Dinos hockey coaches can be proud of running one of the best NHL workout sessions around
Players from several teams flocked to WinSport for the duration of the lockout and were constantly tested and entertained
Since the beginning of the National Hockey League lockout, Mark Howell and the coaching staff from the University of Calgary Dinos men’s hockey team have been generously donating their time and providing structured practices at WinSport.
Some days, the future looked good for their temporary charges.
Some days, it didn’t.
But effort — and, for the most part, attendance — stayed the same.
“Nobody knew what was going to happen,” Howell was saying on Tuesday after another on-ice session. “We treated each two weeks as a cycle because we didn’t know when they’d be ready to go. Like everybody else, we all watch the media. And talking to some of the guys, they had a feel for where negotiations were at. There were weeks we were all optimistic, so we went harder. And then there were weeks where things went sour. But they didn’t change their focus.
“They stayed working hard and working details on the game.”
It was also a bit of professional development for Howell and his crew who have been spending three or four hours a few days a week to help lead the locked-out NHL-ers through formal whiteboard practice plans and helping them work on various aspects of the game. Players also had access to Hockey Canada’s facilities and weight room at WinSport.
Which sure beats throwing the sticks in the middle for repetitive games of shinny.
“Guys talked,” Howell said. “Some of the guys were at other camps, Phoenix or wherever they were. They all came back and said this was the best one. Not so much because of us, but because they had numbers and strength coaches. They had a lot more things in place that made it structured and more like a team setting. They felt they were getting worthwhile (workouts) out of the skate and not just going through a bunch of drills.”
And it was definitely a lot better than what Cory Cross experienced when he was a defenceman with the Edmonton Oilers during the 2004-05 lockout.
Back then, the Dinos assistant coach hit the ice at a nearby arena with a group of teammates and some men’s’ leaguers.
“We just scrimmaged and skated around and got into a lot of bad habits,” Cross said. “So, I figured it was a good call by these guys to have some practices and some organized stuff for them so they could stay in decent shape.”
Having gone through the process himself — a “painful” ordeal that didn’t end well for them that year — Cross could empathize with the players who were itching to play for real.
There wasn’t much else to do but stay patient and hope the powers-that-be worked everything out.
And, for this year’s group, the glass was half full on most days.
“I don’t think anyone thought they were going to lose the season,” Cross said. “At points during it, they thought, ‘Oh maybe we’re wrong.’ But I think the optimism was always there.”
Together, Howell, Cross, and Dinos goalie coach Brad Kirkwood chatted with some of the veteran players to organize the ice times to help them stay motivated while the off-ice issues between the NHL and NHLPA continued to drag-on.
“That’s the one thing that was tough,” Cross said. “Some days, the guys weren’t into it. You just made sure you had some games and small area games. We made it fun for the guys to come so it wasn’t just work every day. Obviously we threw in work days and then we’d have fun days.
“Just gave them a breath of fresh air, knowing that they were coming to actually work on their skills and not just skate around and play shinny.”
On the other side of it, the experience was valuable from a coaching perspective as they were exposed to a high level of skill and players that can execute tactical exercises with ease.
Kirkwood, who also runs and owns Top Prospects Goaltending, also benefited by working with Flames goalies Miikka Kiprusoff and Henrik Karlsson, Edmonton Oilers’ goalie Devan Dubnyk, and Anaheim goalie Jeff Deslauriers.
“I have a business here, so it added credibility to it,” Kirkwood said. “These guys have been real great to work with, really receptive to new ideas and what I have to offer.
“The more advice and styles you can be exposed to, the better goalie you’re going to be.”
But it’s back to reality for the coaches as the informal sessions are coming to a close. Ice times, which have been well-attended in the stands by Flames’ coaching staff and braintrust, continue this week as players continue to prepare for the start of training camp this weekend.
Next week, it’ll be business as usual for the U of C bosses and they’ll get their mornings back.
“I’ve said all along that it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable if the guys hadn’t been focused or work hard,” Howell said. “They’ve been really appreciative and that’s fine. But their work ethic has been what’s kept us motivated to keep helping them. If they weren’t eager to keep going and get better, it wouldn’t have been as enjoyable.
“But they’ve been great.”
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