This is typically the time of year that most coaches are doing some sort of season planning for next year. Those plans often include what systems will be taught and when, the dates of the tournaments that you typically go to, when fitness testing will be done. More advance planners with elite teams will build in some periodization and mental skills training. Almost all of the planning will of course be hockey related and focus on what you as a staff are going to deliver in the way of coaching.
One of the things we forget about in our season plan is building in “experiences”. For most teams and athletes, which forechecking system you ran will never be remembered five years later but, the time you practiced at Maple Leaf Gardens will be etched in your team’s memory forever.
A number of years ago, I had a parent suggest to me that I organize a trip to Europe with my team. The suggestion was more of a badgering and I finally relented (thank goodness!) and contacted a friend of mine who set up hockey tours in Europe. My worry was that it was tough for my families to find another $3500 at the end of a season for a European tour during March Break. To my surprise, not one player backed out of the trip for financial reasons, and off we went for ten days to Italy, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. We played nine games in total including a tour ending six team tournament against Swiss and German professional teams in Zurich. Needless to say it was an unbelievably awesome experience, one that all teams should have the opportunity to take part in. I know that seven years later, with all of my players old enough to have graduated university now, their best memories from the 2009-10 season have nothing to do with whether we won or lost but are from our European Tour. It was truly an experience of a lifetime.
So, when you are putting together your season plan for next year, make sure you are including experiences, not just hockey systems and it doesn’t have to be as big as a European tour. Here are some suggestions to ponder while you are planning next season:
1) Take the team to see a professional or college/university game. It is always a fun outing and a team bonding event to go to a game, whether it’s NCAA, uSports, NHL, AHL, CWHL or NWHL, it will be a good event - and one that players will look forward to.
2) Bring in a guest coach to run practice. It can be a well-known coach or even an accomplished player. It will undoubtedly be a great experience for your team. I remember how much the young players loved it when Roger Nielsen would bring in a few NHL players to help in practice for a few days at his hockey school. They were larger than life for the younger players and great for the older players to get an understanding of what it takes to make it in pro hockey.
3) Play or practice somewhere really cool. Whether it be the local NHL rink, university campus, or even an outdoor rink, practicing, playing or hosting a tournament somewhere that is novel is a great experience. I hosted a four team tournament at Varsity Arena at the University of Toronto one year, practiced at Maple Leaf Gardens, organized a pond hockey tournament on a frozen lake, even rented the SkyDome for an exhibition game for my baseball team one season. There are lots of great “location” ideas and they make for great memories for your players.
4) When you are on the road for a tournament, plan some team events away from the rink. This is a great time to go and see a local college or pro game, go to a local attraction, get a tour of the city or have a team meal at a famous restaurant in the area. When I am on the road for business I often forget to get out of the hotel and go see something “local”. Don’t make that mistake with your players when the team is on the road.
5) Take the team on the road for something other than league games or a tournament. One of the best trips we took with our high school baseball team was to Cooperstown, New York to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. We toured the Hall for an afternoon, then had an inter-squad game at Doubleday Field compete with umpires a ceremonial first pitch thrown by the president of the chamber of commerce, finishing with a spaghetti and baseball sized meatball dinner at a famous local restaurant. We got up the next morning and drove to Boston to see our Toronto Blue Jays take on the Red Sox at Fenway Park. What a terrific trip that was!
So, be creative. Make next season a memorable one for your players - not just on the ice but off the ice as well. Unless you are one of the lucky teams that manages to win championships, often the off-ice fun is what your players will remember for the rest of their lives.