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Building for Next Season

By Ross Forman, 03/15/22, 10:30PM CDT


'We always focus on the fun things' when recapping this season.

The jubilation and celebration that filled Stevenson High School this season was the same as the 10U AA Glenview Stars. Both teams won their last game of the season. The Patriots won the Red Division of the Illinois High School Hockey State Tournament, and the Stars now boast a new red banner that proclaims STATE CHAMPIONS.

But most teams don’t smile for pictures and pose with trophies in pure joy.

Most teams don’t win their last game of the season.

That doesn’t mean a season isn’t successful though, regardless of what division or age-group a team competes in.

Winning state is great. But seasons can be just as beneficial without the trophy.

“The coaching staff identifies the areas (after the season ends) where we were really good, and then think how we can improve upon them even more,” said New Trier Blue head coach Rob Malstrom. “We also identify the areas that definitely need improvement, such as goal-scoring, or more traffic in front of the net, or shots from weird angles.

“We always focus on the fun things, the things that we enjoyed over the course of the season.”

Malstrom, who has coached at his high school alma mater, New Trier, for 23 years, has post-season meetings – with every player and with the team overall. They recap the season – the good, the bad, the ugly and certainly what can be done to improve next season. Both for the team and individually.

Goal-setting for next season starts immediately, once one season ends, Malstrom said.

“We talk about what we – the team and individuals – need to improve for next season and we develop steps to get there, to get to that next level,” he said. “We want all players to know how they can plan their spring and summer to get better.”

For the team, Malstrom said the focus has always been what worked well, what was good, what was positive – and how can those aspects be replicated with a new team, the next season.

The fun elements of one season are always replicated the following season, Malstrom said.

“I always get players coming back (after graduating) and telling me that they enjoyed a season. That, to me, is a win,” even without a state championship banner, Malstrom said.

“The fun aspect of hockey is often lost in the push to be the best, must-win. But that has never been my end game for any of my teams. I really want to make it an enjoyable season for the players and did they improve.”

Malstrom often highlights one element of a loss to focus on – and that element is something positive. He does so throughout the season and that makes better players, he said.

Malstrom, 45, played three seasons for New Trier Green. He also this past season coached his kid’s 8U and 10U house league teams in Winnetka.

“The teams that I remember the most (from the past) are the teams where we just had a ton of fun coming to the rink every day and just hanging out,” said Malstrom, who has coached New Trier to a state championship in the former high school White Division. “I’ve had talented teams over the years that didn’t go very far in the state tournament and it was mostly because the players didn’t get along; a lack of chemistry throughout the year … it just wasn’t a fun team, a fun season.”

Evan Poulakidas just completed his 33rd season coaching, his 11th as the head coach for Glenbrook North High School. He also has coached youth teams in the past – 10U, 12U and 14U. He too sets team and individual goals, realistic goals, for the following season once one season ends.

“You have to evaluate your talent, see where you stack up in your league,” he said. “You have to give these kids hope, talk about where we as a team and you individually were good, where improvement is needed.”

Honesty is a key when evaluating players, coaches stress, so they know where to work to improve.

“If you don’t highlight the positives (in post-season evaluations), you risk the possibility of losing some players,” Poulakidas said. “If you have a player on your team, there’s a reason why he or she was on the team. So, in a season as long as our hockey season is, there is something that he or she did right.

“But negatives must be discussed too, such as, skating, stick handling, speed, etc. You can’t sugarcoat that, or the kids cannot grow and improve.”

“Our goal as coaches should be to ensure the season is fun, to help each player develop their skills, and instill a love of the game so they want to come back and play next year”, said Jim Clare, Illinois Coach-In-Chief. “There is nothing wrong with wanting to win, but ultimately we are trying to build good humans, good athletes, and then good hockey players”. This is what defines us as a good youth hockey coach, not how many state titles you win.