How One Coach Rediscovered His Love For Hockey

When John Imperiale walked away from behind the bench after years as a youth hockey coach, he admits to feeling just a little bit disillusioned by the direction that the game was taking.

“I’ve been in hockey for awhile and you see these coaches making promises and parents kind of scrambling for the higher level, but it’s just an elite few that go on, not even to play pro but to make money playing hockey,” Imperiale said. “People lose sight of that.”

A chance to coach older kids — teenagers on the brink of becoming young men — brought the love back into the game for Imperiale.

“For me coming back, I wanted to get back to the grassroots stuff where you have a coach and built those relationships where you could count on the coach,” Imperiale explained. “I find that’s a little bit lost now in minor hockey. There’s too much money to be made and it had just kind of gone sideways for me, to be honest.”

A good friend operates the Mississauga Beast organization in the GTHL. His AA team of ‘04s were suddenly without a coach on the eve of the season. He called Imperiale to gauge his interest in taking over the role.

“Reluctantly, I said yes but I’m glad I did,” Imperiale said. “It  was fun.”

Coaching a group of players who weren’t focused on chasing the elusive dream of becoming NHLers, Imperiale was able to connect with these kids on another level.

Most were facing life-altering decisions away from the rink. Would they go to university or college? Would they be entering the workforce? Was it time to cut the cord and move away from home?

“They are young men but they’re also still kids,” Imperiale said. “They’re going right out of Grade 12 into university. A lot of these kids have no clue what they want to do. They’re trying to pick out a career right out of Grade 12.”

Imperiale coached this group for four years, through their U18 season. He found another method to connect with them by bringing sons Nicolas and Michael behind the bench as assistant coaches. Nicolas served the first three years before moving to Alberta, where he’s coaching with the Calgary Buffaloes. Michael took over for Nicolas this season.

“And I brought one of (Michael’s) friends who also coached on the bench,” Imperiale said. “Just to have them on the bench, guys who are close in age to the players, was of real value to those kids. They can talk about university, they can talk about girls and relationships.

“For me, I’m an older guy. They’re not going to talk to me about those things. They can relate a lot better to (Michael) because they’re closer in age. That was a good thing this year as well, to have that support mechanism.”

All of these kids are trying to figure out where life is going to next take them. As much as it was about X’s and O’s, coaching strategy for Imperiale was also quite frequently devoted to life lessons.

“Some of these kids are planning to go to junior camps and try out but it’s not an easy thing to do, cracking a junior lineup out of AA,” Imperiale said. “Still, I encourage that. Take your chance. You don’t want to have any regrets at the end of the day. See where it takes you.”

There are other ways to stay in the game, and he sought to emphasize that with his players as well.

“They see they the opportunity of coaching and some of them even asked me if you need me to come to your practices with the younger guys, help out with some drills,” Imperiale said.

“That’s what I also kind of want to do is build that coaching tree. My older son is off doing his thing and he’s going to pass on that knowledge. My younger son, he’s going to pass on that knowledge. Just kind of building that good foundation of coaching practices along the way.”

“I was coaching and I was at the rink and I ran into two of my old players who are coaching in another organization. Some of these kids are going on to have successful careers coaching and working with kids and really getting an appreciation for that. That comes from having a good coach. You see what that coach has given to you and what you’ve learned from it. If you had a bad coaching experience, you probably won’t go into coaching. But if you’ve had positive experiences, you might at the end of the day.”

His tenure with this group of kids at an end, Imperiale is going back to work with younger players next season.

“After this U18 team, I’m dropping down to U13,” Imperiale said. “So I’m kind of starting this whole thing again, and I’ll take this team as far as they want me and try to build those same relationships along the way.”

He still sees concerns with the way youth hockey works today but is determined that it won’t impact the approach that he takes to working with young players in order to help them grow as both players and people.

“The way the structure is set up, people are worrying about where they are going next year before the season even ends,” imperiale said. “Another problem is helicopter parenting. When my father signed me up, I kind of begged him to let me play. Now they’re signing up their kids before the kids are even asking to play sports.

“These days, parents are into everybody’s business. I think that’s the deterrent for volunteer coaches is the parents. It’s not the kids. They love working with the kids. It’s the parents that are watching little Johnny’s every move and every reaction to the coach. It’s just getting a little ridiculous.

“They see a different game. As a coach, you’re watching how the team is doing. As a parent, you’re watching how your kid is doing. It’s a very different perspective. I’ll continue to coach until the parents get to be too much. The kids just want to play and have fun.”

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Girls Hockey Growing In Non-Traditional NHL Markets

The NHL likes to talk about growing the game. In places such as Dallas, Carolina, Nashville, Washington and Tampa Bay, they’re not merely talking the talk. The league and its member teams are walking the walk.

There’s been an emphasis in those markets toward growing girls hockey programs and the evidence is showing that the fruits of those labors are beginning to bloom.

USA Hockey is showing over 3,000 girls are registered across Dallas, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Raleigh and Washington, D.C, five non-traditional hockey markets that all qualified their teams for Stanley Cup play during the 2021-22 season.

True, those numbers may still pale in comparison to USA hockey hotbeds such as Michigan, Minnesota and Massachusetts. Minnesota alone counts some 13,000 girls playing hockey across the state.

However, these digits are also displaying significant progress being made in the development of girls hockey programs in new areas. The number of girls playing hockey in those states and in the District of Columbia were up 71.3 percent from 2011 to 2021. That is impressive, considering that in each market, they were basically building from Ground Zero.

Grassroots programs such as Preds Girls Hockey, operated by the Nashville Predators, Canes Girls Youth Hockey, set up by the Carolina Hurricanes and All Caps All Her, developed by the Washington Capitals, are building a solid base of hockey participation among girls in their communities.

“It’s cool to see it go from basically nothing to we’ve got kids coming into the sport at 5-, 6-years old and now they could stay here all the way to going to play college hockey,” Hurricanes girls’ and women’s youth and amateur hockey specialist Alyssa Gagliardi told Associated Press.

During the season the Dallas Stars provide a Rookie Girls program. It consists of free four-week programs with 30-minute on-ice sessions for girls ages 4-14 who are interested in playing the game of hockey. Each Saturday during the program, kids are provided with all equipment necessary for a fun and safe experience. Trained coaches help the girls discover and learn about hockey.

Girls Hockey keeps growing

The Tampa Bay Lightning are offering a girls-only summer hockey camp at AdventHealth Center Ice in Wesley Chapel from July 29th – 31st. Along with on-ice sessions, they also include an off-ice training event as well as chalk talks on hockey rules and strategies.

But getting these programs off the ground is always a struggle.

“I’ll go to schools and we’ll do ball hockey and stuff like that and so many girls are still so surprised that I actually played,” Kelley Steadman, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s hockey development ambassador, told AP.

Steadman won two world championships with the USA and played women’s pro hockey. Generally, this is news to the young girls she’s introducing to the game.

“They’ll be like: ‘Oh, did you play?” Steadman said. “So here we’re still kind of at that grassroots (level) for some of these girls, where they’re not even aware of what women’s hockey is.”

Kristen Wright, USA Hockey’s regional manager of female hockey, insists that in order to develop interest in the game, young girls need to see and meet mentors such as Steadman. Only then can they become infatuated with hockey.

“Some of the challenges that come with that are female role models,” Wright explained to AP. “Convincing girls that hockey is for them, they need to see it. You really need to see different female hockey players have female coaches and have that engagement there.”

Certainly, there are other factors that often inhibit the broadening of a girls hockey base in these areas. Economics, the cost of playing the game, is sometimes an issue. Another detriment can be the lack of available ice rinks.

“Right now I think it’s more of a numbers thing,” Nashville director of amateur hockey Kristen Bowness said. “We just need more girls playing in order to get leagues up and running.”

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Okanagan Academy Helps Launch NHL Career

Michael Rasmussen views himself more as a benefactor than a trendsetter. The Detroit Red Wings forward enjoyed a breakout NHL campaign during the 2021-22 season. He established career highs with 15 goals and 287 points. Rasmussen, 23, scored seven goals over his last 16 games and 10 goals through his final 34 games.

“I think that’s been in the works for the couple years he’s had,” Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin said of Rasmussen’s emergence. “I thought last year he had a strong season and then showed up this year in great shape. He trained hard, he stayed in Detroit, he worked on his skating with our skating coaches all summer and I think at some point in February, March, they put him on the wing and he really started to use his speed.

“He’s a big man and he can really skate. He played really well and played with confidence. I really hope and I know that as he continues in his career with that confidence and with that skating ability with his big size, he’s going to be a dangerous player and a really important player for our team.”

That’s not the Rasmussen trend we’re talking about here, however.

Back in 2014, Rasmussen, 14 years old at the time, enrolled in the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, B.C. He spent three years there honing his craft, developing and growing as both a hockey player and a young man.

Michael Rasmussen with Okanagan

Rasmussen played with Okanagan’s bantam AAA team, their Elite 15 squad and their under-18 prep team. He remembers the experience with a deep fondness for all he was provided that helped him to progress along the way up the hockey ladder.

“It was huge,” Rasmussen said. “I can’t say enough good words about that program. It’s done a lot for me.”

While today, prep school hockey academies such as Okanagan are prominent and considered to be among the best paths to follow for elite young players seeking a leg up in making it to the next level of the game, when Rasmussen was at Okanagan, these programs were still in their infancy. He was the only player from his group to make it to the NHL.

“When I was there it was just starting up and those leagues were just starting up,” Rasmussen said. “Now all those programs are kind of everywhere.”

Between the travel and schedule, and the balancing of school with a demanding hockey regimen, the combination of hockey skills and life skills Rasmussen learned at Okanagan were the ideal setting to prepare for the next step of his hockey career, playing for the Tri-City Americans in the Western Hockey League.

“I think that was probably the best move I made as far as getting ready for junior hockey, living away from home, practicing every day, working out every day,” Rasmussen said. “I think it’s similar to the junior hockey experience.

“As far as practicing every day and being in the gym every day, it’s similar to the NHL.”

Beyond improving his puckhandling, skating and overall hockey IQ, the opportunities for developing his time management skills and improving both his self-discipline and maturity were lessons that Rasmussen absorbed while at Okanagan that proved to be invaluable as he entered into the CHL game.

For many of his junior teammates, playing for Tri-City was their first experience living away from home and learning how to balance the demands of life with the requirements of an elite-level hockey career.

For Rasmussen, thanks to his Okanagan experience, it was already second nature to him.

“Absolutely, it’s tough being a young kid and juggling all that,” Rasmussen admitted. “It was easy for us at (Okanagan). You had everything lined up for you. You went to school, got out of school and worked out and practiced or you had a game that night.

“It’s very structured. You get into a routine. I think it’s good for kids to have structure and have things laid out for them and do something like that every day if you want to move up levels in hockey.”

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Top Minor Hockey Plays of the 2021/22 Season

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Hockey Players Turning to Figure Skating Training

There is more to hockey then having the ability to score from the hashmarks like Austin Matthews or to go one-on-five like Connor McDavid. Possessing advanced skating techniques is a big advantage when it comes to playing hockey. 

Now, teams and players from house league all the way up to NHL are building these skills through figure skating techniques taught by former figure skaters.

When one thinks about hockey, they often see it as a highly completive game with huge hits, physical plays and powerful goals. When someone thinks of figure skating, it is almost the opposite — beautifully choreographed moves with spinning jumps all set to whimsical music.

On the surface, hockey and figure skating couldn’t be farther apart but if you watch closely a lot of figure skating techniques are used in almost every single play in the NHL and are now being taught to hockey players at a young age.

Barb Underhill, former Canadian Olympic figure skater who worked as a Skating Consultant for the Toronto Maple Leafs for 10 years before leaving the club in November of 2021, is often recognized as a pioneer of translated figure skating techniques to the hockey arena.

Underhill said the best part about her job was seeing players improve and reach “that next step” and then receiving those texts after a game thanking her. She says she is just “one small piece to the puzzle.”

Ashlea Jones, a competitive figure skater for 15 years, has spent the past seven years developing her passion for skating and teaching these figure skating techniques to hockey players.

Jones started figure skating when she was only three-years-old and began competing at a national level at 13 before retiring from competitive skating when she was 26.

She decided to become a hockey skating coach after watching her brother’s hockey games.

“When I’d be at their games, I would identify things like ‘Oh, that kid’s skating’s a little funny, if he did this, then it would make them better’, ” said Jones on what pushed her from teaching figure skating to coaching hockey players.

“Figure skating is such a technical sport. Every turn you do in figure skating is marked — your entry to a turn, your exit to a turn it, whether it be an inside edge outside edge. How you do it, your speed and execution, everything is so precise and so technical, it is what makes figure skating coaches good skating coaches for hockey players.”

Jones, who operates Ashlea Jones Athletes in Training across rinks in southern Ontario, said that figure skaters must be very detailed in every movement.

“Not only because we’re launching ourselves in the air, doing three rotations, and hopefully landing on that little one eighth of an inch blade, but you’ve got to hit the proper (skate) edge on takeoff and land on the proper edge,” said Jones.

When translating that precision over to hockey, it makes players more efficient and “makes their jobs easier”.

“We teach players how to pull their body in proper position,” Jones said. “We go over anatomical movement patterns, edging and understanding edge manipulation, and how to hit pivots and turns and we take the technical aspect of the figure skating and implement it into the hockey.”

She says that teaching those techniques to hockey players is difficult to to do because figure skating is known to be more “balletic” and “rhythmic” than the power and speed of hockey. Over the years she has learned how to combine the two sports together to create something that the hockey player can understand and not just use in a game but when to use each technique.

Jones says her program focuses the most on edging control balance, edge manipulation, weight, position on the blade, alignment of the body and making sure that the player is getting proper triple flection and extension.

Jones has worked with players from house league all the way to NHL players such as Ty Dellandrea of the Dallas Stars, Michael Carcone of the Arizona Coyotes and the Edmonton Oilers’ Warren Foegele.

“I’ve also have some guys that got drafted to the NHL, to teams like Seattle, Florida, Carolina, and Minnesota,” said Jones, who also works with a lot of OHL players — the next generation players —  who she has worked with since they were four years old.

“It’s fun. I get to see the evolution of these kids that go from minor hockey all the way to the NHL. It’s kind of cool,” said Jones, who was hired by the OHL’s Oshawa Generals in August of 2021 to help improve the club’s overall skating.

Throughout the development of her program, there have been kids and parents who think that figure skating techniques won’t help them. Jones says overcoming this mindset is all about education.

“I get it all the time. ‘Oh, we’re doing the figure skating stuff again?’ and I just say, ‘Let’s knock that down. It’s skating, and at the end of the day, this is where you’re going to apply it.’ I’m very educational in my approach to my clients. I’m okay if they say things like that. I always open my sessions with ‘Ask me questions’. It may seem like you’re not going to use these techniques in a game, but I promise you, you will,” said Jones, who always demonstrates each drill to her students.

She came up with everything she teaches on her own based on experience as well as trial and error.

Jones said she has “100 per cent” seen a benefit to each player she has worked with.

“I was just on the ice with an athlete this morning,” Jones said. “He’s a very gifted hockey player and he’s had four or five sessions with me and I am proud of how quickly he’s adapted and how his mechanics have changed to better his stride, mechanics and his explosiveness. His first three steps are crazy now. Usually, athletes don’t adapt within five sessions. Sometimes it takes longer, you’re breaking old habits and you are introducing new skill acquisition.”

Next time you’re watching the Olympic figure skaters or you’re watching the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, remember that these worlds aren’t so far apart as you might think. If you look closely, NHL players are using figure skating techniques to better their own game.

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