Partnership for Progress Coaching Symposium
by Chapin Landvogt|21 DEC 2018
Former international and NHL coach Alpo Suhonen speaks during the symposium.
photo: Julia Eisenrieder
The 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A took place last week in quaint little Fussen, Germany, the final station of the famed Romantic Road and a town that is located just a stone’s throw away from Austria.

The site and event have also proven to be the perfect opportunity for the German Ice Hockey Association (DEB), with the support of the IIHF, to conduct a very special coaching symposium in conjunction with its relatively new Partnership for Progress Program, which aims to actively help accompany ice hockey organizations from federations to clubs in several capacities throughout the international ice hockey landscape, with a focus on developmental including coaching.

The symposium was headed by the German Ice Hockey Association’s Competitive Sports Advisor Karl Schwarzenbrunner together with the IIHF’s Membership Development Manager Aku Niemenen, and saw roughly 45 coaches and managers from around Germany and Austria, several of which originally come from North America or Eastern Europe, in attendance. Many of these coaches and managers are well-known in the German ice hockey scene, having had long pro and national team careers, or having been very active in the organization of ice hockey at no less than the junior level. A handful already play a big role in the organization and management of the DEB’s junior program endeavours, including Uli Liebsch, Ernst Hofner, and Rupert Meister.

“We, as organizers, are very happy to see that such movers and shakers of the German ice hockey world were in attendance”, said Schwarzenbrunner, who had promoted the event in advance for the DEB. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we’ve been conducting a number of further education measures and the coaches have come to realize that they really get something out of them. As such, I think they came here knowing that they’d be exposed to things that they can then incorporate into their work as coaches and managers.

“Some of the stuff discussed today is a little abstract, no doubt, and some of the technology presented is still too expensive or non-applicable for some of them, but we as an ice hockey federation want to incorporate many of these things into our body of work and then find a way to make them applicable for clubs around the country.” 

The event was the first of several to take place during an IIHF championship as part of the Partnership for Progress Program.

And for those who spend most of their coaching time with your typical Xs and Os and skating drills, the material today could indeed be called abstract, but nonetheless eye-opening. 

The day kicked off with a lecture held by Dr. Rottensteiner on the topic of “Big Data”. In the context of the sport of hockey, big data consists of extremely large sets of hockey data that may be analysed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to a player’s physical well-being, condition, and overall patterns of movement. Everything from heart rates to the amount of bodily stress in any one drill, much less over the course of three periods, can technically be measured and evaluated to show patterns that in turn, coaches can use to better understand and then apply to the player’s so as to put them in the best possible situation to succeed.

As many can probably imagine, adding this type of science to a coach’s repertoire is difficult enough for incoming coaches gaining experience, but it’s also imaginable that someone who has been in the business forever may have trouble accepting what it has to offer. For 61-year-old Ernst Hofner, who has been coaching for the DEB in a number of capacities since 1999, the move in this direction doesn’t provide a hurdle whatsoever. 

“Things change roughly every ten years in the world of hockey”, explained the DEB’s current head advisor on talent and club team support. “New technologies are always coming along. The challenge for the coaches is figuring out how to incorporate them to their advantage. It wasn’t too long ago that video review and analysis was all the rage and coaches had to learn how to install and make use of certain software to this end. Now new things are coming along that are intended to once again bring progress towards analysing and developing players and the game.”

This was followed by the closely related technical aspect of this measurement, where Kinexon representative Michael Elmer discussed what his company’s products are already doing for professional sports teams and how their products help teams optimize the performance of both the players and teams. A variety of charts and statistics were shown to display how the product works and can be used to better coordinate practices and player deployment, as was a presentation about how the DEL’s Augsburg Panthers are already making intense use of the products to serve their purposes. Considering the fact that the team is currently ranked fourth in the league despite a line-up of somewhat lesser-known players and a budget not nearly that of the teams encircling the Panthers in the standings, one can’t help but take a closer look to what this service has contributed to that success.

For Ron Pasco, a Canadian who spent many years of his professional playing career in Germany and Sweden, the information provided in the first two lectures was one of the things he was hoping to be exposed to at this symposium. “Big data is a theme that is gaining traction in the hockey world. We’re seeing it all around. Sure, the NHL, for example, has so many forms of advanced stats available to it, but coaches and management at other levels will need to think about how to obtain it, how to make use of it, identify what is important, and figure out how it applies to their programs.” 

It even got the former Mannheim Adler forward thinking about where the DEB could go next with this information, “There are some limitations for some clubs, maybe here in Europe or at the youth level, which may not have the financial resources to collect that material. How can that become available to them? This is something that could perhaps be discussed at future symposiums.”

The topic of big data then parlayed into a presentation by Ben Schulze, Associate Professorship of Didactics in Sport and Health at the Technical University of Munich, who spoke on didactics (i.e. the art of teaching) and communication methods for coaches. Bringing in a world of experience from the sports of football and handball, Schulze included the results of many scientific studies and then discussed how Germany’s Handball Federation goes about dealing with leadership and making decisions, namely by using a dual-head system that is not particularly common in the world of ice hockey. 

His lecture unpacked a number of discoveries about what a coach should and should not be and do, many of which may have come as a surprise to a number of coaches in attendance. Without giving too much away, if you’re a coach who spends a lot of time criticizing without giving due praise or correctional analysis, remains too generalized in discussing facets of the game, distances himself from the fate of the team, and likes to hold long, winded monologues, you may be doing much more damage than good to the goals you want to achieve with your team.

Up next was a two-man tag team of sports psychologists, namely Doctors Kossak and Machel, both of whom got their degrees in Munich. The young and energetic lecturers switched back and forth in tackling several topics that would certainly broaden the horizons of coaches in any team sport. At this juncture, the attendees were exposed to a number of much more scientific findings on coaching, team leaders, and team-building dynamics, where examples from everything from the animal kingdom to the hustle and bustle of the office business world were made use of. Also, the ideas of passed on traditions and age-old understood team rules that go from generation to generation were placed under the microscope to deliver some rather fascinating results that, once again, kind of buck the trend. 

After a midday break that saw most of the participants continue discussing the topics presented to them up to that point, Finnish coaching legend Alpo Suhonen – the first ever European to serve as a head coach of an NHL team (namely the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2000/01 season) – took the podium and held a lecture that was all about providing the attendants with a new and possibly fresh perspective. One of the highlights of his presentation, which pointed out how one can include aspects from all walks of life to make a more well-rounded player and team, was the belief that national federations have become very active in bringing in influences from other nations, but often fail to create their own identity in the process. Thus, the truest harmony is achieved when defining and sculpting that identity, then adding the aspects discovered abroad that could best support or be made use of by a federation’s already created identity.

There were of course many other ideas and philosophies shared during his presentation and hockey fans around the globe will be happy to know that, after having authored five books that are only available in Finnish, Suhonen will be releasing a book on these topics – in English – in the not so distant future. You won’t want to miss it!

“This seminar is well-organized. It tackles things from several vantage points. There are people and there’s technology. Both of those things pose contrasts, but we need both of those things. There needs to be a harmony. Bringing those things together has been very well-done here”, explained the ice hockey philosopher and admirer of the great Anatoli Tarasov.

“In recent years, we can also see that the hockey world is becoming more open. Big business is also. But with the knowledge about and within these businesses, as with player development in hockey, things are becoming more open and more shared. And they’re becoming more human. What does it mean to be a player? What does it mean to be a team player? What does it mean to be a coach? There’s progress in these areas, because these questions are being asked. I’ve been in this business long enough to be able to say that we are currently in a period of great progress with respect to such questions.”

One look at Suhonen’s resume and you’ll indeed notice that he’s racked up more experience in more countries than just about any of his coaching brethren. After a 13-year playing career, the 70-year-old first began coaching in the 1974/75 season. Since then he’s coached and co-coached in no less than the NHL, AHL, NLA, NLB, and the Slovak Extraliga, while also having been the head coach, assistant coach, or team manager for Finland, Switzerland, and most recently Austria. His experience also includes having coached U18 and U20 teams, so he felt right at home viewing the progress of the six nations represented at the accompanying IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship Division I Group A.

He explained: “As a young player, I too looked around to see what was going on in Sweden and Russia, among others, but we Finns were very busy developing our own identity. Some countries are looking around to see what others are doing, but they’re doing that too much. They have to build their own identities. They need to find harmony. They need to identify what their culture is and then see what they can add to it from here and there. But the system they use needs to be their own and incorporate the concerns of their own culture. They need to create their own path.”

The Senior Director of Hockey Development for USA Hockey, Kevin McLaughlin, tackled the challenge with a fascinating mix of videos and power point documents in describing what exactly USA Hockey has done in the past 20-30 years to rapidly transform the success and productivity of its program. For those who have been following, the USA has become a dominant international giant at the U16 and U18 levels, while being as competitive as anyone at the U20 level and increasingly so at the men’s level. In addition, the program has been top-notch in women’s competition and sledge hockey. 

This wasn’t always the case, and in connecting with the other topics of the day, McLaughlin took the group through a journey of the issues the program faced and how, nationwide, it has worked on radically changing the approaches and methods of primarily the coaches so as to better develop players, the game, and the competition while also better fostering the love of the game by its participants. It’s a path that can, indeed, serve as an inspiration, if not model, for a number of growing hockey federations across the globe. And at the crux of the changes was the topic of coaching and how it is best done in a manner that keeps the kids coming back for more.

Taking a more serious and direct route, Fabian Pera of the National Anti-Doping Agency of Germany informed the coaches of the exact procedures for Anti-Doping testing, what to expect, and what is expected of them and their organizations. Despite a very long day and a boatload of information, particularly this topic led to some discussions and questions of the agency’s methods and approaches to testing the players. But there’s no denying that it’s heavy topic and one teams need to be up to date on.

Wrapping things up, DEB Sports Director Stefan Schaidnagel addressed the attendees: “We’re so glad you were here with us today. We’re permanently attempting to further develop and improve our further education coaching seminars. This is also clearly recognizable in the quality of our lecturers. We’re striving for continual perfection so as to provide our coaches with the best possible expertise.“

For the aforementioned Schwarzenbrunner, the event was exactly what the organization was aiming for: “The most important value of this event is to bring a collection of coaches together with coaches from different countries and organizations, and to do so in something that is more than just a standard further education measure, but rather also in connection with an IIHF World Championship tournament. They were here to get input about what thoughts and philosophies are out there in the form of Alpo Suhonen and Kevin McLaughlin, both of whom come from two of the world’s larger ice hockey countries, as well as to get input from different sports such as handball and football, and fields of sports science and philosophy.”

For him, it was all about the coaches and their continuous work with the current and future players of the country, some of whom will one day hopefully represent the nation in international play. “We’re trying to give these coaches the largest possible extra value about what’s out there to assist them in their coaching endeavours. Should they go home today with a new idea or having seen things from a perspective they haven’t taken into consideration before, then we feel we’ve done something very right.”

One of the more well-known ex-pro players in attendance was Stefan Ustorf, a former third-round draft pick of the Washington Capitals, who spent the bulk of his career playing for Eisbaren Berlin after having bounced around the NHL, AHL, and IHL for several years in North America. He’s spent the majority of the past five years working in management and player development for Berlin’s DEL team while now also serving as a European scout for the Los Angeles Kings. 

“I think that in whatever you do - hockey, business or anything really - if your attitude is that you can learn something new every day, then you can learn something from anyone”, stated Ustorf. “Sure, I’ve been in hockey for a very long time and played at some of the highest levels, but I can learn something from someone who might have just started. I can learn something from an old coach, a young coach, and the sports psychologists we saw here today.” 

“The big data information that we encountered is really important, because the sport is progressing and then you’ve got to figure out how to reach today’s generation. The information we have nowadays is significantly more than we ever had when I played. You’ve gotta learn how to work with this information for these new guys and hey, anytime you get to listen to professionals or people specializing in fields outside of hockey, it gives you something to really think about. That’s why we’re here; to broaden our horizons and think outside the box. If you want to help the players develop, then you’ve got to think outside the box a little. And that’s what we’ve been doing here today.”

It was a point that related closely to one of Pasco’s observations. “We’re always talking about developing players, but how exactly are we going to do that if we don’t also develop the coaches? If you’re not able to better serve the players, then it’s going to be difficult to make progress. So, working on further developing the coaches at an event like this is a great idea. At the end of the day, you want to be able to improve the player’s performance. You can only really do that by also better preparing the coaches.”

The group of coaches were also visited by a few very busy people who stopped by for a few words to get a taste of the day’s lectures. 

“It was terrific to see how this type of national and international ice hockey prominence participated in this well-organized IIHF and DEB symposium with such great interest,” declared Franz Reindl, DEB President and a member of the IIHF Council. 

He was joined by Petr Briza, an IIHF Council member himself, and General Manager of Sparta Prague, in introducing the IIHF Partnership for Progress Program as part of the day’s events.

“I myself felt very comfortable with the folks in attendance today, recognizing a lot of the faces here as I myself played six years in Germany and a lot of these guys are roughly the same age,” Briza said with a big smile. “It’s been very nice to see each other again and it’s fantastic to now see that they are still involved with the sport in a coaching capacity. It’s always terrific when the ex-pros move on to coaching, because they have so much experience and passion to pass along to the next generations.”

But he obviously wasn’t just here to mingle, as the multilingual Briza is a full-flight backer behind this IIHF program as the Chairman of the IIHF Youth & Junior Development Committee. “My purpose for being here is to introduce the new platform for our Partnership in Progress Program, of which this symposium is a part of. We want to bring these people together and get them motivated to work on improving the game and how players are developed and fostered. There a wonderful coaches at all levels of the sport and we feel they often just need the chance to cooperate and develop their own craft.”

If all this sounds interesting to you, and you’re a coach who’d like to get involved, the opportunity is there, as Briza explains: “It’s really pretty easy. Just go to the IIHF website, find the links to our Partnership in Progress Program, then register there. Our own Aku Nieminen will then get that registration and take the next step.”

It’s never been easier to find it. Just click here and check out the brochure for instructions.

“We’re also working together with the European Hockey Club Alliance and hope to optimize that after this initial season of the pilot program,” he continues. “We think that once a few things start clicking, you get a positive snowball effect after that. We know there are a lot of coaches out there just looking to be part of something. We’re hoping we’ll create a whole new level of cooperation on this front.”

If this initial symposium was any indication, then the Partnership in Progress Program is well on its way to doing just that. Beside the various co-operation projects between national associations, leagues and clubs, several events like this will be held during eight IIHF events, the next one in January in Austria during the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division I Group A. Other such events will take place during men’s, women’s and junior championships in Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Kazakhstan, Mexico and Sweden in spring.