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No summer vacation for MacTavish, NHL general managers

For most hockey fans, summer is a chance to take a break from hockey and focus on other parts of life. Excluding the NHL draft and Free Agent Frenzy on July 1, the summer can seem pretty dull from a hockey fan standpoint.

For Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish, this summer has been anything but dull.

“It was a very busy offseason. For [the Oilers] and other teams that don’t make the playoffs, once the season ends your focus is really on the amateur draft. For Scott Howson, Bill Scott and me, we’ll spend our time looking at eligible players. We’ll meet with our amateur scouts in early June and continue to chip away at our rankings, so we get our draft order down with all of our amateur scouts.”

Even during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, teams that have been eliminated begin looking towards the amateur draft and free agency, hoping to get a solid plan established come draft day.

Craig MacTavish has had a busy summer with the Oilers, trying to improve the team though the amateur draft and free agency. (Photo credit, Sault Star)

Craig MacTavish has had a busy summer with the Oilers, trying to improve the team though the amateur draft and free agency. (Photo credit, Sault Star)

“Early on in June, we will start to focus on what our objectives are from a pro scouting standpoint, and we will start looking at pending free agents develop a strategy on who we’re going to go after. Generally that gets us to the week before the draft.”

A crucial period of the summer for a general manager is the week before the amateur draft, held in Philadelphia this year on June 27, and free agency on July 1, when pending unrestricted free agents become available for any team to scoop up.

“It’s a really busy time coming out of the draft for all general managers, but it is may also be the most entertaining time. The season is over, you’re not beat up from the losing anymore, and your focus has turned to really building and improving your team through the amateur draft and the UFA season, and you try and develop and work a strategy.

“We really targeted three people during free agency; Nikita Nikiten, Mark Fayne and Benoit Pouliot. We ended up getting all three, so that was good.”

Once free agency dies down, management focuses on their development camp, which brings all of the team’s prospects together for about a week.

“We’re there for a week with all our prospects and all our staff, trying to inundate our players and trying to communicate to our prospects what we’re all about, what our expectations are from a cultural standpoint for our organization as well as the conditioning standpoint. After that it dies down again, until preparations for training camps start to ramp up in September. That gives you a little bit of a timeline as to what managers are up to during the summer.”

As for the upcoming season, MacTavish feels the off-season has been productive.

“I’m an optimist. I’m always thinking better times are around the corner. Eventually I’ll be right, but I haven’t been so far in the last few years. I think we have some elements and realistic expectations for improvement, but I’m always cautious. We also changed some of the coaching staff, so there was a lot done.”

Having won four Stanley Cups in his playing years, MacTavish knows a thing or two about what it takes to win.

“Talent wins championships, and we haven’t been in the mix. But we have developing talent, and we firmly believe that there are players there that are going to help us improve greatly. My experience tells me we need patience when developing young players, but our players are getting to a point now that they’re going start having a significant impact on the outcome of a game.”

“Hopefully it’s all moves that will make a positive impact, but you just don’t know until the puck drops in October. It’s all a calculated gamble and calculated risks, and hopefully we made some moves. I think everybody feels they’re improving their team. This time of year, everybody is optimistic, and some are going to be wrong come October 8.”

Hockey (too) specific training?

The term ‘hockey specific training’ gets thrown around a lot in the hockey world, and parents are all too eager to sign their kids up for summer camps and weekly hockey lessons to help shape their budding child into the best player they can be. Is making kids play exclusively hockey, and spend hours on the rink per week the right method to develop an athlete?

A lot of professionals don’t think so.

It’s been made very public that National Hockey League coaches and scouts can tell when a prospect played multiple sports as a kid, and a prospect who only played hockey. Players who only play hockey while growing up tend not to develop properly as a hockey player, and although the skill is there, the athleticism and core strength is below average. On the other hand, prospects who played football, basketball or other sports while growing up develop into all-around better athletes, which in turn makes becoming an elite athlete easier.

Where is the balance between simply playing sports and focusing on hockey, and when should young athletes focus specifically on a single sport?

I spoke with Adam Nugent-Hopkins, a strength and conditioning coach for elite athletes in British Columbia. Adam has started his own company, ANH Strength Performance, and he is recognized as one of the top young sports performance coaches for hockey Canada. He studied Execise Sciences at Concordia University last year, and he played for the Varsity team, the Concordia Stingers. His brother is also Edmonton Oilers superstar center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

Brothers Ryan and Adam Nugent-Hopkins. Both played several sports while growing up, yet both have excelled at hockey. (Photo, David S. Landsman

Brothers Ryan and Adam Nugent-Hopkins. Both played several sports while growing up, yet both have excelled at hockey. (Photo, David S. Landsman

Adam believes that parents and kids are being sucked in to the fad known as hockey specific training.

“The term hockey specific is thrown around very loosely these days for more reasons than one, but I find the biggest reason is that it’s a good market tool to sucker and lure kids and parents into spending money and taking part in the services offered.”

Adam does not deny that practicing hockey is important to developing skill, but it isn’t the only aspect which needs to be focused on.

“Being someone who does only off-ice training, I do believe that there are things we can do to transfer over to hockey specifically, but my philosophy is more about improving overall athletics.”

Hockey is a sport that requires a lot of skill, be it skating, stickhandling, checking or shooting. However, Adam truly believes that training the body and mind into one of an athlete is the building blocks for success in any sports.

“I do believe that kids need to develop hockey specific skills, but not at the rate they do today. I’ve heard of some kids being on the ice for 10-15 hours per week. That’s ridiculous, and what’s not being understood is how to train the athlete’s central nervous system, and allow for essential growth and development.”

If you need living proof, look no further than his brother Ryan, who is already leaving a mark in the National Hockey League as a super star.

“Both Ryan and I spend time away from the rinks for much of the summer, playing other sports such as basketball, track & field and the casual game of football. Ryan didn’t even play his second year of Peewee hockey. He spent time in the weight room and skated maybe once a week.”

He said parents who want their children’s dreams of becoming a hockey star to come true must realize that playing one sport is not the way to develop an athlete. Focus on becoming an elite athlete before deciding what sport to play. Just playing hockey day-in and day-out won’t turn someone into an elite athlete.

“Everyone wants their kid to play in the NHL, but there’s a lot of trends out there that just won’t be effective in the long run.”

If you want your kid to develop into the best athlete that they can, make sure they don’t play one single sport. Play summer sports in the summer, winter sports in the winter, and develop into an all-around athlete. Playing hockey year round may make them the best player on the local rink, but in the long run it will hinder their chances of developing into elite athletes.

Live from the nosebleeds: Luongo and Schneider bash heads, a mini-Datsyuk, and Kostitsyn’s “Back-check”

LUONGO AND SCHNEIDER MAKE LIGHT OF VANCOUVER’S “GOALTENDING ISSUE” WITH TSN VIDEO

Hockey players have been given a pretty bad rep when it comes to being charismatic. People hate hearing the cliche phrases used in almost every interview, such as “We need to put pucks on net”, “We have to play our game”, “It’s a team effort”, “We have to give 110%” and so on.  It’s almost as if players are given a cheat sheet for interviews with phrases they can or cannot say. When it comes to the Luongo/Schneider goalie issue in Vancouver, both goalies have said that they don’t mind sitting on the bench, because it’s for the good of the team. Although this is probably true since both goalies are true professionals, it’s still incredibly annoying to hear the same phrases used over and over again.Thankfully, it turns out some hockey players are actually funny. Check out this TSN-produced, James Duthie-inspired skit about the goalie controversy in Vancouver.

This is exactly what the NHL needs: players showing their personality. Luongo and Schneider agreed to do this skit to make light of a situation that has been tip-toed around by people in Vancouver. As this is a business of entertainment, I was very entertained watching this. It’s a hilarious video, and it shows that these players have good personalities (another great example of players being hilarious is another TSN video of the Oilers’ reactions after Jordan Eberle scored his first NHL goal. Click HERE for the link to that video). Their personalities are all too often hidden behind the bureaucracy of the NHL, with everything being hush-hush and behind-closed-doors. But every now and then, a piece of solid gold is created, giving us hope for the future of hockey players and their personalities. We know that they’re funny, so hopefully they keep being themselves and making us laugh.

POTENTIAL GOAL OF THE YEAR, BY A 5 YEAR OLD?

This video needs no introduction. Just watch, and be amazed!

I’m going to be honest, this kid is better than most of my teammates in the garage league I play in (no offense guys, see you Sunday night!).  He comes in at full speed, and then dekes around the defenseman before making a sweet move to fool the goalie for the overtime winner. Does it get any better then that? Even the celebration was perfect! I’m sure he will have a nickname like “Mini-Datsyuk” for a while. For those of you who haven’t seen Datysuk’s moves, here’s a clip from YouTube. He’s a magician with the puck, and announcers have even coined the term “the Datsyukian Deke”. Anyways, good job by the little guy. It was an awesome play.

BONEHEAD PLAY OF THE WEEK: SERGEI KOSTITSYN’S AWESOME BACK-CHECK

You know what really grinds my gears? Lazy hockey players. A good hockey player never gives up, no matter what the situation is. If it means skating your butt off for even the smallest chance of helping your team, a real hockey player does it. On Sunday night, Sergei Kostitsyn showed that he is not a real hockey player. He loses the puck to one of the Oilers’ players, and while back-checking he decides that it is a perfect time to get off the ice, leaving the Oilers with an easy 2-on-1 and in the end a goal. Here’s the video evidence:

I think my favourite part of the video is when he starts to slow down for the line change, you can clearly see both his coaches and teammates yelling at him for changing. I know what some of you are thinking; “Typical Russian player giving up on a back-check”. Well you’re dead wrong. The night before, Pavel Datsyuk (once again, man this guy is good!) of the Detroit Red Wings  back-checked as hard as he could and disrupted Ryan Kesler enough to stop what was almost a certain goal. I’d show you with video evidence, but I couldn’t find it. Unfortunately, good back-checks are rarely highlight or YouTube-worthy material. So no, this isn’t about a typical Russian player’s attitude. This is about Kostitsyn’s attitude,  and what was an extremely lazy play. He was a healthy scratch the next game, and the coach made sure he was held accountable for his gaffe. Hopefully he learns his lesson (but I doubt it).