How do you coach today's athletes effectively?

Chicago Blackhawks bench boss Jeremy Colliton took on that challenge at a virtual coaching conference recently and he brought along some ringers: Marc Crawford and Chris Kunitz
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Jeremy Colliton (right) and Marc Crawford

Jeremy Colliton (right) and Marc Crawford

The Chicago Blackhawks are currently in transition, with the core that led the franchise to its only dynasty beginning to age out while exciting youngsters such as Kirby Dach, Alex DeBrincat and Adam Boqvist begin laying the foundation for the next phase.

In turning the page, the Hawks also brought in a young head coach in Jeremy Colliton and he recently gave a lecture on connecting with today's athletes for the NHL Coaches Association's online Global Coaches' Clinic.

As in real life, Colliton didn't go it alone; he also brought along two other Chicago minds to help with the presentation: assistant coach Marc Crawford and player development advisor Chris Kunitz - both of whom won Stanley Cups with other franchises.

The main takeaway from Colliton's lecture? Things have changed in hockey, but that doesn't mean they've gone soft.

"My favorite coaches were hard on me," said Colliton, who played in the NHL for the Islanders and in Sweden. "Oftentimes they had a presence and that praise didn't come easy, so it meant something. But not everyone responds to that kind of coaching."

Colliton still believes old-school values can be applied to today's players, but they have to be sold in new ways.

"You can be demanding of players," he said. "But you need to do it in a way where they know you're with them."

One of the reasons Colliton wanted Crawford on his staff is because of the veteran's experience and the fact he himself had evolved as a coach over the years. When Crawford first came into the NHL in the 1990s, it was a lot easier to trade players who didn't conform to a coach's concepts. When the salary cap came in after the 2004-05 lockout, that complicated matters.

It took Crawford some time to realize that old-school tactics weren't going to work anymore and he acknowledged that he made mistakes as bench boss in Vancouver and Los Angeles in the years right after the salary cap came in (he was suspended by the Hawks this season for alleged incidents during those years, though he was never accused of any malfeasance in Chicago).

"I didn't recognize those changes until it was too late," Crawford said. "I hadn't adapted."

What Crawford did learn over the years was that it was OK for players to get to know him off the ice - in fact, it was better that way. When he coached in Switzerland, he and his wife lived in the same complex as many of the players and his wife volunteered to babysit when players and their wives wanted a night out. That built more of a community and ultimately helped the team. It all comes down to trust and that extends onto the ice.

"Today's game is all about collaboration," Crawford said. "You have to work with your players."

That's something Crawford believes that Colliton does very well.

For Colliton, it's a matter of partnership versus top-down leadership. He believes a partnership works best, though he noted that some older NHLers are still used to the top-down approach.

"Players want to have input," Colliton said. "The buy-in you get is a direct result of building that relationship of the feeling they have in having a voice and that creates trust in the plan."

Kunitz, who won four Cups during his playing days, is only one year removed from the NHL himself and he had some great observations about his own career. He believes he didn't have great communication with his coaches at the start of his NHL career, but he found more success once he was older and more confident: he was comfortable bouncing ideas off his coaches by then. He also believes that coaches have to be flexible with different personalities, something he observed during his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins and teammate Phil Kessel.

"He's an elite player," Kunitz said. "But he didn't do well with 'go do this, go do that.' He was a 'why?' guy. He wanted to know why he had to do something. And if you could show it to him and give it to him, he was at his best."

Pittsburgh's titles confirm that Kessel found that with the Penguins.

So how does Colliton operate? He believes in being honest and predictable with players. He understands that different players are motivated by different things (love of the game, fame, money, etc.) He wants two-way conversations and he invites constructive criticism.

"Conflict with honesty," Colliton said, "Can make a relationship stronger."

And that's the mission in Chicago.

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