New focus on coach and player development

Teams from the Western Hockey League are going to want to draft bantams from Ridge Meadows Minor Hockey...

James Eccles

Teams from the Western Hockey League are going to want to draft bantams from Ridge Meadows Minor Hockey, and the midgets will be sought-after prospects for the major midget league.

That’s the goal of the association’s new director of hockey development James Eccles.

“My goals for this year … it’s not banners,” he said. “That’s not what we’re here for.”

Approaching the game with a “win now” attitude can actually hinder development, he asserts.

Rigid systems play is the enemy.

Eccles doesn’t want to see Maple Ridge produce checking drones, who are most adept at the dump-and-chase game, or clearing pucks off the glass.

“The trap has slowed our game down, and decreased the skills in our players,” said Eccles.

Hockey Canada has researched the issue, and acknowledged that Canadian prospects who are coached to win games, rather than develop skills, become “too robotic” in their play.

Rather, his focus is on developing skilled players.

The RMMHA kids who are just starting hockey for the first time this season, what does he want them to look like, when they hit bantam hockey some eight seasons from now?

“You’re going to see a fast, creative breed of hockey player.”

Eccles has done a lot of analysis of what has been happening in minor hockey here, and doesn’t see a need to reinvent the wheel.

“The children have great development occurring, but there’s room for more success,” he said.

Stick skills will be an area of focus. The association has many good coaches, and has put a lot of emphasis on skating. Now, more incorporation of skating with pucks will produce more skillful players.

Eccles is taking a page out of the European playbook, and has obtained two buckets of steel pucks. They are more than twice as heavy as vulcanized rubber pucks, but once the players get the traditional biscuit back on their sticks after using steel, they have a better feel for the puck.

Stick battling is another skill he would like to see emphasized, and this is especially important given that bodychecking is no longer allowed in hockey until the bantam age group.

He wants kids to fall in love with hockey the way he did, and their coaches did.

“They’ve got to come out, and then want more.”

Gone are the days when 14 kids stand in a lineup while one skates through cones. Today’s coaches keep the entire group busy at once, and Eccles takes it to the extremes.

“Kids need to move. Kids need to be energetic, and they need to be having fun.”

To that end, he promotes small-area games.

He is running three skill development sessions, free for players, each Saturday and Sunda, beginning at 6:45 a.m.  Players can sign up on the RMMHA website.

Each session has a maximum of 30 players, “or it’s a fish farm.”

“We work on fundamental skills that coaches don’t have time for, and we work on small-area games,” he said.

He said players who are in hockey for the first time and other late starters are some of the biggest beneficiaries. Kids who started the year at a place where they can just stand up on their skates are already skating and pushing the puck ahead of themselves.

“You get a lot of pride out of that,” he said.

The association has other opportunities for more ice time, and has goaltender development every Tuesday night.

About every three weeks, he will also be doing coaching development sessions. Each will have a theme for the skate, such as creating offence or developing defencemen.

Part of his job is evaluating coaches, and so far he has been impressed with their dedication.

“I’m the first one to defend those guys,” he said. “I’m criticized and critiqued too – that’s what happens when you become a coach.”

Eccles played minor hockey in Abbotsford, and donned the Ridge Meadows Flames jersey in 1996. After junior hockey, he played four seasons at Kent State University, then coached for three seasons in the NCAA at State University in New York.

His other coaching experience includes assistant with the BCHL Westside Warriors, major midget, and instructor for Hockey Canada Skills Academy for the Kelowna School District.

Asked whether his focus is on rep teams, Eccles said the goal is to improve everyone. By heightening the overall skill level of the youngest players coming into the association, the most outstanding players will rise.

“And the good outcomes will come – the Ws.”

He’s loving the job.

“I wake up in the morning, and I get to go play hockey with kids.”

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