Wednesday, 14 January 2015

“The bag skate” belongs in the dinosaur age

Winning the Tigers’ way should be the way of the present and the future 

Trevor Cox celebrates a goal with his Tigers teammates
            Every hockey player dreads “the bag skate.”
            For the non-hockey people out there, “the bag skate” is basically a punishment style practice a coach puts a team through, when the players aren’t performing well. In a lot of hockey circles, it is viewed as a necessary evil to make a team win and is said to be used as a last resort.
            A bag skate practice involves the players on a team skating hard for a lengthy period of time as hard as they can, and the overall sessions can last for two hours. During these types of practices, a puck never touches the ice.
            In the 1987 “The Boys on the Bus” documentary on the Wayne Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers, cameras filmed the Oilers participating in a bag skate during a slump in the 1986-87 season. Some players were vomiting including “The Great One” himself. This often happens in a bag skate.
            After that two hour punishment practice, the ice was resurfaced and the Oilers went on to hold a real practice.
            When I explain “the bag skate” concept to someone who has never been involved with the sport, I often receive a disgusted reaction.
            For the longest time, I thought it was a fair game thing to do in hockey. As I travel around various hockey circles, it seems that line of thinking is still there.            
Netminder Marek Langhamer protects the Tigers goal.
           My views on “the bag skate” changed in the 2004-05 campaign, which was my first of 10 straight seasons covering the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers. During a losing streak in mid-season, I asked head coach Willie Desjardins, who is now the head coach of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, if he would utilize “the bag skate.”
            He replied, “So Darren, tell me how is this going to help my players play better?”
            Desjardins explained all that type of practice would do is make the players hate the coach and want to rebel. He said the coaches have keep focusing on teaching to help the players correct their mistakes or overcome any mental obstacles they may be facing, so that they will perform better.
            As fate would have it, the Tigers would proceed to roll off a big winning streak right after that interview.
            The problem with “the bag skate” revolves around the respect card. The theory of “the bag skate” is if you subject the players to one of those types of practices they will in turn play well enough to avoid future punishment.
            Unfortunately, coaches that use that technique often accompany it with an “I am going to fix those bums” kind of attitude. Often this is expressed to the assistant coaches.
             In turn, “the bag skate” is damaging on two fronts. First, if the coach isn’t showing respect for the players, the players won’t show respect for the coach.
             Second, if the tactic is used as a way to force the players to play better so they won’t go through that again, that is a negative motivator. That is another thing that can help kill morale for a team, because you are not playing the game for positive reasons.
             Desjardins always believed one of the best ways to help a player is to show a player respect. During one-on-one meetings, he will get to know the player, and proceed to show genuine concern for all aspects of that player’s life.           
Tyler Lewington moves the puck up ice for the Tigers.
           Once the player understands the coach is legitimately going to be there for you, the player will play their butt off for the coach. I saw that for years with the Tigers when Desjardins was coaching them, and it continues to this day under the team’s current coaching staff under head coach and general manager Shaun Clouston.
            Other things the Tigers always try to push are the ideas that hockey is a great game and the rink is the best place to be. Various ways the Tigers would up the atmosphere would be utilizing sometimes goofy after practice games that still seemed to develop skills, watching events like world junior games in the dressing room or lounge area at The Arena or barbecues that are put on by owners Darrell and Brent Maser. The barbecues are a usual fixture that occurs before the team embarks on each playoff round.
            The tactics work. Even after a loss, the Tigers players may arrive at practice the next day feeling down, but they were never disappointed to be at the rink.
            When the Tigers hold practice, they ensure that all the drills are done for a reason. A lot of the drills the Tigers do are aimed at perfecting their transition game. When they are working on aspects like the power play, no small detail is ever overlooked, which includes pointing out how the slightest change of position around the net will create a better scoring chance.
            There are moments when the competitive part of practice is still cranked up. One of the best drills the Tigers coaches use for that is playing two-on-two games with the nets situated opposite each other on an offensive zone faceoff circle.
            During this drill, the players are often battling each other on the boards for the puck and the competitive juices do flow. Those who are not in the drill cheer those that are participating in the drill on. This drill helps the Tigers players in situations where they have to battle for the puck in tight areas in games.
Cole Sanford celebrates a goal for the Tigers.
Last season, Clouston used an idea from football and utilized a walk-through practice. When the team was in a busy stretch in playoffs, a walk through practice was held to implement new strategies and make adjustments that would be used for the upcoming game on the power play.
            Another thing the Tigers do to improve play is watch video and lots of it. Desjardins was big in watching video, and Clouston takes that aspect to a captain video extreme at times. When the team wasn’t on the ice, a laptop was usually glued in Clouston’s hands.
            It could be in one-on-one sessions or in team meetings, the Tigers coaches use video as a big tool to allow a player to see where they can correct aspects in their play. Video is also used to reinforce good habits.
           The Tigers bench bosses always ensure they show players video of things they are doing well. This is usually a big hit in team video sessions where all the players get an opportunity to applaud good play.
           Through those sessions, players do realize the coaches do know what they are talking about.
           Another big trait the Tigers coaches have had since Desjardins’ days with the team is patience. Desjardins said one big difference between the junior ranks and the professional ranks is the fact errors have a tendency to reoccur again after being corrected more quickly in junior than professionally. That characteristic has a lot more to do with the fact the players in junior are younger than those in the pros.        
Anthony Ast takes a draw for the Tigers.
             As you go down the levels in minor hockey, the patience level has to increase that much more.
            The Tigers coaches were never afraid to go over things again to correct mistakes, if they start occurring again. Other coaches should feel free to follow that lead.
            During the 10 seasons I covered the Tigers, they made the playoff every year, advanced to the second round nine times, the conference finals four times and won the 2007 WHL title. After seeing how the Tigers did things, I know why “the bag skate” is still around in hockey. 
             It is time for a lot more hockey coaches to step into the future.

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