The Hockey Coach as Disruptor
I read an interesting article this week about being a “disruptor”. It followed an entrepreneur who started a new business but, her business model was totally different than most because she says she “didn’t know the rules”. Mostly, it was about creating her business in a way that wasn’t the norm but the way she thought it should be done with the customer in mind.
There is a parallel to art in this “didn’t know the rules” idea. Jazz musicians, when improvising, have to obey certain rules in order to make their solos sound good. Simply, there are chords that are being played by the band behind them and the notes the soloist play have to fit into that chord. Similarly, there are “rules” to visual art that artists tend to adhere to. Rules about colour combinations, balance, contrast, etc. But, it is the truly gifted artists (musicians) who can bend or even break the rules that create art (music) that is impactful and even brilliant. My father, who was a professional trumpet player, used to tell me the best jazz players where the ones who could play wrong notes in a solo but make them sound right - kind of getting themselves into trouble but finding a way out of the trouble in a creative way that ends up sounding terrific. Similarly, the visual artist who breaks rules of design but makes it work is the one who is often truly gifted.
It started to get me thinking about hockey and what the game would look like, what our strategies would be, how we would coach the game, if we didn’t have these “norms”, these “rules” of how it should be done. The Torpedo System, which I have written about and implemented in two separate seasons, is one of those creative “what if” ways of looking at the game. At its core, the system has three lines of players rather than two. In other words, instead of playing with a forward line of three players and a defense line of two, the Torpedo plays with a line of two “torpedoes” up front, a middle line of two halfbacks and a back line of one defenceman. If they hadn’t stated playing back in the early 1900’s with the three forwards-two defenceman alignment maybe the Torpedo alignment would have become the norm or the “rule” today.
That said, I was thinking about the word “disruptor” and how I have coached (and played) with the notion of disrupting in the past. At the risk of giving away trade secrets, here are a few times being a disruptor has been part of my game plan.
In the late 80’s, my prep school team had to play one of the best prep school teams of all time from Nichols School. They had a top line that had three players who all played NCAA D1 hockey - two of whom later played in the NHL. They were scoring machines needless to say. In an attempt to keep the puck out of our net when that line was on the ice we deployed three defencemen (not a designated “high forward”) on the ice at the same time with two forwards. It was the late 80’s and my memory is a little foggy, we certainly didn’t win the game but we did “disrupt” the norm by having three defencemen across the blue line.
Although it’s nothing earth-shatteringly, novel or different but, with my girl’s prep school team, when we were still growing as a program, we had to play against one of the top players in the US (she is currently on the US Olympic team). She was as big and strong in high school as she is now (comparatively speaking) and our first year playing against her she scored five goals in the first ten minutes of the game and their coach had to “call off the dogs” at that point (8-0 in total) or the score would have been astronomic. The next year, with an improved roster, I designated one of my good defensive forwards, who would go on to play Canadian university hockey, to shadow that top player the entire game. Again, nothing too out of the norm but, we also shadowed her on the penalty kill ultimately creating a 4v3 while my shadow player was playing 1v1 against their big scorer. We managed to keep her off the scoresheet that game - but lost 3-0 in the end. It was a great game and ultimately, defined our program in those early years as we could look to those two games as benchmarks for improvement.
As a coach, generally, I am a big believer in working more to perfect my team’s play and systems rather than worrying about what the other team is doing. There are times, though, that “going to school” on the opposition’s strategy and playbook can be a terrific approach. When I played, as a penalty killer I loved finding ways to “disrupt” what the opposing power play was trying to do. For example, if they were running the double swing breakout with the D stopping behind the net, I knew they really wanted to get the puck to the curling centerman who would typically be on his forehand in the corner. On the first time down the ice, I would swing with the center into the corner, totally covering him and taking away that option, which would force the breakout to move to the swinging defenceman, that being their secondary option. The next time down the ice I would fly after the puck and chase the defenceman out from behind the net before anyone could set up. Trying to disrupt the opposition’s set plays was very effective and certainly kept them off balance for much of the game.
Along the same lines, I like coaching a fairly static box on the penalty kill. Not only can the box keep the puck out of prime scoring areas but, it lulls the power play into a false sense of security, often allowing them to waste a lot of power play time passing the puck around the perimeter of the zone. But, I will often have a cue, either verbal or something the PP does, that triggers an all-out pressure on the power play - ultimately creating a man on man coverage leaving one player furthest from the net unprotected. This catches the PP by surprise and regularly creates a quick turnover and the puck being sent back into the opposing zone.
Sometimes, as coaches, we feel awkward about doing things that are different or out of the norm. It’s OK to be creative, to be a “disruptor”. For the most part, if your players see there is benefit to what you are doing they will buy in wholeheartedly. They become “in on the secret” - and everyone wants to be in on a secret.