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Q&A With Hockey Coach Mitch Giguere

Coaching Hockey, regardless of what level or league, is nothing short of an art. The intricacies of being a coach are enough to make a person’s head spin. And let us not forget, there are different types of coaches. There are Head Coaches, Assistants, Associates, Skills, Video, Goalie, etc. Each one has its own unique responsibilities. 

So, in order to learn more about hockey coaching, we’ve brought in the Assistant Coach for the ECHL’s Wheeling Nailers, Mitch Giguere.

*Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

HOCKEY RESUME: “I’ve been coaching now for roughly 18 years; heading into my 19th. Last year, I was the Assistant Coach and basically Assistant GM for the Wheeling Nailers in the ECHL. We are affiliated with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the American Hockey League and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL. 

“The year prior, I was with the University of Montreal as an Assistant Coach, and two years before that, I was an Assistant Coach in The KHL, with the Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod. I started as a coach with them remotely from Montreal before I joined them mid-season in Russia. I was also working with a Junior A team in Quebec that won The League. I was a team advisor/consultant in Europe before that. 

“In 2019, I was the Video Coach for the Winnipeg Ice. I’ve worked with the Rink Hockey Academy in The CSSHL and prior to that, in 2017, I started as an Assistant Coach, before becoming the Head Coach and GM for the Dauphin Kings in MJHL. So, like I said, I’ve been coaching for a while now. Next year I’m going to be back with the Wheeling Nailers in the ECHL.”

LESSONS LEARNED: “For me, my path as a coach is different from a lot of professional coaches. I didn’t play pro hockey. I’ve always had to do my own stuff to build my own name, my own brand, and all that. What I’ve learned is I have to work in the shadows. I have to work in the dark, doing my thing and at some point working hard will get you rewarded. I never count the hours. Obviously, we’re making money, but for the amount of time that we’re putting into it, it’s not enough. 

“We’re working basically 12 months a year, seven days a week and 15 hours a day. For me, putting in the hours, putting in the work in the background, while nobody is watching, was my biggest asset for sure. The other thing is understanding and listening to the team. That’s the biggest thing. It’s about understanding where your team is at, understanding the body language of your players, having good chemistry and communication with the boys, so that way you can always manage how to handle everything.”

BUILDING A TEAM’S STRUCTURE/SYSTEM: “Such a great question, we can talk about it for hours to be honest with you. Every single year, we as coaches try to build the best system, the best structure we can think of. But, to be honest with you, any team can play any structure, any system. It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, whichever team’s players on the ice are gonna apply it the best they can, that’s the biggest thing. 

“If you look at, let’s say the NHL, we always say The NHL is a copycat league. So whoever’s gonna win the Stanley Cup, most of the teams next year are gonna try to copy everything they did. That could be the forecheck, defensive zone coverage, neutral zone, that type of stuff. And there’s only one team who wins. So does that mean only one team has a good system? No, not at all. 

“There are a lot of things. How will the coach see it, how will the coach adjust to it? How’s the game review on videos, how’s the individual stuff on and off the ice? How’s the structure? How’s your power play? How’s your penalty kill? How’s your personnel? Are you healthy? Are you injured for the playoffs? There are a lot of things that go into it, but, again, it goes with your mentality. 

“Are you more of an offensive coach? Are you more of a defensive coach? I know a lot of coaches who will work every day on their defensive zone coverage and even then, they’re not that great. And because you work only on one aspect of the game, your offensive aspect doesn’t grow. Are you willing to let that go? Are you willing to forego a bit of your defensive coverage to emphasize a bit more in your offensive zone? 

“That’s always a tough question for coaches and the way they practice, you can see which side they lean towards. For us coaches, the biggest thing is we have the first couple weeks of Training Camp and after that, we have the first month where everybody’s healthy (hopefully), not a lot of travel and everyone is fresh. So we have more practice. This is where we really emphasize the system and the structure. But as the season goes on, this is where it becomes tricky.”

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS: “For us, we were changing our offensive forecheck depending on the opponent. Let’s say we know that they cannot break out through the middle or they have issues, so let’s go seal both walls. That’s the kind of adjustment that we were doing before a game with our pre-scout. The other thing too is sometimes, in a game, it’s here’s the game plan. Here’s how we think, as a team, we can beat them. It doesn’t work after a period or two. Well, we need to find solutions. 

“So this is where we use videos and we try new stuff or we just change it or tweak it, so that way it gives us more chances to win. In-game, me and the coaches, we will talk, not as much as possible, but anytime we see something major, he’s gonna come see me or I’m gonna go see him and say, ‘we have to pay attention. They break out on the weak-side, weak-side middle and our center is not there.’ So, now, the next TV timeout, we’re gonna use the board and talk with the boys. ‘Hey, Center, just be aware, instead of sealing the wall, make sure we’re getting back through the middle because they’re doing a behind-the-net middle and now they’re breaking.’ So that could be one thing that we adjust. 

“Another thing is, guys are playing, they’re doing some kind of stuff on the ice. We are in the offensive zone, we do this and that and it opens up. So now I’m saying, ‘Okay, we’re doing a little high D-to-D and they’re (the opponent), not even watching that D-to-D.’ Or we can have someone on the side of the post. So now it’s, ‘let’s try to do a low to high D-to-D and shoot or have an F2 popping out on the far post,’ something like that. That’s the kind of stuff that could happen in a game that we will adjust to.”

X-FACTOR: “I look for players who look like they have fun on the ice. I’m not saying they’re not serious, but when they jump on the ice, do they have a big smile? For me, that’s the X-factor that I’ve used for years now. It shows they love hockey. They’re first on the ice, they’re last to get off the ice. It’s a game for them. It’s not like it’s not a job. That’s the biggest thing I look at first.”

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