Matthew Lombardi has always been fast and talented, but he hasn’t always been a great hockey player. The road to the NHL is long and tough, and he credits the coaching he received with the Victoriaville Tigres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) with taking him to the next level.
“Each year in the QMJHL, the coaches tried to work on my strength, which was speed, but also tried to make me a more complete player.”
Lombardi notes that while he has always been a quick skater, it’s the little things and not the obvious talents that his coaches worked on, whether it was in the QMJHL or later under Jim Playfair in the American Hockey League (AHL). “Coach Playfair helped me get better in the defensive zone as well. That’s what I needed to make it to the NHL – elevating my two-way play.”
Coaches have an elusive job to many fans. We don’t really pay much attention to them while the game is on, although sometimes we see them whisper a few words into a player’s ear. While they toggle line changes during the game, most coaches earn their paycheques away from the public eye – their hard work and skills are showcased behind closed doors, in countless videotape sessions, and on the practice ice, to an audience of about twenty-five professional athletes.
“The coaches know how to push you,” Lombardi notes. “I think that what improved most during my QMJHL and AHL years was my confidence. There is a huge difference now in my on-ice skills. Each year, the coaches and I expect more of myself and each year I have a larger role. Last year was my best so far, and I’m hoping it will continue.”
While Lombardi was scoring goals in the Quebec league, big defenceman Eric Godard was bodychecking opponents in Lethbridge in the late 1990s with the Hurricanes. When asked about what areas of his game he had to improve to make it to the NHL, his answer was simple: “Everything.” After going undrafted, Godard moved to the AHL and worked with coaches in Louisville and Bridgeport before entering the NHL in 2002. He notes that it’s important to keep improving your game all the time, whether it’s skating, physical work in the gym, or basic videotape analysis.
And it also helps if you have fun. “The coaches try to keep things interesting,” Godard notes after practice on the Saddledome ice. “Today, for example, we had a three-on-three scrimmage. We also did a shootout. We’re trying to keep it loose out there and we like to be competitive.”
Veteran centre Mark Smith has worked with many coaches during his hockey career, beginning in Lethbridge and then spending time in Kentucky before logging over 300 games with the San Jose Sharks. The Flames centre credits his Lethbridge Hurricanes coach, Brian Maxwell, with instilling mental toughness in him at an early age.
“What he told me was to play with confidence,” Smith recalls, “confidence that I can score, that I can be physical and be an all-around player. That’s stuck with me through my whole career. It
was integral to the process of getting to the NHL.”
Coach Maxwell worked with developing players like Smith in the mid-1990s, refining talented boys into complete hockey players. “During the WHL years, I definitely improved my overall game,” Smith notes. “It was the little things that got better, like faceoffs and defensive play, basically being a reliable player.”
After Smith was drafted in the ninth round by the Sharks, Coach Maxwell explained to him what it was going to take mentally to make it to the NHL.
“Not only did he give us the tools to succeed on the ice, but he also taught us skills that were important away from the ice – having a thick skin, for example, or being able to deal with an emotional game. He taught us that everything you do away from the rink comes into your game, whether you want it to or not. You have to find a balance in there somewhere to make it work. Guys that have been around ten or fifteen years, they’ve figured that out. The mental side is key in the NHL.”
Every coach has his distinctive style; for defenceman Dion Phaneuf, his Red Deer Rebels coach, Brent Sutter, never specifically addressed making the pro leagues.
“We didn’t even talk about it. I was playing for the Red Deer Rebels and that’s what I was focused on,” Phaneuf admits. “My final year was the year of the lockout and Brent and the entire Rebels team were focused on our goals.” Phaneuf was drafted in the first round in 2003, and made the leap from the juniors to the National Hockey League immediately. He credits Brent Sutter with treating the young Phaneuf like a professional, giving him responsibility early on.
“I learned a lot in the WHL under Coach Sutter. I went from not playing very much to playing a big role. Brent ran the organization like a professional, big-league club. Now that I’m playing pro I realize that the little things he preached to us made the game better. He helped me out a lot.”
Anyone who has seen Dion Phaneuf walk into the dressing room after a practice knows that he is extremely focused and professional. However, Phaneuf stresses that one of the most important things that coaches have helped him do is keep hockey fun, even at this level.
“It might be a business, but if you are not in it to have fun, then you are in it for the wrong reasons,” Phaneuf notes. “It’s no secret that [hockey] is our job and our livelihood, but you still have fun doing it. We are still playing for the love of the game. I think if you asked every guy in the room, they would all agreethat the friendship and the camaraderie are a huge part of the game.”