Ivan Christensen has coached amateur ice hockey for more than two decades, mostly at the competitive level. All that time, he’s been unhappy with how North American youths are taught the game’s fundamentals.
“There’s no serious focus on skills development,” he said.
So, he decided to do something about it. Christensen developed his own teaching style – and hockey school – based on how players in the old Soviet Union were trained. His approach goes further than just talking about the great players the Soviet Union has produced or watching old films.
It’s much more unique.
And, it proves you don’t need ice to develop hockey players.
So far, Christensen’s methods have worked as the first real product of his program – his son Erik – is enjoying a successful rookie season in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I think he believes North American players aren’t really taught the fundamentals very well. He looked at a lot of the European players, who are extremely skilled at handling the puck,” Erik Christensen said. “Now, he’s realized if he can keep doing this and people will listen to what he has to say, he’s going to be very successful.
“That’s what he’s dedicated his life to.”
It’s true. Ivan, who played junior and college hockey for five years and obtained a Level 4 coaching certification (N.C.C.P.) in 1984, instructed Erik throughout his career.
“I was always working with him in the basement, garage and backyard rink,” Ivan said. “I have always run hockey schools for his age group, which were strictly focused on skill development.
“Nothing is better than seeing a player do the right work and get better. There’s nothing cooler than seeing that success. Erik just loved to practice.”
So, more recently, he started his own business: Complete Player Inc. Ivan, who left his position as a lawyer after 20 years, now gives numerous individual, hour-long lessons each day of the week to young players in his Edmonton-area home in Leduc. The player does the session and then is expected to duplicate the session on his own time in the privacy of his own home.
“I have been so busy,” he said. “I can only handle 40 kids a week because they are all one-hour sessions. Running hockey schools and working with teams are on top of that. Every interaction I have with a player presents different challenges with respect to communication and demonstration. I try to identify and work on a player’s personal strengths and weaknesses, improve his knowledge of the position he plays and try to get to know him well.
“I don’t think there are many people in North America that do what I do. I’ve taken dryland training to a new level and that’s the key idea,” he continued. “The neat thing is, I have been working on this most of my adult life. I am 51; I just hope I get most of it down by 65 – I am just scraping the surface of how to help a player become ‘world-class.’ If the player wants to be ‘world-class,’ there has to be some structure. There has to be a focus on progressions (drill sequences), teaching cues, vital repetition and constant review. The player has to know where he is compared to the best in his age group in terms of the skills that we can test objectively. We are constantly trying to better his personal bests.
“I want to build players from the ground, up,” Ivan said. “Coaches in the Soviet Union (for example Anatoli Tarasov) were professional teachers and that is what I strive to be. We’ve always been concerned about what they’re doing over there. I want to know what they are doing – I want to replicate and improve upon what they are doing. We must take skill development much more seriously in North America.”
Most of Ivan’s hockey instruction is performed without ice, in a dryland context.
“Why would you need ice when the training is focused on motor-skill development?” Ivan said. “Perfect practice on a regular basis makes permanent and that vital practice can occur on cement surfaces.”
Ivan’s program is based on the complete-player model and its main aspects: athleticism (agility, balance, coordination, etc.), skill, positional development, read and react skills, physical toughness and sports psychology (primarily building confidence).
“Major themes include accuracy, puck control, creativity and scoring strategies, but we also work on simple issues like the use of feet to handle bad passes and the ability to handle crisp passes on the backhand side of the blade.”
More sophisticated shooting drills can be done outside on any surface – even grass and dirt – using strips of plastic or wood. By increasing the distance between the target and the player, the player develops an ability and confidence to shoot from any distance.
“We are trying to build a complete player,” Ivan said. “We’re trying to identify young players who have potential and making training interesting, effective and fun so they want more and come back. One of my students is 7 years old – the younger, the better.”
“The Soviet-style training is year-long. If you want to get drafted into the NHL, you have to be world class by 17 or 18,” Ivan said. “The only way to get that is to make sure you are working year-long, but to make sure there are regular breaks, too, like a school program.
“If you’re goal is to play in the NHL, you better have a good idea of how to chase excellence. You need the ability to inspire yourself daily and keep a very strong focus. It’s those kids who have that ability to chase excellence and use cement surfaces effectively that may have the competitive edge,” he continued. “A lot of players don’t understand what hard work really looks like. I educate them on commitment.”
Constant work (skill development, weights, speed work) is what got Erik into the NHL and let him find some success. And, he’s not resting now.
“Every day or close to every second day [in the offseason], we will be in my garage handling the puck,” Erik said. “I think the biggest thing when you turn pro is a lot of guys think they’ve made it. The secret, I think, to being a pro is knowing you can be better every year and you can always brush up on things. That’s what I do – I go to his hockey school and garage in the summer just to brush up on things.
“I have been going through pylons since I was 3 or 4. I have been on my skates since I was 2. I have been doing this all my life. Any sort of skill level I have now is thanks to my dad’s teachings,” he continued. “A lot of it now, since I have been doing it so long, is all muscle memory. I am just brushing up every summer and trying to get better and faster with my hands and my legs. I think that’s the secret – to always, always be pushing to get better.”
Ivan deflects credit for getting his son to the NHL.
“His mom, Margaret, and his sister, Erin, have been his No. 1 supporters,” he said. “Allowing your son to leave home at 15 is no easy task for a mother and, as for his sister, she always has the ability to make him laugh.”
He also points to four people who were instrumental in Erik’s career – Mike Moore (Kamloops Blazers General Manager), Troy Mick (Kamloops Blazer head coach), Randy Hansch (Kamloops Blazers scout) and Dean Evason (Erik’s first coach in the Western Hockey League).
“The Kamloops people were solid hockey people. When I knew Erik was with them, I knew he was in a good environment,” Ivan said. “That’s what I do – I am trying to build a positive learning environment for my clients.”
Ivan is very happy to see his son in Pittsburgh as well.
“I am just thrilled he’s with the Penguins,” he said. “Erik is a very focused athlete and wants to get better. He’s very lucky to be around and watch Mario [Lemieux] and [Mark] Recchi and [Sidney] Crosby and all the other players. There are 23 players on that roster and Erik needs to learn from 22 of them.”
Ivan, who also runs hockey schools and works with players and teams in the Western Hockey League, summer elite teams and minor hockey associations, is so busy that he rarely gets a chance to see his son play in person. Ivan and Margaret were in Pittsburgh in mid-November to see Erik play against the Rangers and Islanders.
“Margaret and I can’t wait to see him again,” Ivan said. “Hopefully, in January or somewhere around there.”
When Ivan can’t be in Pittsburgh, he watches his son – and all the other NHL games – via satellite from the comfort of his own home.
“He was going to a sports bar in Edmonton before. They have about 60 TVs everywhere and you can go in and say you want to watch,” Erik said. “Now, he has the NHL package so he can watch any game he wants.”
Ivan doesn’t just watch Penguins games. He derives a lot of his drills from watching and studying great NHL players as well as constantly reading hockey and other materials.
“He has a ton of books written by Russian coaches and Soviet coaches. It’s like a shrine of all those materials,” Erik said. “He watches a lot of hockey, too. He gets a lot of ideas and a lot of his drills just from watching a little play [Peter] Forsberg made or something like that. He can sort of create his own drill from anything. He has a great imagination for it.”
As a result, many of Ivan’s drills are very unique – and effective.
“There are so many, I can’t really tell you,” Erik said. “It’s a lot of puck-handling. It’s not just handling with a puck. It’s using your stick and handling golf balls, softballs, baseballs. A lot of the dryland training is all ball hockey. A lot of balance – he even teaches a bit of boxing – a little bit of everything. It’s mostly about skill development.”
Ivan constantly searches for ways to improve his teaching methods and often turns to his son for ideas.
“He’s fantastic now at giving me feedback,” Ivan said. “He has had a lot of experience playing at a very high level and he gives me great feedback.”
Erik enjoys helping his dad.
“I give him ideas all the time. He’s told me I am the best person to talk to because I am playing the game at a high level,” he said. “His ideas, I can sort of sit back and figure out if they’d work. I am his best critic, but I am also his biggest supporter.”
And when they talk to each other about hockey, good luck trying to understand them.
“He and I have our own language,” Ivan said with a laugh. “He will phone home and we have our own language from spending so much time together that no one knows what we’re talking about. It’s kind of neat.”
Overall, Erik is glad to see other players benefit from his father’s unique training.
“I think that’s why he’s having a lot of success is because it’s so different. You can go all over North America and no one is teaching what my dad is teaching,” he said. “My dad is teaching something that is very unique. He’s running the business and talking about all the stuff and I am his son and have been doing it all my life. People see I am playing in the NHL now and they sort of believe in his teachings even more.”