A handful of days ago the Toronto Maple Leafs lost a game to a Vancouver Canucks team in its first game back from what was essentially team-wide COVID, a story that’s been told numerous times. During that game, though, my mind was stuck on the Leafs' comically bad run of power play efforts that had seen them outscored over 40 man-advantages by a 3-1 count. At the end of a five-minute power play in which Toronto had little success, Auston Matthews scored a broken play rush goal that prompted me to tweet this:
I was thinking about my two years working shoulder to shoulder with Keefe, and was reminded of how when the power play or penalty kill went through rough patches, he held the coach running said special teams accountable.
In those moments our coaches’ meetings featured that specific coach doing more talking, more detail went into preparing that particular team meeting, and Keefe got more involved as he grew more dissatisfied with what was going on.
It brought me back to making and running team meetings, and it occurred to me that your average hockey fan may not know much about that side of things. It’s quite the process to put together a video meeting, and it’s one that doesn’t really stop for the duration of the season as you move from one game to the next. I thought I’d take a random regular season day like today to share a piece of my experience there, and to talk more generally about meetings within pro hockey teams.
Let’s start with a story, shall we?
I found one of most difficult parts of being a video coach in the AHL is that it’s not like you set up your technology (a half-dozen laptops, a server, touchscreen, iPads, a projector etc.) in one place and start breaking down video. You’re constantly de- and re-constructing said technology to bring it with you, while AHL buildings and hotels aren’t always the most state of the art facilities. If you know anything about computers, those aren’t dream conditions.
Combine that with the time crunch of pro hockey that requires the technology be up and running immediately wherever you go, a handful of middle-aged “hockey men” trying to work computers, and you need more IT skills than I was equipped with when I accepted the position. I’m very grateful they seemed to appreciate my hockey insight, because I’m sure my technical capabilities left them fantasizing about replacing me with someone who could simply operate the machines without incident.
I showed up most days with the knowledge that while any problems may be unpredictable, I could safely predict there would problems.
It was a Sunday at the then-Air Canada Centre, and the Marlies were set to play a game before the Leafs as we often did. Given the NHL game that evening, we were crammed into one of the secondary visitors’ rooms with roughly 115 minutes until puck drop, which meant it was time for our first meeting of the set Keefe likes to give directly before games.
For a video coach, that's game time.
I was only a month or two into my time with the Marlies and the technology was still terrifying to me. Since small computer errors could undo large amounts of work, I liked to have everything done at least 10 minutes early so I could go in the room and confirm everything was operational.
The problem there was that Keefe likes to tweak and refine and swap out video clips until the last millisecond before a meeting, so it was a constant battle of wanting him to hurry up, while not at all having the authority to tell him to hurry up.
That day we couldn’t quite find the precise clips we needed, so we grinded as we always did back through our previous games until we found the exact one to make the point he wanted to make. I quickly added it to the mix, trimmed it, downloaded the package to my computer, and I led the staff into the dressing room where that game’s 20 players were already dutifully huddled around the projector waiting for the meeting to start.
Everyone stood by while I connected the laptop to the projector and started booting up the necessary program, but as you may have guessed, a tech nightmare unfolded. The projector wasn’t recognizing the laptop, and Keefe began growing impatient as one meeting time started drifting closer to the next (which still needed work). Players were pulled away from stretching and playing two-touch, and everyone wanted to get on to the next portion of their pre-game routine. All eyeballs were on me.
As I was having an internal meltdown rivalling the fury of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot -- and an external one only slightly less visible -- I began desperately swapping cords and hitting every button imaginable, until one of the players cut the silence with “…Hey Bournie, have you tried hitting the panic button?”
I was a 35-year-old man with a wife and a son and if you had given me the option to disappear and live on the moon alone and have no one remember me, in that moment I would’ve taken it.
It got some laughs, but the more empathetic among them told him to kindly shut the (redacted) up, and I immediately became grateful to my suit jacket for keeping our shared secret: pit stains that were quickly extending down to my hips.
Mercifully, like Clark Griswold connecting the same two extension cords for the 1,000th time, unaware anything else had changed at all, the projector woke up, the program loaded, and the technical hockey gods had spared me.
I honestly don’t remember what happened after that, aside from the focus shifting from me to the screen, but I do know it became the moment that inspired my work ethic from that day forward. As much as I wanted to do well for others, I simply couldn’t put myself in that spot again. I learned to have things done sooner, to triple check my work, and that it was better to annoy Keefe to get his meeting nailed down early than it was to let him do it at his own pace. It was a job of thoroughness and preparedness and I learned a lot about attention to detail during those years.
Having survived that, let’s take a look at the actual process of successful team meetings through a handful of questions.
What types of meetings does a team have?
You look at (in rough order of priority): Your own 5v5 play, your power play, and your penalty kill. If things are going awry in other areas, sometimes you need to look at faceoffs, or 6-on-5/5-on-6 play, and sometimes 3-on-3 OT.
Then you need to look at your opponent’s 5v5, PP and PK, as well as anything unique they may do (offensive zone faceoff wins are the one place teams seem to show an ounce of creativity).
A somewhat-related tangent before we move on: One place where actually being with a team differs from public analysis is that in public work we see a lot of talk about things “regressing to the mean.” If a team is having a rough run of play at X (maybe the power play or faceoffs), well, odds are it has to be better soon.
The reason why is because, more often than not, teams pay attention to those things and make tangible changes in these meetings. This is relevant with player shooting percentages, too. Players have to figure out why they’ve been having less success at something (maybe getting to the blue paint more, or shooting less from distance, or following up on shot attempts rather than turning off the net) and make changes so these things can “regress” … otherwise they don’t. (Incidentally, this is why hockey people get annoyed with the amount of public “luck” talk, which is very real and important to consider, but is generally a poor explainer for, say, a full season’s worth of bad shooting.)
When are they? How long are they?
This is very team-specific, and depends greatly on a team’s schedule. In the midst of a busy schedule, you have to be considerate the day after games of players getting stretched out, getting treatment, and generally re-assembling themselves. Nobody sleeps well after wins, so more gets pushed to the evening.
Still, the Leafs (like most teams) generally focus on their own 5-on-5 play in the days prior to, and on the morning of, games. They believe if they play their own game well the results will take care of themselves.
To ensure it was fresh on the minds of the players, the Marlies generally did the opposing team’s 5v5 play after everyone had arrived at the rink and changed out of their suits, just inside two hours before puck drop. That would be followed by PP and PK meetings where we looked at our own side, and the opposition in the same packages.
The reason there are so many meetings is simply because you want the players' attention, and you can generally keep them engaged for 3-5 minutes. Past that, good luck. Sometimes you have to go longer (the morning meetings on your own 5v5 may be more like 15 minutes), but generally it’s just snapshots of the game. Reinforcements are offered in posted sheets for the players, and with individualized sit-downs.
How are they made?
I’m sure things are different now over three seasons removed from my time with the team, but the idea would remain the same. Each coach would be responsible for a portion of the play (for example, I was tasked with going through each game’s faceoffs and looking for trends). The coaches bring their findings to one another first. To go with that, each coach may be responsible for a few opposing teams, and would go through the scout package for them to identify systems to show to the other coaches.
There’s a 5-on-5 meeting that a coach would want to make to show his team (based on the findings of all the coaches) and he’d be looking for issues where they need work or have excelled. A good meeting would show things executed properly, and not just poorly.
Coaches have a program on their laptop that lets them sort through each clip, drag them into a meeting, trim them and save them for showing.
It’s easier than it sounds. Every situation is broken down each game by the video coach into dozens of categories, breakouts, regroups, forechecks, neutral zone defence, you name it. There are 800-1,000 clips per game, sorted by category and in many cases attached to individual comments by coaches for future reference. Having these quickly accessible for future use is the key.
You pick the problem, you show the problem, you show the solutions, sometimes you bring in previous game highlights for examples. You keep it tight, and off you go.
How are they presented?
The Leafs have beautiful touch screen TVs with handheld remotes (they bring one on the road, too). During those meetings coaches can draw on the TV, then double-tap the screen to make the lines disappear. I always ran the video, meaning Keefe essentially talked to me like Howie Meeker (stop it right there, back it up) as we went through the clips.
On most teams players are invited to share their thoughts, explain what they saw on the play, or weigh in on what might work. You don’t want to hear anyone speak too much, but the more people speak up the more productive meetings generally are.
When a team is struggling with a particular issue, you can imagine how it goes. Meetings get a little longer, players chime in a little bit more (too much?), and tensions grow exponentially. At some point -- particularly when it comes to the power play, which thrives with players in a confident flow state -- focusing too much on problems just makes them worse, and turns players robotic. It’s up to the coach to strike the right balance between drawing attention to issues and ignoring them, always trying to put their players in the best position to succeed.
And for a video coach, putting yourself in a position to succeed involves that straight up preparation, whether done on the bus, plane, in the hotel room or in the middle of the night. Because while being prepared helps everyone else, it also alleviates the desire to relocate from this planet to literally any other one.