You are the skills and development coach for the WHL’s Lethbridge Hurricanes. What does your job entail?
Matt: I wear a bunch of different hats, but at the core, my position is to help our players improve in whatever area I can. The heavy lifting for me is skill development on the ice, but some days it might be helping our strength coach in the gym.
Our entire coaching staff works as a cohesive unit where everyone’s voice and opinions are valued. As a staff, we try to make our practices high tempo, competitive and fun. I have input on the powerplay tactics with our head coach Brent Kisio as well.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with some skilled players such as Dylan Cozens and Calen Addison, is there something they have in common that makes them such great players?
Matt: They are different players, but their success comes down to their skating ability. Cozens is such an exceptional skater. He is a big and powerful skater. Addison is a different type of skater, but when you watch him, he glides up the ice and has a very smooth stride.
As coaches, when we apply mock pressure during individual drills in practice, it’s unbelievable how quickly they are out of their turns and how good they are on their edges.
The other thing that makes them great is their competitiveness. Cozens and Addison have that inner drive to get better, and that sets them apart from their peers. Everybody wants to win, and everybody wants to make the NHL, but the question is, are you truly committed. The genuinely competitive players separate themselves by how much they are getting in the gym or the work they put in after practice. Cozens and Addison both own that inner drive to want to become the best.
How much emphasis is put on individual skill development?
Matt: In Lethbridge, we practice at 1:00 pm as a team, but we added in morning skill sessions for the players.
The skill sessions are small groups where we pick a specific skill set and work with our players. The skill work varies from specific skill development such as edgework, quick release, and puck protection. But we also take it as an opportunity to work on skills that would benefit our team’s overall game.
For example, if our defense were struggling to get pucks through traffic, we would design a drill where they have to walk the blueline and find a lane to get the puck on the net. Or if our team was struggling to score goals, we would design drills that encouraged goal scoring.
What adjustments have you noticed that U18 AAA players need to make to transition into the WHL successfully?
Matt: From what I’ve seen in players transitioning into the WHL is the small details of their games need fine-tuning.
The one thing that stands out for me is over handling the puck. In U18 AAA players are used to having the puck on their stick and having time and space to make plays. When you get to the WHL, and you’re playing against better players, the pace of the game speeds up, and now there isn’t time to stickhandle the puck.
The other thing is encouraging players to use their skillsets at the right times. In U18 AAA forwards might have been able to put the puck between the defenseman’s legs and get around them. But at the WHL, that doesn’t happen as often. The little things such as puck protection, change of speed, and body position become much more critical.
But the foundation of becoming a good hockey player nowadays is skating. If you can’t skate, you won’t be able to keep up.
Is there a message you have for future WHL players regarding their development?
Matt: Our strength and conditioning coach is Trevor Hardy, who has worked with NHL players Kris Versteeg, Brandon Davidson, and Rob Klinkhammer. Trevor is not caught up in strength training at a young age. Young hockey players need to develop their athleticism.
Something we try to focus on in Lethbridge is developing a well-rounded athlete. As an organization, we preach that it’s okay to play other sports in the offseason. We want our prospects to be athletic, and we believe the skills players gain from playing other sports can transfer over to the hockey rink.
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