By Jason Friesen
When you think of high-level hockey coaches, you probably think of those who coach the best players in the world from the NHL, AHL, and junior hockey. With Jets Hockey Development (JHD), the hockey development program run out of the Bell MTS Iceplex, you wouldn’t be wrong. The JHD coaches work with many elite players from the NHL, AHL, and WHL.
But you’d be wrong if you thought that is all they do.
Though JHD coaches work with elite hockey players at the pinnacle of the sport, they focus equally on developing the skills of grassroots players. With a wealth of hockey knowledge, the coaches know that it’s not just the pro players that need expert coaching to improve their game; that expert level of coaching is needed across the board for all hockey players, no matter their level of play.
In an effort to share their wealth of knowledge with as many young hockey players as they can, JHD goes beyond their own in-house programming of camps, tournaments, individual on and off ice sessions, and more. Through several partnerships with leagues, divisions, and teams in Winnipeg, the JHD team has not only increased their own programming at the Iceplex but has also brought their elite coaching off-site.
One such partnership that has been running for many years is with Winnipeg AAA teams at U-15 and U-18 levels. Every Monday night during the hockey season, the JHD team works with 11 AAA teams in skill-focused sessions.
“We have three rinks going on Monday night and it’s a full evening for our coaches, but we can communicate as a staff on what we want to work on with every age group,” said Dave Cameron, Head On-ice Instructor with JHD.
What started as a bi-weekly program has grown to run weekly to maximize the return to AAA players.
“It was difficult to build on practice plans or work on progressions because sometimes players hadn’t worked on those skills in those two weeks they hadn’t seen us,” said Cameron. “The change was made to see the teams every week, which allows us to work on a lot of different things and really progress the sessions. It’s led to a lot of really good development opportunities for the players.”
Scott Coates, who coaches the Winnipeg Monarchs AAA bantam team, was coaching the team when JHD made the transition to weekly sessions. He said the change made a big difference for his team.
“It allows JHD to focus on the skill development piece and that gives us more time to do the tactical and systems work in our regular practices,” said Coates, as he continued to emphasize the importance of JHD focusing on skill development. “Our players are of course still developing and being able to do a skill development practice every week just gives them that edge. A lot of times, even at our level, kids might not have been shown the proper way to do things. When a guy like Dave comes out and coaches our players, you can definitely see that improvement toward the end of the year. So, when our players move up an age level, they’re that much more ready for it.”
In recent years, another program change at the AAA level has seen JHD standardize all of its practices for each age level, ensuring that all teams get the same great experience when they come to the Iceplex. It has been a great way of leveling the playing field and ensuring every player is developing the skills they will need to succeed.
“Players were getting really different experiences based on what their coaches were asking for,” said Cameron. “Some teams would ask for shooting drills, other teams would ask for power skating. The teams that got power skating lessons obviously got better at power skating, and the other kids wouldn’t. It wasn’t a fair system for a program where every team is putting in the same amount of time as the others. Now we structure what happens every time the AAA players walk through our doors. We come up with the practice plans for development purposes and let the players work through those plans. Now every player that comes through is getting all of those fundamental skills that will help them excel.”
Another program that formulated for JHD in the fall of 2019 was a partnership with the St. James Assiniboia Minor Hockey Association (SJAHA) Initiation House League. Each season, the league starts with an eight-week development program before regular season games.
In past years, the SJAHA had done their development program in-house, but in an effort to give greater support to their coaches and raise the level of development, they reached out to JHD to run their development sessions.
“We wanted to bring someone in to allow our coaches, who are volunteers and are maybe new to coaching hockey, to see what things should look like when they have their own teams,” said Shawn Edinger, VP of the House League for the SJAHA. “We wanted someone to come in who we knew would help top to bottom with player development and fine tuning the skills that the players need.”
The partnership had the JHD coaches leading the sessions at SJAHA venues as opposed to the Iceplex, and it offered them a great way to instill the basics of hockey to players starting at the beginning of their hockey careers.
“The goal of the program is to start at a young age with these players and really expose them to some different skating techniques that they can continue to work on, as well as show coaches how they can utilize some of these skill development areas to make sure players get the most out of their team practices,” said Cameron. “It was also a chance for those volunteer coaches to be mentored on the progressions we use from the start of the program to the end of the program, as well as learn how to better communicate some of those skill development areas to their players.”
From Edinger’s perspective, both goals were achieved. He has already seen the benefits of the program with the coaches, and knows that in a few years’ time, there will be a noticeable difference in the level of development with the players.
“We’re not worried so much about positions or systems, we’re worried about skills,” Edinger reiterated. “Everyone is seeing that these high-level coaches still focus on the skills. You think of an NHL player, and you think of them focusing on what the power play looks like, or what does their trap system look like. But the JHD coaches came in and showed us that cutting around a cone a certain way is important, and that the little things are the most important in planning.”
It is lessons like those that the JHD team hopes players continue to focus on. If they do, there’s a good chance they’ll continue to excel at the rink, and JHD will be there to push and improve them at every stage along their hockey journey.