The college admissions scandal that has drawn heavy news coverage this week elicits comparisons across a number of vocations and fields, and certainly within the infrastructure of hockey – from local rinks and minor programs through the higher reaches of the sport – there is certainly the capacity for money or power to influence decision-making and evaluation. There are recruiting scandals across all sports, including hockey, in which a particular player’s services are obtained outside of appropriate standards and practices, and on the other side, hockey is an expensive sport, and it’s not difficult to think that a family that has used its own financial means and status to gain access to a coach, team or program.
I wanted to ask several figures about this and am glad I chose Tyler Toffoli and Willie Desjardins. Toffoli, who played in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League before joining the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, developed largely within Toronto and its suburbs, an epicenter of hockey talent and training in which top players face elite competition and are constantly evaluated from an early age. And Desjardins has coached at all levels, from the Olympics to the NHL to the WHL and Canadian Interscholastic Sport and the Japan Ice Hockey League. Last summer he was tabbed to lead the South Alberta Hockey Academy, again placing him in a position to instruct young players and communicate regularly with their families.
In the wake of the admissions scandal, has either been in a situation where a player’s family has used criteria other than pure ability to gain favor with a team or organization? How competitive are parents when ensuring their children receive the best coaching and instruction possible?
Willie Desjardins: My first job in coaching was in college, and I was an academic advisor – that was part of my role as coaching – so I’ve dealt with it a lot, I dealt with admissions a lot right back when I started. I think parents always try to do everything they can for their children, and that’s the way it should be. What they can within the rules, not outside the rules. But within the rules you always try to give your kids the best chance to succeed. I’ve never seen it where people have come and offered money directly. I’ve seen it where parents will put kids in camps or they’ll give them extra tutoring, they’ll do everything they can to help them, and that’s totally fine. If they have means to get them tutoring that helps them get better in a sport, then that’s great, and that’s the way it should be. We should always try to take care of our kids. I think the other one crosses a line. It’s a hard one, because we all want the best for our kids. It’s like being accountable on a hockey team. If you don’t make them accountable, then how do they get better if you just give it to them? You can’t just give it to them, because they have the ability to work at it and get through it. It is a big scandal, and it certainly brings to light all the challenges coaches have, because there are a lot of things that get thrown at them.
Tyler Toffoli: In Toronto, the way it is there, it’s nuts. Talking to my dad, it’s only getting worse, which is unfortunate because growing up as a kid, for myself, I was playing different sports until a certain age where you had to make the decision [to play hockey exclusively]. Some of these kids are kind of getting thrown into one sport, and it’s unfortunate when there are other opportunities for them. You definitely see it, and the hockey in Toronto is a whole different animal, but I’m sure the same could be said out here for different sports.
With that said, let’s cleanse our palate with a reference to those who put in honest work. Even amidst the dregs of a lost season, there are still a number of those in the Kings camp who were recognized for the extra time they’ve spent on the ice to work with the development staff and assistant coaches on skill retention. Rookies and younger players will often remain on the ice late into practices to get that type of work in, but recently a number of veterans have been taking the ice early prior to practices and morning skates to do so as well.
Previously, I’ve shared anecdotes about how the staff had to practically pull players like Christian Folin and Oscar Fantenberg off the ice, and now it’s sounding like Trevor Lewis and Kyle Clifford are going the extra mile to get their in on-ice work early. Both have young children, which aids the timing; Lewis estimated that because he’s up, he’s usually at the rink by 7:45 a.m. or 8:00 for a 10:00 skate.
This work is undertaken to best prepare the player for the next game on the schedule. Some players will skate early, others late, and some – entire teams even – won’t even skate at all on game days, opting instead for meetings, video and off-ice workouts. I’m told Lewis and Clifford have gone the extra mile recently and have been setting a good example in doing so.
“We just work on shooting and stuff,” Lewis said. “I think a big focus for me and Cliffy is to help produce more, and I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that. Especially Cliff, he’s got his career-high in goals already this year, so it’s awesome to see. Just try to get out there and get a little extra work when you can.”
The organization has taken a hit this season. Practice habits haven’t always been up to par, developments that the team addressed in the second half of the season. And even though there too regularly have been discussions over “emotional investment,” it’s important that veteran team leaders are able to set an important example in reshaping the team’s culture in the twilight of an extremely difficult season.
“I think a lot of veteran guys on this team are going out early and utilizing our development staff, too,” Lewis said. “I think we’ve got a great development staff, and you can never not get better, so I think it’s a big thing. Hopefully the young guys see it and can learn too.”
Willie Desjardins, on a focus at practice this week:
We want to play with speed. How we pass the puck’s important. It’s easy if you’re going slow to pass the puck, so we want to put some speed in our practice to make us pass at speed, because that’s the way we have to play. That was part of it. The other thing is we want to compete, so we had some drills in there that they were some competition drills. The losing team would get a skate or whatever out of it, so it was like a game. It was good – the guys responded well. They had lots of energy in it, and I thought they liked it better. They like it better when there’s something on the line.
–Lead photo via Joshua Lavallee/Icon Sportswire