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The Cornered Coach: Searching for Bobby Orr

(Flickr photo by gfpeck)

What would've happened if Bobby Orr didn't want to play defense?

Well, say goodbye to the eight Norris Trophies "number four" collected, and you can also bid adieu to one of the most famous goals in hockey history - Orr pinching in from the point and then flying through the air to score the Stanley Cup winner in 1970.

In the modern NHL, an exciting pack of great blueliners are following in Orr's famous footsteps; P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, etc. But despite all that talent, and all those impressive role models, a lot of young minor hockey players often turn their noses up at the very idea of playing defense.

This season, I'm coaching the East York Avalanche -  a team of nine and 10-year-old lads in the Toronto house league ranks. In their hey-day the NHL Colorado Avalanche boasted an all-star blue line brigade that included Adam Foote, Rob Blake and Ray Bourque, another Bruins legend who jumped to the Av's late in his career to try to win the Stanley Cup; a dream Bourque finally realized in 2001.

But the East York Avalanche?

Most of them would rather spend their time doing a stack of homework than spend any time manning the blue line. One of our little players, for example, absolutely hates playing defense. Thankfully, he's a very polite boy so when he is forced to pull blue line duty he doesn't pout about it. Instead, he simply raises his hand halfway through the game and squeaks, "Coach....Can I move up to forward?"

In truth, we do have a few lads who are willing to play defense, However, it's tough to build a "Steel Curtain" style defensive brigade when most of your players have stars (and goals) in their eyes.

They begin the game with good intentions.

Spreading the defensive responsibilities around, we start out with a volunteer corps of D-men and, at first, they do a good job of hanging back and playing their position. Slowly and surely, however, they can't help themselves. The "goal greed" takes over and they begin creeping closer and closer to the opposition net, forgetting about the opposition forwards sneaking behind them. Soon, the whole system bogs down and we're well on our way to one of those 9-8 games that house league hockey is so famous for.

So, how do you convince your players that being a solid and responsible defenceman is actually a noble profession?

It's not easy. After all, everyone likes to score goals and preventing them isn't quite so glamorous. But as the old saying goes, "defence wins championships" and if you can get your guys to buy in to that notion, your team's chances of success (and the coaching staff's chances of keeping their sanity) will be greatly enhanced.

Of course, there is one major carrot to offer up to your defense-shy troops. A lot of teams carry only five, or sometimes four, defenseman. That means increased ice time for the players on the back end, and there's nothing more that a hockey player loves than extra ice.

Also, don't forget about good ol' Bobby Orr.

By being smart about when to join the rush Orr won a pair of Art Ross trophies as NHL scoring champ, piling up an incredible 139 points in 1971 -  a record for defensemen that will never be broken.

But that doesn't mean you can't try.

So get your players to suck it up, play some defense, pick their spots, and who knows?

Maybe they'll soar like Bobby Orr and help take your team to the top this season. 

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