The director of player development at Hockey Canada, Corey McNabb, is extremely passionate about developing the best players and coaches possible, but he feels the current system in place is not necessarily helpful to this goal.
“One of the main focuses of mine is long-term player development,” says McNabb.
“We're currently looking at what a season should look like in order to give the player the best opportunity to develop their skills.”
For McNabb, his passion for the game started long before he had any aspirations of a career in the sport.
“Probably like most kids, I started playing when I was five years old. When they first started letting kids on the ice and before that, you know, my dad was one of those guys that had the rink in the backyard.”
When a broken leg at a junior camp in Seattle, Wash. ended his playing career, he left his home in High Level, Alta., and was off to school in Edmonton, trying to figure out what to do next.
“I always kind of thought I was going to be involved in hockey somehow but I didn't know how. I didn't know where, when, why, whatever. I just kind of always knew I wanted to do [hockey],” explains McNabb.
When reflecting on his early coaching days as a student at the University of Alberta, it’s nothing but fond memories.
“The coaching side and especially on the skill side and teaching kids skating, puck handling and shooting and all that type of stuff was what I enjoyed,” says McNabb.
Upon graduating from the physical education program at the University of Alberta, McNabb got an internship with the national governing body for roller hockey in Canada, an up-and-coming sport at the time.
There, he gained valuable experiences that would eventually culminate in something bigger.
“We want to try and change the emphasis so that you have more practice at the start of the year and more games at the end of the year when it should be at a higher level of competition and a higher level of intensity.” -Corey McNabb
“There wasn't a lot of resources in it… it's kind of like you only had three or four people in the whole country that were doing it so everyone was kind of doing everything so it was a great learning experience,” explains McNabb.
From there, the experience would come in handy for a job application on the ice side of things in the late 90s. With his experience and passion for development, he was the top candidate for Hockey Canada’s next director of player development.
McNabb now spends his days either travelling around the country running clinics for coaches or players, talking and teaching on the best ways to develop hockey players, or working back at Hockey Canada headquarters, researching on how Canada can improve its game.
McNabb has found something interesting.
“When we look at how many times you actually take a shot on net in a game versus a practice, how much time you’ll have the puck on your stick, practice is where you develop,” says McNabb.
“We want to try and change the emphasis so that you have more practice at the start of the year and more games at the end of the year when it should be at a higher level of competition and a higher level of intensity.”
In today’s setup, especially in elite hockey, it is all about games and experts in the field of athlete development find this puzzling.
Dr. Kati Pasanen is a professor in the kinesiology department at the University of Calgary who has both played and coached team sports nationally and internationally for her country of Finland. To her, the current system in Canada is not necessarily the most beneficial way to long-term success for the individual athlete.
“Well of course we need to do full games. But practices are important ... we need to practice our skills and technique everyday so we get them optimized,” she explains. “It’s maybe the most important part of enhancing player development and performance.”
But for Hockey Canada, this does not mean that they are ignoring team success in the area of winning games or tournaments; they believe that, with heightened individual ability for each player, greater team success is possible.
Mike Bara is the director of Coach Development at Hockey Canada and he thinks they have a way to give Canadians the best of both worlds.
“I’m a firm believer the more you practice, the better you are as a team in the long run,” says Bara. “The emphasis [for us], is that skill development definitely can get you that base that helps you as a team further down the road.”
In a sport that’s played faster and faster with every passing day, McNabb and Bara believe that improving an individual’s skating or puck handling, or the ability to process the game at a quicker pace among other things, can only enhance a team’s chances at the end of the season.
McNabb and his team, are spending every day researching and developing new ways for Canadians to better develop their individual abilities in the game we hold so dearly to our hearts and it seems they may be onto something, even if it contradicts our great hockey history.
“Everybody wants to win you know… but it can’t be the ultimate focus and I think that's an issue we have in minor hockey here a little bit is the pressure to win or the want to win versus developing the best players possible.”
- By Will Baldwin