I’d been forewarned this bantam team was weak, that it was being thrust into a league of major bantams while having only half a team at that age. Five of the boys were returnees from a team with a penchant for poor discipline and bad penalties.
So, fix the discipline. I suppose it was a healthy mix of my more serious demeanour in practice and the room along with a certain credibility in the community. Teach the kids to control their emotions. Focus on the task of getting or protecting the puck. Whereas I didn’t spend enough time on a few key skating skills (see last week’s blog), I felt I needed to address the checking issue which would allow the kids to compete better, have more confidence, and minimize the penalties.
It worked. A few remained afraid till the end. But I think that process would take a couple of years, if ever. Our penalty minutes plummeted immediately. By the end of the season, we’d average under four minutes per game, less than half of any team in our league. We had four penalty-free games, no misconducts, only one minor for yakking at a ref and just two check from behind infractions. This in 50 games. The boys responded to the discipline and took pride in the achievement.
The group’s offence in previous seasons was awful. A large part of it was just plain shooting skill, something I noticed early in the tryouts. So in the preseason practices and for the first month after the season started, I had them take 50 shots per practice at the boards. Sometimes as a 50-shot warmup. Sometimes taking 10 shots in every break between drills. The coaches (me and two assistants) would give technical feedback. It took the boys ’til December to finally start scoring. Our goals for average went from under 1 in the first couple of months to over 2 by the end of the season. We scored 4 against the league powerhouse, a feat only accomplished by two other teams. More kids on the team scored more goals than they ever had.
The limited practice time and crammed schedule forced me to prioritize. It’s still a team sport and the kids didn’t know how to help each other in the defensive zone. In the first two months, our goalies were shelled. We were being outshot by 3 or 4 to one and the vast majority of shots were first class chances. The boys needed to be shown how to sag; how to help the defence; how to clear pucks; how to get netside/inside. I used reduced space in-fighting drills and small area games every practice. In January and February, we slashed our goals and shots against. The goalies were seeing more pucks and were able to cover up on scrambles because they were getting help. It became more a rarity to see a boy out of position.
These successes weren’t terribly obvious. While parents and observers did comment on the team’s terrific improvement, I’m not sure many could recognize the exact reasons why.
I was pretty proud of how the kids responded. We finished last, with a record of 5-20-5. I sure hope that’s not just what they remember.
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