out on those last few words)

In a game on December 27th versus the Carolina Hurricanes, Chris Kunitz of the Pittsburgh Penguins received a zone exit pass from Evgeni Malkin.  When you see Kunitz get the puck, it doesn't look like there is much space to go.  What's he do?  He keeps his feet moving towards the open ice.  Scroll ahead to the 00:45 mark of this video...

See how easy?  If Kunitz stops his feet from moving in that situation, it's an EASY play for Canes D-man Tim Gleason.  Instead, Kunitz charged the middle of the ice and Gleason's feet couldn't keep up.  As a defensman, you always want a few feet to get up to speed moving backwards.  Because Kunitz kept his feet moving, he beat both Canes defensemen to the middle of the ice and got a great shot on goal.  If you didn't notice, watch Bryan Allen, #5 of the Hurricanes again.  What does he do?  If you're still not sure, he STOPPED skating.  Yeah, it looks like Gleason has Kunitz wrapped up but it doesn't matter.  If the puck is going towards your goal, you have to do everything you can to get the puck out of the danger area.  As much as Kunitz's hard ward should be lauded in this play, Allen's should brought to the forefront as well.  That goal probably does not happen if Allen keeps skating.  Kunitz's speed and ability to keep his feet moving in traffic lead to a tying goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Neal's goal wasn't pretty, but it doesn't matter.  A goal is a goal.  Plain and simple.  Kunitz is a blue-collar hockey player who is a "north-south" kind of guy, a guy coaches love (I will get into "north-soouth" another day).  He skates in straight lines, STRAIGHT to his target.  He works hard and always keeps his feet moving.  In this instance, it lead to a goal.

So when you hear your coach screaming at you to keep skating, DO IT.  Don't do what the other players are doing around you.  YOU need to always dictate the play.  If your opponent is moving slow, you speed up.  If you're on a forecheck and a defensman stops skating, move faster and be the first guy to the puck.  If you work hard and keep your feet moving, you will be rewarded.

Work Hard.  Have Fun.  And always KEEP YOUR FEET MOVING!

*Have to throw a quick shout out to former Ferris State Bulldog (my alma mater) Chris Kunitz.  Still, to this day, making us BULLDOGS proud!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

One of the Greatest Coaches of All Time - Tom Landry

"A coach is someone who tells you what you don't want to hear, who has you see what you don't want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be."

Welcome to Coach Wagner's Blog!

I live, eat, sleep, breathe, just all around love this great game of ice hockey.  I've seen the best it has to offer.  I've unfortunately seen the worst.  This is my vehicle, this is my way of communicating to the world of ice hoceky some of the things I see and experience on a weekly basis.  The good.  The great.  The bad.  And of course, the ugly! 

I coach the Carolina Lightning in Raleigh, NC.  A great organization that is run by people that have the same beliefs that I do (for the most part).  Kids first.  Fun.  And Discipline.  I'm a very strict coach.  I preach discipline, respect, standard, pride, integrity and sportsmanship - oh yeah, and FUN!  I would rather win a game 4-2 with an empty-netter as the clock winds down than win 14-1.  I've coached teams in both spots.  We've won big, we've lost big, we've won championships, we've struggled, but all in all, it's about coaching the kids.  Not winning and losing. 

So this is where it all begins.  This is where I tell you what I am thinking.  What I see.  Where I get to complain about the officials, or applaud them.  Where I get to talk about what makes coaching great and what makes coaching rather challenging.  Yes, when coaching 15 and 16 year old boys, there are HUGE challenges.  I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Welcome to my world.  Coach Wagner's world.  I coach with a strong fist and a heavy heart.  I demand that the kids play a certain way - a way they would like to be played against.  So here we go.  This is my life as a Coach.  Let the fun....Begin!

Disclaimer - these are my thoughts and my thoughts alone.  They do not represent those of the organizations which I Coach.