After 25 years as a teacher and hockey coach at the prestigious Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, three-time Olympian Terry O’Malley knows his fair share about the development of aspiring elite-level hockey players.
In fact, with the help of his leadership, the Catholic residential and coeducational school for students in grades 9 through 12 has produced NHL, semi-pro, European, Olympic, NCAA and Canadian college hockey players at a disproportionately high rate.
Located in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, Canada, the college — known for its commitment to developing well-rounded graduates — is home to the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) Junior A Hounds and the Junior Women’s Hockey League (JWHL) Hounds. In addition to these highly competitive junior teams, Notre Dame’s hockey lineup consists of AA through AAA, male and female, Bantam and Midget teams.
O’Malley, who was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Hall of Fame in 1998, has served in many capacities at Notre Dame, including as president between 2003 and 2006. Over the years, he coached a long list of talented players, including Wendel Clark, Gary Leeman, Brad Richards and Vincent Lecavalier.
Having just celebrated his 72nd birthday, the 1966 captain of the Canadian National Hockey Team says player development has changed somewhat since he first strapped on his skates in 1957 as a defenceman for the Ontario Hockey League’s Toronto St. Michael’s Majors.
“I think the skill level now is higher than when I coached and played — much higher as a matter of fact,” said O’Malley. “The NHL skill level is unbelievable. Their ability to shoot and carry the puck and skate, and their acceleration — their ability to take off is remarkable.”
And although he believes the specificity of training nowadays has helped many players raise the level of their game, he says it’s still the five fundamental factors that indicate whether a player has the potential to play high-level hockey: skating, puck sense, shooting, puck handling and passing.
“Skating, of course, being the primary one, and puck sense I would consider to be the second most important thing you look for in a player,” he said. “Shooting, puck handling, passing can be developed, I think, depending on the natural ability of the player.”
Outside of the core skills, O’Malley says he looks for determination and heart.
“Can they work through adversity? Do they love to win? There isn’t a player I’ve read about or watched that hasn’t worked hard to get where he or she is.”
One of the hardest workers he remembers coaching is Brad Richards — a New York Rangers centreman who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player during the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He came to Notre Dame at the age of 14 and roomed with good friend Vincent Lecavalier.
“He wasn’t very big and he didn’t skate very well but, oh, could he see the ice,” said O’Malley. “Every time he got the puck, things happened. But, I mean, he worked hard. He was a natural hard working young man. He actually trained with a bobsledder [to build] up his core strength. He, of course, made the team, was one of the leading scorers and went on to have a great career. You’ve got to be willing to put in the hours and work hard.”
Though O’Malley says a player’s potential to play high-level hockey can begin to reveal itself around age 10 or 11, he says a lot can happen between the ages of 16 and 20.
“Even after age 20 in professional sport you see how they don’t want to sign a long-term contract with someone, or they have limits on what they pay someone, until they see that they can be a real bona fide professional player.”
For young hockey players hoping to play junior, collegiate, major junior or professional hockey, O’Malley says the most important thing to focus on is finding the extra opportunities and fun ways to play and practise. This he knows from experience. As a boy he would get up at 3:30 on Saturday mornings during summer holidays to rent the local ice rink with his buddies. They would skate for two hours and then go do their paper routes, which paid for the ice time. Afterward, they would meet at Fran’s restaurant in North Toronto for pancakes and ice cream. After a nap, they would play ball hockey from noon until night.
“You follow what they call the Malcolm Gladwell rule,” he said. “You have to find the 10,000 hours to become accomplished at anything. And it’s no different than in hockey. The ones that have made it, you’ll find that they played backyard shinny, ball hockey — their parents often had a rink in their backyard. [It’s] the little extra things that make a difference in your skill development.”
To support their child, O’Malley says parents can look for small ways to help facilitate his or her progress, but adds that it’s good to let the child come up with his or her own ideas too.
“You watch, like any parent does, to see what really interests your son or daughter and you approach it accordingly. If it looks like he or she is really interested, then you look for little ways to facilitate it — a shooting [area] in your garage or a little rink in your backyard. It’s important that they have good peers that love to do the same thing. You buy a couple of nets for the front street and play ball hockey. You look for little things [to] enrich the game without smothering the child. That’s important. You want a balanced life as well. You like to play tennis, you like to swim, you like to do a lot of things but you find ways to improve the little things of the game and those are the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell talks about.” However, he said parents need to take a “real balanced approach and you have to be careful with it.”
In addition to finding playful ways to practise the skills, O’Malley says aspiring players need to watch their nutrition and work on core body strength.
“We did all this naturally when we grew up. We’d, on our own, play ball hockey all afternoon. Ride our bikes everywhere. I mean, that was all kind of natural training. Not an organized functional specificity training like they have now. There’s no question, specificity of training makes a difference. [But] if that’s the way it is to excel today, I think it’s important that parents find a balance with fun. Get your kids playing golf. Get them playing tennis. Lacrosse is a great eye-hand coordination sport for hockey as well. Get them anything to bring a balance to his or her athletic approach to life.”
By Peewee, O’Malley says, without losing their enthusiasm for the game, skilled players who want to play high-level hockey should begin to focus more seriously on their development and strive to play at the highest level possible for their age group.
“Playing on high-level teams brings advantages,” said O’Malley. “You have better practice times, perhaps more practice times, you have experience with playing against players at a high level. You get better coaching, in most cases. So all those things assist you. The thing that would be a drawback to that would be if you’re playing too far above your level. It can lead to a loss of confidence.”
As a 16-year-old, O’Malley saw first-hand how playing above one’s head can hinder development. Like talented young hockey players today, he and a friend were faced with the decision of whether to play Junior A hockey or play one step up in the Western Hockey League (WHL). His friend decided to play up as the sixth or seventh defenceman and O’Malley chose the Junior A route.
“He didn’t play very much,” he said. “He played over his head. I played Junior A and I played all the time. In the playoffs they called me up [to the team] and the other fellow ended up sitting on the bench and I played. There is an argument — and a good argument — that if you play at a high level then you can raise your game, therefore improve. But you have to be able to play. And if you’re not playing much and you get out on the ice, especially at the junior level, and the coach wants to win and you make a mistake, then the coach gets on you. You lose your confidence and you’re afraid to try anything. It freezes your development. So, personally I always feel that it is better to play at the level where you can build confidence and lead. And when you’re ready to move up, don’t move up too soon. [For parents] it’s a real judgment call. What do you want for your child? Do you want him to have fun and grow in confidence and play a lot at a level where he would really enjoy the game, or do you want to push him to a point where he’s frustrated? It’s a balance. It’s a judgment. And it’s your son or daughter.”
Although O’Malley says playing too much and not having enough balance in one’s life will lead to burnout, he believes that a healthy commitment to athletics and competition offers many important and valuable life lessons.
“I think competition can sometimes bring out the best and sometimes the worst in us,” he said. “But sport puts in front of a child a challenge. It puts in front of them adversity — where they have to strive to participate as a teammate in [reaching] a common goal. And those are all good lessons to meet in terms of preparation, in terms of courage, in terms of determination and seeing through adversity, [and] in terms of all the tactics and strategies you have to pull together to succeed as a group. People love to share common experiences. And a team is a common experience, so you want that opportunity for a young player … all those things are part of our social fabric and our personal fabric.”
Even still, O’Malley adds that with many players now playing winter and spring hockey, it’s important that kids get a good break from the game.
“You know we’re always striving for excellence. So here’s something you love [and] you want to see how far you can take it. I think that’s good for people. It motivates our life no matter what endeavor we try to follow. It’s always better to have fought for a goal and not made it than to sit on your couch and not do anything. It’s better to try, to seek, to find and to see where that takes you.”Though O’Malley agrees the road to junior hockey and beyond can be a long and tough one for young players, he believes that if they have the talent and the drive, they should try to see it through. While doing so, however, he says they need to continue to keep a strong focus on their education and, if they have the academic ability, to ensure they get college entrance grades. He also stresses that “it is up to the parent to know clearly how the academic setting is working out for a son, if the WHL route is chosen.” That way, they are prepared for wherever the road takes them.
If it doesn’t work out, he says players can look back at it as a great experience.
“In every sport there is a whole patrimony of values that must be kept in front in order to be realized. The game teaches courage. It teaches preparation and how to win and lose. It teaches to struggle through adversity. It teaches the methodical preparation. The game does teach a lot about life. It’s up to coaches and parents to keep those values so they can be realized. Athletics is a valuable thing. It provides a richer life for young people. It is through adversity that we do succeed.”
Development Tips from Coach Terry O’Malley
For aspiring rep players
I would find buddies that want to horse around and play ball hockey. I’d play at the game. Wendel Clark had a shooting [area] in his dad’s barn. He had a great wrist shot. He would just shoot and shoot and shoot. I’d find friends to play street hockey with — to play at the game so you can pick up those skills naturally.
For aspiring junior players
I would watch players that I admire. If you’re a winger, you look at some of the best wingers. You can get tapes on them or go to games, and just watch how they approach the game. I’d pick someone that I’d like to emulate who is a professional, and I’d watch him play the game.
If my son or daughter was really interested in the sport, I would look for opportunities that could help them improve their skills — the puck handling, the skating and so on. I’d look for opportunities where they could get a little edge, without smothering them. There are all kinds of camps out there. I’d look for opportunities that the athlete himself or herself would love to do just because they love the sport.
I would say keep it fun. Be well prepared. Make it challenging and remember “game teaches game.” If you want to keep it fun, you play a little three-on-three or two-on-two, and in that little game try to incorporate one skill where they might have to do a tight turn or make a saucer pass before they can take a shot on net. It makes it challenging, it makes it fun and you’re developing skills as well.