Coaching On Ice: The NIHL Player-Coach

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By Emma Hill

As competition in the National Ice Hockey League is at its strongest this season, the role of the player-coach is more prominent than ever before, but the question is: are on-ice leaders the key to success, or can a more simplistic set up seize the silverware?

In the last decade, a considerable structural shift has taken place in the coaching ranks of lower tier ice hockey, most clubs gradually abandoning the bog-standard bench coach for the proactive player; a figure who has a direct influence on game play, breaking down the boundaries often imposed by the bench to offer as much support, guidance and instruction to his team mates from close proximity.

Presently in the NIHL, Whitley Warriors, Solihull Barons, Sutton Sting and current league leaders Blackburn Hawks each have a player-coach at their helm as opposed to the more traditional bench coach, whilst Billingham Stars, Sheffield Spartans and Solway Sharks have incorporated at least one player-assistant coach into their line-ups to complement the off-ice coaching provided by their respective head coaches, Terry Ward, Martin White and Martin Grubb.

To put this in perspective, only two teams out of the nine in the NIHL North Division One Moralee Conference do not have at least one on-ice leader in a coaching role, suggesting that the role is now prioritised over that of the head coach in this division.

Interestingly, last season’s NIHL champions Blackburn Hawks have both a player-coach in forward Daniel MacKriel and a player-assistant coach in reliable netminder Daniel Brittle. As Brittle is an outstanding leader as well as the Hawks’ first choice shot stopper, the Lancashire side benefit from the presence of a coach on the ice for, what is quite often, the full sixty minutes of most games. This set up appears to have been very effective as Daniel MacKriel, stepping into the skates of former player-coach Jared Owen, has coached his team through ten league games in which his side have remained undefeated, thereby increasing Blackburn’s unbeaten run to an incredible fourteen months. With this in mind, the player-coach role is one of great importance, and also additional on-ice coaching has a positive effect on the success rate of teams in the NIHL.

This is reflected by the recent progress made by Hillheads outfit Whitley Warriors in the first few months of their 2015-16 campaign. Last season the Warriors were lucky enough to escape relegation after a league placement playoff battle against Laidler Conference side Widnes Wild. However, bouncing back from the disappointment of poor performances, Whitley were boosted by the news that former Warrior David Longstaff was returning to the club as player-coach.

Under his influence, the Warriors have managed to reach second in the league so far and only recently forfeited their unbeaten run against Solway Sharks on the road. Despite this, Whitley’s potential this season appears to be boundless and it is due to the coaching of Longstaff and his decision to make home alternate captains of Andre Payette and Jordan Barnes and away alternate captains of Joe Stamp and Dan Pye, thereby developing on-ice leadership further. This leadership and guidance has allowed Whitley to gain their highest league position since 2012 and, whilst this may change in the next few weeks due to competition from Solihull Barons and Telford Tigers, the progress they have made is evident.

Similarly, newly promoted side Solihull Barons have a strong player-coach in forty two year old Perry Doyle whose experience ranges from the British Hockey League in 1987 to the English Premier League with Solihull Blaze, and from these leagues to the newly formed NIHL. In their last six games, the Barons have been lead to successive victories by their player-coach, who works with assistant coach Joel Poirier, to storm into third place, a fantastic achievement for a club who has made the step up from division two. In this case, player-coach has offered inspiration to bounce back from defeats to Telford Tigers, Whitley Warriors and Sutton Sting to rise into the playoff spots.

On the other hand, Sutton Sting have a player-coach and find themselves in a very different position to the Barons. Currently only four points from the foot of the table, the Sting are lead into battle by player-coach John Ross and have had a disappointing start to their season having lost seven games and won only two. Yet, the league table does not paint an entirely fair picture. Sutton’s losses so far read 1-0 to the Spartans, 5-3 and 3-2 to the Warriors, 3-1 and 7-4 to Telford Tigers and 3-1 to Billingham Stars. These close results suggest that the Sting have suffered from bad luck at times and, though strong in defence, they have been unable to capitalise on the attack.

Despite this, the team continue to present themselves as a powerful unit who could recover from this poor start at any moment and this is down to the excellent leadership and steely resilience that the Sting have in their arsenal. Should they lose their player-coach, and subsequently their on-ice guidance, regulation and management, their ability to salvage their season would be greatly inhibited, thus Ross’ input as player-coach remains valuable in these troubling times for the club.

In contrast, Telford Tigers and Sheffield Senators boast more traditional set ups with respective head coaches Jason Parry and Andrew Chapman steering these teams along the unpredictable course of the NIHL. Both teams promoted to the Moralee Conference for the start of the 2015-16 season, they have fared very differently to one another so far. Whilst Telford Tigers have benefited from the knowledge of former EPL player Parry, Sheffield Senators have been unable to make any progress as yet and have failed to win a single point in their first ten games.

The difference between these two teams appears to be that the Tigers utilise their most experienced players, such as captain Daniel Croft and skilful import Karol Jets, to empower the rest of the team whereas the Senators have no on-ice coaching at their disposal to guide them back from the brink of loss, though Chapman has made alternate captains of goal scorers Nathan Parkes-Britton and Arran Bell.

Whilst these teams have avoided the installation of a player-coach in their coaching set up, the recent shift in NIHL coaching set ups is also marked by the cohesion of head coaches with the player-assistant coaches in the Moralee Conference. Whilst the head coach is the primarily responsible for his team, he is able to make assistant coaches of his players to disseminate encouragement and guidance at vital points of gameplay, presenting the opportunity to convert a would-be loss into a victory.

Teams in the NIHL have begun to make staff of their players in this way, with Billingham Stars, Sheffield Spartans and Solway Sharks enrolling their strongest players in coaching roles. This provides the head coach with more control over play as changes can be implemented quickly and, as more players begin to take on more responsibility, accountability for the final result lies with the whole team.

Taking league placement into account, on-ice coaching roles are central to achievement in the NIHL. In the past year, league leaders Blackburn Hawks have shown just how important this role can be, their league and playoff success last season evidencing that strong leadership from core players can inject desire, determination and durability into a club which may have otherwise failed to reach their goals. Likewise, Whitley Warriors, Solihull Barons and Sutton Sting have a similar fortitude which, regardless of current form, would likely be absent if it was not for their player-coaches.

At the moment in the NIHL, teams with multiple on-ice leaders appear stronger, spirited and have an ability to overcome poor form to revert to winning ways. A prime example of this is Billingham Stars, whose performances of late have been inconsistent but, with support and guidance from player-assistants Richie Thornton and Michael Bowman, have bounced back time and time again from defeat to challenge their opponents.

As the majority of teams in the NIHL now have some form of on-ice leader or leaders, the general consensus appears to be that player-coaches and player-assistant coaches have greater influence over success in the National Ice Hockey League and are favoured over the more simple set up of a standalone bench coach.

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