The Things That Can't Be Taught
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Back when I was a student-athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, I received a hockey education from legendary Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero as well as the academic degree I received from the Ivy League school. As many of you know, I was a gofer of sorts for Shero while at the Class of 1923 Skating Rink on campus, where the Flyers held practice in that era.
Shero was a believer in defining a specific role for all of his players, and basing his expectations around a certain set of tasks and responsibilities. Famously, Shero once said of energy line forward Bob "the Hound" Kelly, "If Bob Kelly scores 20 goals in a season, it means I'm not using him right."
While Shero wanted his players to understand, focus on and execute their roles according to his expectations, that did not mean he discouraged his players from trying to improve in other areas. Quite the contrary, in fact. Shero encouraged players to constantly work on every aspect of the game. He liked it when players took self-initiative to recognize their own weaknesses and work to improve those areas.
For instance, Shero encouraged players mostly known for fighting or for throwing their weight around -- guys like Dave "the Hammer" Schultz, the Hound and Don "Big Bird" Saleski -- to work on their skating and their puck skills to become better players in those areas.
One time, when I stepped into his office, I asked Shero about why he did this. He didn't respond immediately. Shero took a deep drag on his cigarette, snuffed it out in the ashtray on his desk, and took a bite out of his lunch. Then he answered my question.
"A lot of players only work on the things they're good at," Shero said. "If a guy is good stickhandler, he likes to show off his stickhandling. If he has a great shot, he likes to shoot the puck. Thing is, there aren't many players who want to work on improving their weaknesses. I may not say anything, but believe me, I notice. I want players who challenge themselves to get better in every area. Maybe they can earn a bigger role down the line, maybe they can't. But if they don't want work on changing my mind, they're only cheating themselves."
That piece of advice is something that has stayed with me my entire career. I applied to my own playing and officiating careers. After stepping off the ice, I've applied to the teaching and assessment of the officials I direct.
When I was a player, I knew my role was to be an enforcer. My size, toughness and physical strength were my ticket to the WHA and the NHL. That did NOT mean, however, that I ever let myself stop working on everything else. I was not naturally gifted but I worked harder than a lot of players with more God-given talent who ultimately didn't make as far as I did.
For example, I put in countless hours of work on my skating. During my time with the Quebec Nordiques, head coach Jacques Demers and assistant coach Andre Boudrias were very generous to me in encouraging me to develop this area. Boudrias worked especially hard with me on my skating, which benefited me not only as a player but also later on when I became an official.
Furthermore, part of the reason why I was able to stick around for awhile as a pro player was that I tried to develop versatility. I could be deployed as a forward or as a defenseman. Maybe I wasn't great at either. Maybe I wasn't the smoothest of puckhandlers. But over time, I became reliable enough to take shifts where I could contribute something in addition to my willingness to drop the gloves.
People like Shero and Demers never said to players like me, "You're just a fighter, and that's all you can ever be. Don't waste my time and yours by asking for extra skating."
Nowadays, that might sound like fundamental good coaching. It is. Back in the day, though, it really wasn't nearly as common of a coaching mindset as one would think. Common sense really isn't all that common. I have also noticed over the years that, to this day, far too many trainers of young officials see only a guy's current skill set and weaknesses. They lack a vision and a commitment to a better finished product down the road.
An official may or may not be a naturally superb skater. He can work on that. He can work on improving his positioning. If he gets himself into top physical condition, those other areas can fall into place because great conditioning contributes to superb positioning. He can develop game psychology and sharpen his communication skills. While fundamental hockey sense can't really be taught, it can be nurtured in someone who has that nascent sense.
Ultimately, it comes down to commitment and desire as much as physical skills. Traits like work ethic, guts, honest self-critique and a genuine drive for self-improvement are things that a coach cannot provide. It has to come from inside.
Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Today, Stewart serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.