by Matt Gajtka
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It’s a well-worn hockey truism that, as long as a team battles hard enough, its talent will play up and shine through.
“We don’t let the other team push us around,” said BK Selects 19U forward Naomi Tink (Birmingham, Mich.) last month at the USA-Canada Cup. “And we’re able to show our skill by doing that.”
But team dynamics aside, the fact remains that developing individual skill is critical for a player to go far in a highly-competitive arena like hockey. And it naturally follows that the better a player gets, the more she can bring to the team in its pursuit of a collective goal.
It’s those principles that guide the BK Selects girls program as it navigates through a given season, balancing the rigors of a high-level education and a competitive team travel schedule with the mission of maximizing each player’s athletic potential.
“We’re a development program,” said Director of Girls Hockey Cari Coen, who doubles as the 19Us’ Associate Head Coach. “We’re not just a hockey program that produces wins. We’re working on the skill development, performance over result.
“It’s just like if you’re preparing for a test. You’ve got to do your homework first.”
When it comes to that work, there are several instructors to guide that process. Coen herself is hands-on with multiple development sessions per week conducted both in an on-campus “skills room” and at Bill Gray’s Regional Iceplex, with help from VP of Hockey/19U Head Coach Paul Colontino and 16U Head Coach Jake Anderson, plus their respective staffs.
BK Selects also has a local ace in the hole in former longtime RIT head coach Scott McDonald, who led the Tigers to unprecedented success and multiple championships at the NCAA Division I and III levels before retiring in 2018. Coen calls McDonald “an unbelievable skills coach” who is focusing this season on guiding players through skill sessions that are separate from team practices.
For his part, McDonald said he’s treasured the chance to drill down on helping individual players make strides. That goes figuratively and literally, as much of the early-season work has focused on refining the fundamentals of skating.
“It was, ‘Let’s take a step backward so we can take a couple of steps forward,’ ” McDonald said. “We’re now seeing it come together. My process is to make whatever we’re working on game-relatable. There are no pylons or cones out there during a game.”
McDonald said he’s been refreshed by the commitment level of BK athletes, who take the risk at an early age to move away from home and into a greenhouse for cultivating hockey skills. He related the satisfaction he felt from hearing a player excitedly tell him about a new technique she incorporated into a recent game.
“They’re all here for the right reasons,” he said. “They came to Bishop Kearney to get better and we’re giving them the tools to get better. They’re dialed in and ready to go. There’s no buy-in; they’ve already bought in. There’s so much development to be made at this level.”
Add in the increasing number of players who work with a self-appointed skill coach during the offseason and there’s never been a better place or time to become a better hockey player.
“At the end of the day, it takes a village,” Colontino said. “It’s about different sets of lenses. The more quality coaching they can get from a variety of people, I think it’s better. It’s hard when you’re just getting it from one (source). I think players do come in (to teams) better prepared than before.”
In the end, though, getting better as a player is about more than skating, stickhandling, shooting, passing and developing overall biomechanical power. This sport constantly tests one’s physical and mental abilities, two sides of the coin that feed off each other if honed properly.
“If you can skate, shoot and pass, and take care of yourself off the ice, you’re going to have a lot of assets,” Coen said, “but some of the individual (drill) stuff is great for playing with your head up, but it’s not really game-specific.
“We want you to be an athlete and not a robot. It’s about reading and reacting, and not being told what to do.”
To help achieve that objective, BK Selects players have personalized access to video breakdowns of every game they play, with the ability to pinpoint even-strength, power-play and short-handed shifts via a simple search.
As any performance coach will tell you, objective feedback is critical to the process of improvement.
“In the past, players had to wait for coaches or were reliant on them to go through video,” Colontino said. “Now, if they want to watch, they can do it. It’s allowed them to take more ownership in that portion and develop the skills, where they can teach themselves just by watching.”
For all the tools that are available, though, the individual player has to take the initiative. Fortunately, every week at BK provides a feedback loop that allows for both an honest self-assessment and an avenue to get better.
“The kids that are doing the extra stuff, the cream rises to the top,” Coen said. “You’re working on your game and understanding what the coaches are telling you, so when it does come down to the end of the year, we’re all together and everyone is pulling the weight.”
Naturally, some players will ‘make the jump’ more than others over the course of a given week, month or season. The task for coaches — especially in a developmental program like BK Selects — is to always keep the door open for more players to lift their levels.
While the end of the season brings an organic pecking order when it comes to certain high-leverage game situations, there’s always room for someone new to step up.
“There might be times that one individual plays over the other, because they’re putting in the work, but if a kid falls short in a game situation, they’re not written off,” Coen said.
“They’re going to get another opportunity. We don’t really have first, second, third and fourth lines. You see it weekly in practice, who is prepared and putting their best foot forward.”
Coen, who got her hockey start playing for both girls and boys teams in her native southern California, said there’s no doubt “the demand for skills is higher” than it was 10 or 15 years ago. In her words, there’s a higher proportion of “hockey-serious” athletes picking up the sport than ever before.
Like it has with society in general, social media has changed the world of skill development, too. Platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and TikTok make it easy to share tips and techniques for improvement, but it can also encourage some empty-calorie indulgence if an athlete isn’t careful.
“Social (media) can be a great learning tool,” Coen said, “but sometimes it can be about ‘Who’s gonna see my sweet toe-drag or bar-down goal?’ You still have to be able to skate at an elite level and make decisions when moving the puck.”
That’s a process BK Selects aims to improve every year.
“It’s expanded because we’re older as a program,” Colontino said. “It’s a mix of everything.”
The author can be reached at email@example.com.