It was a scene that has played out hundreds of times already during this National Hockey League season. New York Rangers assistant coach Mike Pelino stood at the front of the classroom in the team’s training facility in Tarrytown, N.Y., detailing the game plan for a contest against New York’s next opponent, the rival Philadelphia Flyers.
For further information regarding future New York Rangers Coaching Symposiums, or other community initiatives, including the Junior Rangers All-S.T.A.R. Club and Rangers Road Tour, visit newyorkrangers.com or call (212) 465-6553.
Only this time it wasn’t Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan or Henrik Lundqvist sitting in the theatre-like chairs facing Pelino and his Smart Board. Instead, 34 youth hockey coaches from the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were on hand, soaking up important information during the inaugural New York Rangers Coaching Symposium.
The new venture was created by the Rangers to strengthen the organization’s bond within the local youth hockey community in providing inspiration and leadership to motivated coaches from the Tri-State area. Pelino led the symposium along with former Rangers forward Adam Graves, 1998 U.S. Olympic Women’s Team gold medalist Alana Blahoski, and former NHL linesman Kevin Collins.
“Any time you have the chance to be an influence on someone, that’s a real honor and responsibility,” said Pelino, whose coaching resume also includes stints with the Florida Panthers in the NHL, Hockey Canada, the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL, and Brock University in Ontario.
“For these coaches to come and see that we’re everyday people, and we work with everyday people even though they are professional athletes, it’s no different at our level than at their level.”
Graves expanded on that theme, drawing several parallels between coaching in youth hockey and the NHL. He explained that the most successful coaches respect the players, the officials, the fans, and the other coaches, and they also find ways to develop special bonds of camaraderie within the team.
“It doesn’t matter what level you are at, it’s crucial to create camaraderie on your team, and to make it fun to be a part of the team,” said Graves, a two-time Stanley Cup champion.
To further illustrate his point, Graves took the coaches on a tour of the Rangers’ multi-million dollar training complex, that also includes practice facilities for the NBA’s New York Knicks and the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Graves noted along the way that among the most important areas were the lounges and cafeterias – places where players could spend time together and bond as a group.
“Rooms like these encourage the players to arrive early and stay late, to spend more time together,” Graves told the coaches. “It’s just as important for the players to shoot some pool here, watch some movies, play bubble hockey, as it is to practice out on the ice.”
The youth hockey coaches who attended the event and those running the symposium all agreed that the more fun kids and parents have, the more likely children will remain active players as they grow up.
“It’s one thing to get kids playing hockey, but it’s another to keep them playing,” said Blahoski, who noted that there is a noticeable drop-off in players after the ages of 6-8 in the United States.
Troy Germano, head coach at The Browning School in Manhattan, said this message really hit home and was the most important lesson he learned at the symposium.
“Keep the kids interested, and let them know they are having fun,” said Germano. “Let them all feel that they are a part of the team, from the top scorer on the team to the kid that’s improved a lot to the kid that isn’t as good but still shows up to every practice because he enjoys it so much. If they put that sweater on to represent their school or club, they need to feel important. And that is the most important message I got from Adam and everyone else today.”
“It doesn’t matter what level you are at, it’s crucial to create camaraderie on your team, and to make it fun to be a part of the team”
– Adam Graves,a two-time Stanley Cup champion
Collins said it was important for kids to stick with the game because today’s young players also represent the next generation of officials.
“Your best officials at all levels of the sport are those who have played the game of hockey,” said Collins, who worked 1964 NHL games between 1977 and 2005. “Therefore it is imperative that we keep kids playing the game so that a positive cycle continues.”
Along with the philosophical discussions of coaching, there were also plenty of coaching tips and strategies provided by Pelino, Graves, and Blahoski during the four-hour symposium.
Blahoski, an assistant coach of the bronze-medal-winning U.S. Olympic Women’s Hockey Team in 2006 at Torino, strapped on the skates and demonstrated several effective on-ice drills for coaches.
She also led a classroom discussion on the similarities and differences between the men’s and women’s game and even passed her Olympic gold around the room for each coach to inspect.
“I think it’s great that the Rangers are being so inclusive of women and women’s hockey, both with this symposium and with the first Women’s Hockey Clinic [held on March 15],” she said.
“It’s great to see several women coaches here at the symposium, as well as men who coach women. It’s one game, and we need to get as many people playing it as we can.”
Mike Lyons, head coach of the New York State Tier 3 Squirt Champion Bronxville Blackhawks, said the opportunity to learn from Graves, Pelino and Blahoski in such an environment was truly unique.
“To hear respected people like Adam, Mike Pelino and Alana reinforce how important communication is to get the kids to buy into a system and understand what is expected of them, was very important for me,” Lyons said.
Pelino shared how the Rangers prepare for each of their opponents, and provided detailed scouting reports and video, along with actual off-day and game-day practice plans. His thorough presentation was peppered with questions and lively give-and-take from the youth coaches.
“One of the great things about this symposium is that we all can learn from one another,” observed Graves, who helps coach his two young daughters.
“Experience is a great teacher, but if your heart is in the right place and your intentions are in the right place, then more often than not you will err on the side of doing the right thing, no matter the level of experience.”
Jim Cerny is a New York-based freelance writer, former NHL radio broadcaster and frequent contributor to newyorkrangers.com.