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More Youth Coaching with Pat Burns

November 28, 2011 General No Comments

More youth coaching with Pat Burns
By Alex Carswell

This first appeared in the 01/1996 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®


A coach plays a big part in how much any youngster enjoys his formative hockey experiences. That’s why parents and youth hockey organizers would be well advised to consider what kind of coach they want in charge of their kids.

At the professional level, as well as the upper echelon of Junior hockey, team success is always foremost on a coach’s mind. But what about when working with kids? Should a coach think solely about doing what he must in order to win games, or should he emphasize things that help kids develop their individual skills?

“Well, I think its a mix of both when you’re in minor hockey,” says Pat Burns, now in his fourth season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, “because you’re going to have some kids who do things better than others. Just like in the NHL, some players do things better than others. It’s the same thing in minor hockey. Some kids are going to be better skaters, and others may not be as good skaters but they’ll be good penalty killers or checkers, so you have to kind of draw out the talent that he has the best that you can.”

In other words, by using a particular child to his own best advantage, you can also help the team to victory. And likewise, by playing to the strengths of your individual players, you don’t force a kid into an uncomfortable position of being expected to do something he or she may not be able to do.

“You can’t take a kid who can’t skate well and make him a perfect skater,” says Burns, who coached his way up through the ranks from peewees to become a two-time winner of the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top bench boss. “It’s difficult. A lot of these things are God-given gifts.”

But the lesson of using players with specific gifts to their own, and the team’s, best advantage holds true all the way to the NHL.

“I’ve got a guy (on Toronto), Bill Berg, who’ll go through a wall for you but he’ll never be a great skater. But he works hard and tries hard, and yet he’s reached a level in his skating where he’s not going to get any better. As a coach you have to accept that, and as a player he has to accept that. And his peers have to accept that around him. But, also, he has a role to play.”

And playing that role earns him the respect of those peers.

“Another player won’t want to lay that role,” notes Burns, “you know, the disturber, or the instigator who’ll bother the best player on the other team. Other players don’t want to do that; they just want to go out and play. Bill Berg can’t do what Doug Gilmour does.

“And I think in minor hockey you have to try to find each point where it’s appropriate to explain each team-oriented situation. You’ll say, Listen guys, little Johnny here is our best scorer and he’s going to play on the power play. But little Peter here is a good penalty killer and he’s going to (do that).”

They should do it all

Which is not to say that you should let a coach pigeon-hole any kid right from the start.

“You have to let them try it all. At the peewee and bantam (level) everybody’s got to do everything, but when you get to the midget age, just before Junior, then you have to start specializing.

“I think the main thing,” says Burns, “the most important thing for a coach to do is let the kids play, and not overcoach them. Because there’s a danger in overcoaching them. I’ve seen (minor) coaches take systems they see from us in the NHL and put them on the ice and the minor hockey level, and that’s dangerous, because the kids aren’t mature enough to handle stuff like that, and they’re not playing at that level.

“(In the) systems that we play, everything is structured. And in minor hockey, you can’t structure (that much). You have to let the kids see what kind of talent, and what kind of things are going to develop for them as they get older and older.

“That’s why I think it’s dangerous when I see coaches overcoach and try and put a system into a peewee team, say 11- and 12-year-olds. That’s not right. You have to let them play.”

But, obviously, winning is a big part of what sports is all about. It’s in the psyche of everyone who plays or coaches. That’s why it’s important to be clear about what you expect from a youth coach, and what he or she should expect from you.

“If you’re hired to coach a hockey team, to develop a young hockey team, I think it’s important to know that the people who hired you know what your role is, and know what they expect of you. Now if they hire you and say ‘You’ve got to win every game,’ then as a coach you have to stand back and say now wait a minute, do I want to do that? So (how you approach the job) depends on what’s asked of you—or what’s told to you—and that’s very important. And that should be specified up front. If you’re going into coaching minor hockey you should ask (the team organizers), What do you expect? What do you want?

“In the National Hockey League, of course, they want the Stanley Cup.”


But when it comes to identifying the single most important thing any youth coach can do while directing his charges in practice, says Burns, there is no question. It’s getting them to have fun.

“That’s the main thing—a very, very important thing that people forget. Skating is always important, but you have to have things that are fun to do while skating. And every kid when he gets on the ice wants to have the puck. He wants to have the puck. That’s the game of hockey. So when you do skating drills—and I even do it on the pro level—give them each a puck. Let them play around with it, shoot it on the boards. That’s what kids like.

“You can have a five- or 10-minute session of skating which is called conditioning, but when it comes to skating the kid wants to have a puck. And you can see it.

“For example, you take some kids and skate them around the ice, it’s nothing but mayhem. But the minute you throw that little black thing on the ice, the attention span completely changes for every kid. Their faces light up, be-cause that’s the game of hockey.

“So that’s the most important thing; to give the kids drills where they’ll be able to play with the puck. Plus, that’s where you find out what a kid can do. Maybe he can really rifle the puck. Maybe he can really pass the puck, or stickhandle. But if he doesn’t get to use the puck he won’t develop those skills.

“In short, the kids aren’t athletes—they’re kids. And kids need to have fun.”

And if you can find—or be—a coach who understands that, then your child’s youth hockey career should be a happy one. And maybe even their pro careers.

“We’re with guys in the NHL,” Burns points out, “and they still like to have fun!”

— Alex Carswell

This first appeared in the 01/1996 issue of Hockey Player Magazine®
© Copyright 1991-2001 Hockey Player® and Hockey Player Magazine®

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