No Division I NCAA program has enjoyed as much championship success over the past 15 years as Boston College. To the tune of four national titles in that span (2001, 2008, 2010, 2012), BC is also the only program in the country to have won more than two titles since 2000. Behind the bench for three of those titles has been associate head coach Greg Brown, a two-time Olympian and one of the top defensemen in Eagles history.
We recently caught up with Brown, a Massachusetts native who also played nearly 100 games in the NHL, about building a better youth hockey player and the “most important element” in player development.
Q: What does the term player development mean to you as it relates to youth hockey, in particular?
A: To me, at that age, it’s getting the fundamentals down as soundly as possible. It’s learning a good stride in skating, it’s learning proper technique to pass and stickhandle and shoot. All those things become so important at that age. While the game gets faster and faster as you get older, doing those things becomes harder and harder to do at top speed. So, if you have a great foundation, the increased speed of the game isn’t as difficult a transition.
Q: Are those fundamentals best worked on away from the rink, or in practice or games?
A: The techniques are best learned by yourself, whenever you can – on the ice or in the driveway. And they have to be encouraged and worked on during practice.
Q: At BC, how often do you take time to talk about player development?
A: We talk about it all the time. We want the players to reach their maximum potential, whatever that is. We’d love every player to move on to the NHL. We know that’s not going to happen, but we want everyone to reach their highest level and see how they advance – whether it’s really helping our team or if they’re able to help out another team after college.
Q: That’s an interesting answer considering a lot of emphasis is placed on results in Division I. But here you are, one of the premier programs in Division I, coaching players at a level so few players can dream of reaching, and you’re thinking about what’s next for the player.
A: It’s a tightrope you walk, to coach to win and to develop players, especially at the younger ages. You can get them to stand in the right places and win games or teach them a system of defending that will help you win a lot of games, but the kids might not be getting as good as they could be getting if you focus on skills and individual development over systems that help you win games at that age.
Q: What kinds of things can you incorporate in to practices or games that aid in player development as a byproduct of the approach?
A: That’s a lot of introducing drills and also playing small games, drills or games where you have to think quickly – small area in the zone, or the two-pass game, where instead of just clearing the puck, you have to make two passes on offense. That way, kids are forced to think quickly. When they all recognize their teammates are doing that, it opens up different kinds of things in their minds.
One of my coaches when I was younger would not let the defense rim the puck around the wall. You’re forced to find something – a better option – or make another option. And it forces the center and the wing to get open quicker. They can’t be lazy in expecting the puck to come around the wall.
Those are great ways to develop hokey sense or hockey IQ, to look for plays and other options instead of taking the easy way out.
Q: What do you like to hear a teenage player is working on during their free hockey workout time?
A: Of course, you have to cover all the bases of skill, every aspect – skating, stickhandling, shooting, passing. Those are big years as far as developing the highest skill level.
And that never stops, really. You watch the guys in the NHL after practice and they’re constantly doing skill work. That’s what some of our college kids who move on say; they can’t believe some of the absolute superstars of the NHL are doing skill work after practice on a daily basis.
Hopefully that starts and continues through the formative years, the early teenage years.
Q: During your playing career, was there a takeaway from seeing all those talented players working so hard?
A: Without question. The desire to get better is just as important as the ability to get better. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a long time and it takes constant work. Practice your skills when you’re a little tired or you don’t quite feel like it. You don’t want to skip those times or you’ll be taking away your ability to be as good as you can be.
Q: When you’re out looking at, say, a 16-year-old player, do you consider, “He’s this today, but we can make him that,” or do you figure he’s a high-end talent and you’ll get him in the program and you’ll figure it out?
A: I’d say more the former. You see a kid who’s physically gifted and just has to play more hockey to figure out the mental side of it, or we see kids who are underdeveloped physically, but you can see how smart they are on the ice and you can see the ideas they have. You know they’ll grow in to their bodies and add strength with weight training. If you’re watching payers, they all develop at different rates, so you have to predict where they’re going to be in two or three years. And you hope you have a good eye to see what their potential is down the road.
Q: Is there a personality trait or set of traits that make player development easier? Is there a work ethic element to it?
A: There is absolutely a work ethic element that you can see in certain kids. They may not the best on their team at that time, but you have a guess they’re gong to pass some other kids because they’re so hungry and they love the game.
If there’s one thing coaches at the younger ages could try to instill, it’s a love for the game. Then, the training and the work is just going out and having fun. It’s not work to go out to the driveway or go to skate in the summer – it’s something you want to do.
I would say a huge majority of the players who get to this level have a true love for the game. I think that’s the most important element in player development – that desire to play, to practice and to see how good you can become.
Q: How has the idea of player development evolved to the point so many of us spend time thinking about it these days?
A: It’s become a focal point, probably since we’ve seen some smaller countries, such as Sweden and Finland, producing numerous world-class players with great success by stressing skill development at young ages. There’s a real belief that kids can get significantly better if they put the time in and develop their skills. Especially at the younger ages.
Q: For your 8-12 ages, those really big growth years, what would you say to coaches or players who are either really happy with how good their kids are or really down about the struggles of a player?
A: Kids develop at their own rate. Parents should be patient and allow their children to enjoy the game, most of all. And, if they do fall in love with hockey, they’ll enjoy trying to see how good they can become – whatever level that is.
The best part of player development is not forcing their hand where they resent going out and shooting pucks or getting on the ice.
Q: What about that young player who is, as an example, really, really good at 7? What’s the message there?
A: Well, hopefully, the goal is not to become the best 7-year-old. Teach them to love the game and teach them to see how good they can become at each age – not just say, “That’s good enough.” Watch what the 10-year-olds are doing. See if you can do that.