PLYMOUTH, Mich.—A catcher in baseball. A point guard in basketball. Soccer and hockey goalies. Each of them has their own set of challenges, but anyone that’s played any of those positions shares a mindset and frame of reference with all the others. They’re the 'big picture' people.
A striker has a singular focus on the net. A centerfielder sees their slice of the outfield. But the 'big picture' folks see the whole field of play. A goalie sees not just the person with the puck, but whether the lane is open, how the defenders are converging and where the other forwards are heading for passes. They watch the full width of the ice and synthesize all those pieces of information instantly. And they do it without thought. It becomes inherent to who they are and how they participate in the game.
U.S. national women's hockey team coach Robb Stauber is a Hobey Baker-winning goalie with 10 years of NHL experience in the net and another dozen years as a goalie coach. He brings a unique view on the game to the head coaching role. Despite their background with viewing the whole ice sheet, goalies who become head coaches are still something of a rarity. Stauber can’t watch a hockey game without thinking about how he’d want his defense to angle or how the passing lanes are going to develop.
“I’m very visual. When you’re standing back there, you see movement and you see what you want to happen,” Stauber said. “I would prefer for our players to see the game like that. If I’m attacking, then somebody else must know that player’s under pressure—where are they going next? [I want them to have that] recognition. I don’t think you get the best out of anybody if you just tell them what you’d do.”
Now he wants everyone on Team USA to see the game the same way—which is easier said than done. There’s no easy way to teach vision. For players used to focusing on a more narrow part of the game, it’s a difficult task to unlearn. Stauber can’t make the players see what he sees. So it’s been all about watching video and pausing practice. Talking to players about what they see and figuring out what they didn’t. Oftentimes, they have a picture in their head of the whole ice, but they’re not used to synthesizing all that information.
“[We really just] coach them through it. How you see things is how you see things, you just try to inch them along. They might actually see it, but they’re hesitant and that’s a terrible spot to be in. So we’re saying, if you see it, you can do it,” he said.
This is Stauber’s fifth Women’s World Championships with the national team, but his first at the helm. He filled various roles with the USWNT since joining the staff in 2010 and he took over as head coach role following Ken Klee’s removal before the 2016 Winter Camp, running the bench for a two-game series with Canada in mid-December.
Klee had led the USWNT through seven consecutive events, amassing a 22-3-1-3 record and winning gold medals at the 2015 and 2016 World Championships as well as the 2016 Four Nations Cup.
After the gold-medal-game loss at the Sochi Games, USA Hockey said it would be naming the USWNT coach on an event-by-event basis. More recently, Reagan Carey, director of women's hockey, said that the coach for the 2017 Nations Cup and 2018 Olympics would be chosen at these World Championships.
Stauber’s first public outing with the team at those December games wasn’t a great showcase of either the talent on Team USA or Stauber’s coaching ability. The Americans struggled in nearly every aspect of the game and it left fans wondering if the coaching change was the right decision, even if the sample size was small.
Now, two games into the Worlds, the United States has two emphatic and dominant wins to their credit despite a maelstrom of pre-tournament distractions and limited preparation time.
The players contend the off-ice fight only solidified their bond and built chemistry they could use to their advantage on the ice. Though the lack of preparation time wasn’t ideal, Stauber looked for the silver lining—it kept them from overthinking things or doing too much.
Between the team’s success and the talent level of the players, Stauber said he’s not looking to reinvent the wheel, but he does want to put his stamp on how the team plays and set up a consistent mentality—one of pace and creativity that’s centered in being aggressive and applying pressure.
It’s an evolving vision of how the team works, but it’s founded on using the strengths of the players and staff to create high-percentage situations. Great players will still make great plays when under the kind of pressure Stauber wants to apply—but if that’s how they get beat, so be it.
“[We need to] keep using our imagination, keep using our creativity and [make sure] the person that has the puck is properly supported in different areas, it should take care of itself,” said Stauber. “[We’re looking to apply] pressure, see if [we] can cause turnovers. Always. If somebody makes a great play under pressure, than that’s a great play. But you hope that over the course of time that the ability to pressure people when they’re a little vulnerable or don’t have support should work out more often than not.”
After detailing his strategy after Team USA’s practice on Friday morning, the players went out an executed it almost flawlessly against Canada. There was no sign of the transition game difficulties they had in the December series and the Americans used their pace to build an attack from back in the defensive zone, giving the forwards more time and space to make decisions.
“That’s our message: a lot of pace and [being] fairly aggressive. I wasn’t shy about what our goal was. This is what we want to do and who we want to be and we want to be the same thing tomorrow,” said Stauber. “Our goal is to try to get that speed generated from deeper in the zone. Hopefully it’s like a running start… It starts in the room. We guide them and we think they’re capable. They have to believe it and then they just go out and do it and they’ll have to do it again tomorrow.”
In some ways, Stauber’s team philosophy is incredibly simple. It combines his experiences as a goalie with the simple idea of letting the team do what it does best, together. Many of the players on Team USA have, over time, built an idea that they have to do things for themselves—because they can. So one area of focus is trying to unlearn some of that behavior. Sometimes there may be opportunities for an incredible individual play, but they’re rarely necessary on a team of this caliber. No one has to do it all because everyone on the ice is more than capable and there to support each other.
“We want to continue to build chemistry,” Stabber said. “We have an expectation that our whole team, as we continue to play and train together, that we’ll have more players with the synergy you saw.
"The key for us is to get better every day and be better by the end of the tournament.”