Lance Pitlick had the good fortune to play for some outstanding coaches over the course of his hockey career, people such as Doug Woog, Jacques Martin, Terry Murray and Mike Keenan.
Retiring in 2002 after an 8-year NHL career, the Minneapolis native decided to put what he learned to practical use “in the trenches” as a Mite and Peewee coach in suburban Wayzata.
Even with all the experience he gained along the way, there was Pitlick sitting with 554 other coaches in the grand ballroom at the St. Paul RiverCentre listening intently to speaker after speaker at the USA Hockey National Hockey Coaches Symposium.
“I’ve learned more about hockey since I retired than when I played,” said Pitlick, who suited up for the Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers after four years at the University of Minnesota.
“You kind of take it for granted when you’re playing, but I’ve taken something from every coaching clinic that I’ve gone to. [Coming here this week] was the natural progression to keep going.”
Pitlick echoed the sentiments of coaches who came from 43 states to the Twin Cities looking to improve their craft by attending this symposium, which is required to achieve Level 5 certification, the highest coaching level within USA Hockey.
The USA Hockey Coaching Education Program hosts 800 coaching clinics each year at Levels 1, 2 and 3. Sixteen Level 4 clinics occur annually, and the Level 5 (Master’s) clinic is generally held every other year.
Events like the Level 5 National Coaches Symposium have proven invaluable in developing the ranks of American coaches and thereby making the game better in the United States.
“I think everyone here is looking for something to be able to improve their ability to help kids become better hockey players and further educate themselves,” Pitlick said. “That’s why they put so much time into it and were looking for more.”
That sacrifice and dedication to the game was not lost on those who have reached the pinnacle of the sport.
“The lynchpin to our game is the volunteer coach. Every person in the NHL owes you a debt of gratitude for what you’ve given to the game,” said Brian Burke, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
During the week, an impressive list of presenters, including NHL coaches Todd Richards, John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan, discussed various topics from “Optimizing Your Practice” to “Dealing with Today’s Players and Parents.”
And with the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver just months out, the symposium had a distinctive Olympic flavor with head coaches Ron Wilson (men), Mark Johnson (women) and Ray Maluta (sled) speaking, along with Burke, who will serve as general manager of the U.S. Men’s Team.
“In the economic conditions that are out there right now, to see this many people step to the plate and try to improve themselves as coaches, to network and share ideas, I think is just phenomenal,” said Wilson, who went from St. Paul to Chicago to run the Olympic orientation camp for 34 NHL players.
“I even wrote down a few drills that I might be able to use at our Olympic camp. You’re never too old to learn. A dog is never too old to learn a few new tricks.”