ST. LOUIS - Unreal.
That’s how center Vince Scognamiglio described Thursday’s St. Louis AAA Blues (U-16) practice at the Ice Zone at St. Louis Mills. The brisk 80-minute skate was a bit more demanding than usual because it was being conducted by Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock, Video Coach Danny Brooks and Head Athletic Trainer Ray Barile.
“It was tough,” Scognamiglio said. “We did a lot of fast-paced drills and worked hard, but it was a once in a lifetime experience. It gave a lot of guys a wake up call to learn what they’ve got to do to get to the next level.”
The St. Louis AAA Blues (U-16) squad is comprised of 15 and 16-year-old players, most of whom have played together for several years. The team, led by Head Coach Bil Hermis, will draw the attention of Division I college coaches and currently sits in first place in their division with a 27-5-2 record in the competitive Tier 1 Elite Hockey League. A quick survey of several players revealed the club has its sights set on a national championship and nothing less.
“Our expectations are definitely to win a national championship, but first we have to get there,” said forward Matthew Tkachuk, the son of former Blue Keith Tkachuk. “We have a pretty tough region to get through, but with the group of guys we have, I think we can get it done this year.”
Without NHL hockey to coach for the time being, Hitchcock is making a regular habit of coaching teams other than his own. The reigning Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL Coach of the Year has kept himself sharp by running practices for the Mizzou Club Hockey Team, for the Missouri State Ice Bears and now the AAA Blues.
“This is the age group I spent 12-14 years with when I started coaching. I love this age group,” Hitchcock said. “I love working with them. Their attention span is really good, they’re fun, they want to learn and they want to get better. This is real familiar territory for me.
“If the skill level can’t make a pass or can’t complete a play, then (you bring) a little bit of a different teaching mechanism. But this is the same practice we run midseason with the Blues, and the kids more than held their own, and they held their own because they can skate, pass and shoot. When those qualities are there, you can have a good practice.”
Learning from NHL coaches and players is nothing new for the AAA Blues. Former Blues defenseman and Hockey Hall of Famer Al MacInnis has worked with the team in the past, and more recently, Keith Tkachuk has joined the club as an Assistant Coach. But Thursday marked the first time the club, both players and coaches, received a chance to learn from a Jack Adams Award winner.
“(Hitchcock) probably thought I was a stalker. I tried to stand next to him as much as possible because you learn a lot from being with a guy like that,” Keith Tkachuk said. “I never got an opportunity to play for him, but I played against him. Listening to some of the little things and some of the details that he demands is really beneficial not just for the kids, but for coaches who spend time coaching youth hockey.”
During Thursday’s skate, the players worked on their skating, passing and shooting, but the overall message came from Hitchcock just before the team left the ice.
“I told them there are 1,000 players just as good as they are and they’re all over North America,” Hitchcock said. “It comes down to how bad you want it, what are you willing to do to work for it and things like that. A different level of commitment is needed. This is the age group that levels out. Sometimes this is as good as kids get, and sometimes they take big leaps from here. It’s always the same thing…it’s always in the level of commitment and desire.
“This is my wheelhouse. I love teaching and I love coaching, and especially with kids who are at the AAA level, this is a lot of fun.”