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Patience in the Pursuit of Player Development

By Jamie MacDonald, 04/17/24, 1:45PM EDT


Holy Cross head coach Bill Riga's advice for youth hockey families

Division-I head coach Bill Riga: ‘Don't leave the level you're at until you dominate it'

Holy Cross celebrates a goal against AIC in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals. Credit: Mark Seliger Photography

There may be some irony in the concept of patience. One of the great building-block elements of a well-rounded player’s game, patience, is just the kind of thing that’s hard to come by when that ambitious player who’s displaying some talent at one level is champing at the bit to ditch it for the next.

The truth is that step may be too steep.

“Here's kind of a quote I use: ‘Don't leave the level you're at until you dominate it,’” says Holy Cross head coach Bill Riga, a Westboro native who has been behind college hockey benches since 2003. “If you can't dominate at the prep school level, you can't play in the USHL. And if you can't be a really good player in the USHL, you can't dominate in college. You're not ready. So, taking shortcuts and skipping steps, you're risking some development long-term and playing time short-term.”

And the risks of jumping too early? Some players may be working against their own interests.

Imagine choosing to be overmatched without a natural path back.

“I think it sometimes just destroys them,” Riga says. “If you lose confidence and never get it back, you're just never the player that you were before you made that jump too soon.”

For Riga, who grew up playing in the rink he now calls home as a veteran coach – after a prep career at St. Mark’s School, college at UMass-Lowell under Bruce Crowder, a handful of games in the minors before taking a couple weeks off and finding himself behind the bench of the Boston Junior Bruins – hockey has been a pretty nice ride, right from the start. 

Being part of a close-knit group paid off as early as … peewees. 

“It was actually amazing,” says Riga. “We did Learn to Skate for a year and then ended up on a juggernaut of a team. In mites, we went undefeated. They actually kicked us out of the league. We had the Campbell brothers, and Joey Harney, who all played in hockey East. We never lost. We started off winning on Day One, and we stayed together as a group through peewee and ended up winning the state championship as peewees. Ended up at St. Mark’s for prep school for four years and eventually UMass-Lowell. A quick dip into pro and then it was coaching. And it has been coaching ever since.”

“Since” has included five seasons at Union College with head coach Nate Leaman and 13 seasons with head coach Rand Pecknold at Quinnipiac University.

Riga comes to his stance on The Leap honestly, having himself looked back with the thought his own career could have benefitted from just a touch more seasoning. 

“Certainly I was small and got bumped around a little bit my first year [at St. Mark’s] on varsity but ended up with about 20 points and it was OK,” he says. “Just went from there and got better and better. I think now guys leave after two or three years but that wasn't really a thing back then. It just allowed me the four years to develop there, to get better and better each year. If there's any regret, I think I went to college to soon. I wish I had been able to do a year or two in juniors, just to have a better freshman year. But no regrets looking back.” 

Without so much of a flinching these days, it seems, a young player’s ambitions, though, can get in the way of the present. And, frankly, it’s hard to ask an ambitious and talented player to be keeping the future always in their minds without wanting to jump into it as soon as possible.

That goes for parents as well as players.

“Everyone is allowed to have a dream,” says Riga, who as the father of twin 5-year-olds is sympathetic. “Everyone is allowed to want to be in the NHL. If no one did, no one would ever make it. So why not have the dream? But start off with, ‘Do you want to play hockey? Do you have fun?’ Let's start with them having fun playing hockey. Just see how it develops. And if they start to be the best player at that level, or one of the best players, then take the next step. Maybe it's a travel team. If they get to the travel team and they’re one of the better players there, maybe you have something there.”

Still, that’s not time to fully change the philosophy just yet. 

“Unless you're watching your child and they're one of the best guys or girls at the level, don't worry about pro hockey,” Riga says. “If you can't be one of the best players in mites or squirts or peewees, then what are you worried about the NHL for? It's the same thing in high school. I get emails from a guy who has three points as a senior saying he wants to play college hockey. Maybe try to figure out the high school level first? Then go to junior and figure that out. As a parent, you just have to evaluate realistically where your child stands with the team. And if they're at the top, then maybe think about the next step. Until then, don't. Just let it go. Let them have fun.”

And yet …

“But the biggest thing is, even if they are that good, don't push them to do things they don't want to do,” says Riga.

Riga has practiced and will continue to practice what he preaches as soon as this coming season.

“My kids, they're 5 1/2, I never told them once they should play hockey,” he says. “They just came to games and just started playing in the house and said, ‘We want to play.’ OK, that's fine. And they're going to go try out and whatever team they make, that's where they’ll play. It's just the way it's going to go until we figure out whether they have something worth pursuing. Until then, they'll do it for fun and play until they don't want to play anymore.”

Patience can indeed be a virtue for parents.

“I think the biggest thing is just kind of: If you push ‘em too hard, too fast, there are risks,” says Riga. “You might think that it's harmless if you just push and push, but you could make them dislike playing if they are over their heads and they don't succeed. You can ruin their confidence. So it's kind of a cautionary tale, I think. There are risks to pushing too hard and too fast.”

Worcester native Bill Riga is building a winning program at Holy Cross. Credit: Atlantic Hockey

As a coach, allowing players to develop comes in handy in ways that might not be readily obvious while competing in Division I hockey. With more players sticking around until they’re ready, the benefits that come from one player deciding to stick are exponentially more pronounced by every player who thinks of doing the same.

With exposure to building the program with Leaman at Union, and improving on the success of previous teams at Quinnipiac, Riga entered his Holy Cross years ready to run a program with what he’d learned over the years.

“Here [at Holy Cross], I'd say we're trying to model a lot of it after kind of the Quinnipiac way by finding really good players,” he says. “Maybe they're not first- or second-round picks, but they're good hockey players. You put in a plan to develop them, put in a system, build good culture and try to win that way. It's not going to be the one-and-done kid. By the time you develop your players the whole roster over the course of the years has those players in that culture, that's when you have a chance to beat a team that has [the one-and-done] kids. And certainly learning from good mentors like Nate and Rand has certainly paid off in my career.”

Crowder, the former Bruins forward, also played a significant role.

“I became aware of coaching on a larger scale when I got to Bruce Crowder,” says Riga. “The prep school coaches were good. But it was a different level when I got to Lowell. So I became interested in it and more aware of coaching on a much larger scale. Bruce was great. He didn't always say what I wanted to hear, but that's one of the things that makes a great coach. I played through college and I went to play a little bit in the minors and made it about a half a season and said, ‘I'm not doing this; I'm not getting to the NHL, I have a degree and I'm going to get back and try something else.’ Two weeks later I was coaching the [Junior Bruins]. That was the beginning of it. I never had another job. It's been hockey since I was 5-years-old.”

With the Crusaders in Worcester, Riga doesn’t have to look far to see where it all started – though a lot has changed in the city.

“Aside from the fact that my family’s here and I grew up playing in this rink, Worcester has just become a different city from when I was a kid,” he says. “The campus itself has changed with all the new buildings, and this new facility up here with the weight room and everything in it. It has just changed so much and it's a beautiful place. It's a great location, and it’s obviously an elite academic institution. So there's just a lot to like and a lot to sell.”

Including momentum.

“We started off picked for 10th in the league my first year … and we ended up 10th,” says Riga. “Then we finish seventh the second year, but went to the championship game. This year, we finished second. So, there has been progress every year. We increased our talent level and our systems and our culture have become something we laid down from seniors to seniors to seniors each year, and it's building. Certainly, we're not a finished product yet, but we put in a lot of work to engage our alumni and change some things. It's been good so far and it has been a lot of fun. And I think our guys have all had a lot of good opportunities coming out both in hockey in the business world.”

Some of Riga’s own experiences can help his players, and anyone listening, too, when it comes to jumping too quickly.

“In my experience, both good and bad, just a lot of experience overall, if you're in this game, play it to have fun,” he says. “And take it step-by-step. If you’re having fun and you’re having success, take it on a year-by-year basis and evaluate, one year at a time, what the next step is. If you’re the 10th-leading scorer store as a forward, you're probably good for another year if you can. If you’re the second- or third- or the leading scorer, then maybe it's time to look to another level. But don't be in a rush. Enjoy it. Take it year-by-year and step-by-step. Find your own path. It will all work out in the end as long as you put in the work.”