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Coaching lessons learned (part 3)

02/12/2018, 8:45am CST
By Kevin Hartzell - Let's Play Hockey Columnist

Kevin Hartzell reflects on more of the many lessons he's learned from coaches.

The author considers Minnesota State head coach Mike Hastings one of the most complete coaches in the game.

I was fortunate to coach against many excellent coaches. There was something to learn from everyone.  Some of my favorite opposition coaches include Jim Montgomery (Denver), Mike Hastings (Minnesota State), Frank Serratore (Air Force), Mark Carlson (Cedar Rapids), Jon Cooper (Tampa Bay Lightning), Dean Blais (recently retired), Bob Ferguson (old Sioux City Musketeers) and many others. I would love to know my all-time win/loss records against this group, or maybe I wouldn’t! I do know my record against Dean Blais. We each won 4 of the 8 games we played. I joke with Dean and claim a lifetime win against Dean as he left Fargo to return to college hockey at Nebraska-Omaha. I considered it quitting on our rivalry, so I win. 

Not just in games, but during coach conversation, often times before a game, I learned much about what made each of them so good.

I always felt like Mike Hastings was one of the most complete. He knew so much about so many different things. We were talking one night after he had become a college coach. He asked me about a couple of our players after looking at the stat sheet, and why they didn’t generate more shots. He was right about these players. It was a good question and he always demonstrated knowledge.

Shots are a stat that matter and needs attention. I think I realized it more after that night after talking with Coach Hastings. Players who generate offense most often generate shots. A forward should take pride in shots generated.

Similarly, as a coach at tryout camps, I rarely worried about who scored goals. That is a stat a player puts up over time. If a player came to camp having scored 30-plus goals a year for the previous several years, we knew he scored. We wanted to see what else he did. It was the same for the players who scored little. We didn’t watch to see if they suddenly started scoring in our camp. We watched to see what else the player did that brought value to his game. Quality players bring their strengths to the game often. That is what you look for.

Mark Carlson was one of the best at generating offense, especially with the D as the fourth attacker. His guys did a great job in transition both ways. You see this during the game and on video. And you learn.

I love Jim Montgomery. I am not surprised he has already won an NCAA Championship. He asked me once during a pre-game conversation, “You just don’t like your D outside the dots do you?” He was right. Generally speaking, I don’t like my D outside the dots. But he knew that. We talked about when and when not in both our views of the game. It is fun to be around these conversations.

I often went to the opposing locker room after a game, after the opposing team left our building. At times, they left notes on the chalk board. Sometimes, they left written game notes. I learned something again. At times, I saw team notes with many points of focus. Like a dozen or more. I would find myself thinking, “Could their players really absorb this much information?”

Psychology class taught us that we learn in bits of three or less. A phone number is an area code (one bit) a prefix (another bit) and then four digits (one bit). Because of this knowledge, I rarely had more than three focus points for our team. Three is a digestible number.  

A question one should ask as it pertains to an opposing coach/team: What is it that makes for their center of gravity? What is it that they pride themselves on? Then get ready to meet this challenge. 

For example, some teams literally wanted to sell tickets. They had great energy at home. Great warm-up music. These teams often would fight more at home. High energy introductions and a crowd that had taken advantage of the pre-game adult beverage specials was part of their M.O. No matter the coach, the organization wouldn’t let it be any other way. For teams like this, as a visiting team, you better be ready the first 10 minutes to meet their energy and keep the game under control. You could lose the game in the first 10 minutes. But with a good start, the energy of the game can and often does swing back to the visiting team.


I am announcing in this column, my first on-ice camp I have conducted in 25 years. I will be conducting a May camp, a crash course in “the real world of hockey.” The camp is intended for high school seniors and juniors, many of whom will shortly after camp be heading off to junior hockey tryout camps. We will prepare camp participants for the many challenges they face ahead.

This will be much more than a conditioning camp. My 13 years of experience as a USHL coach (twice Coach of the Year) will be shared with all. We will have guest coaches each of the three weeks, so participants hear from other elite coaches. I will also provide all participants an exit interview/evaluation at the end. The camp will start May 1 at the Vadnais Sports Center. Three practices a week and a game each Sunday night. All ice times are prime-time evening.  

We will have two of the best and most knowledgeable people I have ever met working with us. Kevin Ziegler trains as many NHL players as most anyone in the world. Coach Ziegler will share with everyone the latest in how to take care of their body, pre/post workouts (which in a tryout camp with numerous ice times is very important). Kevin will help with nutrition and more.
Navy SEAL Senior Chief Lou Nebel will be with us and run a hands-on workshop on how great teammates think, act, speak and listen. I am proud to call Lou a friend. He is amazing, and I have no doubt he will impact the lives of our camp participants.

The camp will begin May 1 and run for three weeks. E-mail me at for more details. 


A St. Paul native and forward for the University of Minnesota from 1978-82, Kevin Hartzell coached in the USHL from 1983-89 with the St. Paul Vulcans and from 2005-12 with the Sioux Falls Stampede. He was the head coach of Lillehammer in Norway’s GET-Ligaen from 2012-14. His columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey since the late 1980s. His book “Leading From the Ice” is available at


Photo: Mike Thill

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