In his first year as head coach in the USHL, Jeff Blashill led the Indiana Ice to the Clark Cup as league champions. His first year as head coach in the NCAA, Blashill was named college hockey’s Coach of the Year by USCHO after taking Western Michigan to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years. Then, in his first year as head coach in the AHL, he won the Calder Cup with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Success in the NHL, however, has not been as instantaneous.
The Detroit Red Wings are in the valley of a rebuild, with an understanding that on-ice success was unlikely in 2019-20. Wins were hard to come by, as Detroit collected just 17 of them in 71 games. When the NHL paused operations in March, the Red Wings were 23 points back of the league’s next worst team, the Ottawa Senators.
While outside observers may have had low expectations for the Red Wings going into the season, that’s small consolation for the players and coaches, all of whom are hyper-competitive. Blashill, who has been head coach of the Red Wings for the last five seasons, has had to balance his understanding of the team’s current situation with the drive to win every game.
“We understand the cycle we’re in as a coaching staff, but you still certainly want to win,” said Blashill. “Nobody likes to lose, you want to go out and win, you want to put your best foot forward, you want to overachieve if you can.
“I think the one thing that’s important as a coaching staff is to continuously remember, though, that it’s all about long-term success and not short-term gains, and not to sacrifice anything long term to win tomorrow. That’s not always easy to do when you’re in the competitive fires that we’re in.”
Focusing on the process
The team’s current situation presents unique challenges for a coaching staff, such as managing player motivation on a game-to-game basis. The negative emotions that come with losing are hard to avoid.
“It’s always got to be process-oriented. Over the long term, results will follow a good process,” said Blashill. “One of the main focuses is making sure that all our players are maximizing their abilities and are growing, but certainly our young players are growing for the long term, and not just for the short term.
“You might be able to score a few more points in the short term by playing hockey a certain way, and you might win another game or two, but it really doesn’t matter if it’s not going to help you build a championship-level team. If that means you might score a few less points, in order to make sure we’re playing that complete total game that you have to play, then so be it. If that means you might have to take a couple steps backwards as a player, because you’ve got to learn new habits that are gonna make you a way better player in the long run, then so be it.”
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One obstacle for instilling those good habits, however, is the lack of positive reinforcement. When doing the little things right doesn’t lead to goals and wins, how does a coach provide that positive feedback to keep a player going?
“I think one of the hardest things to do in life is to keep faith when you don’t see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s not easy,” said Blashill. “This word gets thrown around a lot, but it’s reality: we focus on process. We don’t focus on points, we don’t focus on results, we don’t necessarily focus on wins and losses — we focus on process.
“For a young player, it may be the points aren’t coming, but they’re playing the right way and we’re constantly showing them when they’re doing it right and when they’re not doing it right, and making those comparisons. They can see the difference in their play. We just continuously focus on process with each player, whether that’s analytically, whether that’s through video — it’s always about making sure that they see the process.”
It’s important to not just keep the players focused and motivated, but to find that motivation as a coach as well. As someone that constantly wants to learn and get better as a coach, Blashill pointed to a specific mindset that kept driving him through the 2019-20 season.
“We went through an extraordinarily hard year this year. One thing we did as a coaching staff is we came every day and tried to be solution-based,” he said. “I’ve said this lots: frustration is a waste of time. There’s nothing that results through frustration. Let’s come in every day and find solutions. That doesn’t mean that you’re searching for new answers all the time. It might mean that you stick to the identity and the core principles of what you want to be about, but let’s make sure we find solutions.”
Blashill emphasized the importance of constantly improving, particularly in the NHL where if you’re not improving you’re going to get passed by. For him as a coach, that means studying a lot of video, but he regularly turns away from hockey to learn from other areas.
“I’ve learned a lot from a lot of different business books, where they analyze different organizations and find best practices,” he said. “I’ve learned from those, ways to grow your mind and grow your decision making.”
“We study other sports — soccer has some similarities. How are they training people in soccer? What are the best organizations doing to train people? What are their practices like? Do they practice in a way that might be a better way for us to practice? The utilization of small area games is something that I’ve always used and been intrigued by. Are there better ways to do that? Can we put people in more read-and-react situations?”
That latter question was a special point of emphasis for Blashill. He’s seen how skill acquisition has become something of a science in younger groups, with incredibly young players able to do things with the puck on their stick that would have been unimaginable to NHL players in the past. For Blashill, that skill acquisition through applied practice and repetition is certainly important, but another element can sometimes get neglected.
Teaching hockey sense
“If you ask 31 NHL GMs, one of the most important skills for a player to have, they’d say hockey sense. If you ask 31 coaches, they’d say hockey sense. Hockey sense is critical,” he said. “Certainly skating and shooting and those things are important, but hockey sense is critical. Hockey sense, really, is reading and reacting.”
So how can you train hockey sense?
“It’s really, really difficult, but you can train read-and-react,” said Blashill. “That’s what a lot of those small area games do. They put people into positions you want them to be in, and help teach them and train them how to react in those situations. How do you react defensively in a 2-on-1? How do you react offensively in a quick 2-on-1? If you set up games that create those situations, you help train them to read and react.”
By adding game-like situations into the repetitive skill acquirement, the players then learn those essential skills while simultaneously learning them in the context of reading and reacting.
“We want people with hockey sense, so train them to have hockey sense,” said Blashill.
“I watch a lot of practices around here and I’ve seen a lot of youth hockey and I think coaches are doing a better and better job,” he added. “They’re working on skating and working on shooting and they’re working in station-based work, and I think that’s all great and should continue to be used. But I don’t know that I see enough of really creative small-area games that are driving certain habits into the players of read-and-react, and I think if you can continue to find creative ways to do that, you can really train your kids, boys and girls, at young ages to have hockey sense.”
Despite the tough season in Detroit, Blashill still has an incredible amount of passion for coaching.
“There’s nothing more exciting than when you’re working with somebody or when you’re working with a team and you see that individual or that team grow. It’s an awesome, awesome feeling,” he said. “I feel like I haven’t really worked a day in my life, because I was able to follow my passion.”