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Coaches Room

NHL coaches getting assist from advanced technology

Cookson says ability to acquire game film digitally has eased scouting, preparation

by Rob Cookson / Special to

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, Cookson, a former assistant with the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames, and video coach with the Philadelphia Flyers, talks about the evolution of the use of a video as a coaching tool.

When you think about the advances in society and how far and how quickly it's come with technology, the NHL is no different. When I started as a video coach with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1998, we were still using VHS tapes. Now, everything is available digitally.

I was fortunate when I entered the NHL to work with probably the premier innovator in the use of video in hockey, the late Roger Neilson. His ability to teach with video made him one of the most impressive coaches I've worked with. 

Coming from an educational background, Roger would always teach the game from start to finish. It was never demeaning but approached in an honest, straightforward manner. It was always positive with an entertaining component to each session.

He established a real foundation in my approach entering the League which I still rely on with players I work with today.

The use of VHS required heavy cooperation from a lot of different sources before the digital realm. For home games, we would get the video from Comcast, which telecast the Flyers' games. 

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But acquiring game footage of your next opponent could be challenging at times, particularly if you were on the road for three or four games and had no source to record your next opponent. Sometimes Roger suggested going to the local pub and asking them to record the game, but I often relied on the cooperation of other teams.  

It was an unwritten rule that you never asked the opponent for a copy of the video from their previous game, so you'd ask their last opponent to leave a VHS copy taped under a table in the visiting coaches' room so the home team didn't know you were getting it.

When you had your own videotape, my responsibility after each game was to break down the scoring chances. That remains one of the more sought-after methods of evaluating your team: How do you give up scoring chances? Where do you create scoring chances? 

My job was to break them down and catalog them. We would then review each chance for and against and use it to measure the performance of the team and the players. It would also tell us how lines and defense pairs fared against the opponent and helped set up our practice focus.

Roger would then collate the clips, put them in order, and teach from an edited copy of that VHS cassette.

As far as pre-scouting, I would break the game down according to who we were playing. Roger would select what he wanted and then we would work on solutions to take advantage of the opponent.

The difficulties of working in those early years with VHS were usually times on the clock not matching what the notes said or the machine jamming and eating a tape. So it was a long, drawn-out process, but that was all you could do at that time.

Now, with digital, you can go anywhere you want in the game and find any information you need. Your resource on each team is your video coach. 

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Coaches need to be very user friendly with computers nowadays. The amount of information that's out there and the ability to acquire it is endless. 

Last season in Ottawa, we chose to change our penalty kill and we had a particular team we wanted to mirror as far as what they were doing. Within an afternoon, we were able to acquire all the information we needed on what they did up ice, what they did on the blue line in terms of defending, and what they did in the defensive zone. That allowed us to put together a teaching video to educate the players the next day. 

You would never be able to do that without the age of technology in the sense of downloading and acquiring game footage through the internet, the ability to tie in real-time stats through the NHL's statistical department, and having an expert -- the video coach -- to bring all that information to the computer you're sitting at.

So it's imperative for coaches to have some sort of education about all that technology. And with the analytics part of it, it is even more important.

Analytics and video drive one another. You can't acquire the statistical information for analytics without the ability to acquire video footage.

Also, during the game, tablets on the bench are tied directly into what the video coach logs or provides. As a result, coaches have the ability on the bench to go back to certain sequences throughout the game that he may have remembered off the time or written down. 

Today's athlete needs and wants instant information. When you watch a game on television, you'll see lots of instances when players themselves are using the tablets to look at information.

To me, the evolution has been a positive one. The game has improved tremendously and one of the components that has helped it improve is the ability to teach with images. 

Still, I remember when I coached under Darryl Sutter with the Calgary Flames in the mid-2000s, he would sometimes chastise us for spending too much time on the computer. He used to say, "The answer is not in the computer."

His point was well taken. It's still about the relationships and interactions with players that get the best results. Whether you're able to use video in that interaction for teaching and showing, or whether you're just building relationships, that element shouldn't be overlooked.

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