2016 National Championships: Former Pros Relish New Roles Behind The Bench

When a professional hockey player’s career comes to an end, many aren't quite ready to call it quits. Which is why so many turn to coaching.

Coaching affords them the opportunity to stay in the game and pass the torch of knowledge along to the next generation of aspiring players.

A number of decorated former pros returned to their roots by leading their teams into battle at various host sites for the 2016 Toyota-USA Hockey National Championships, including the Sharks Ice Den in San Jose, Calif.

“This is what I love,” said former NHL defenseman Kyle McLaren, who played 719 games with the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks.

Although his playing career is behind him, the Saskatchewan native finds himself entrenched in San Jose’s hockey landscape, not only as an analyst on Sharks broadcasts, but as a head coach for the San Jose Jr. Sharks 18U team.

“I wanted to give back to these young athletes,” he said. “A lot of these kids are going to go play at a higher level. We are just preparing them for that and anything that comes their way as young adults.”

The competitive environment at tournaments like Nationals serves as a reminder of what the game is really about for these ex-pros and young athletes.

“You see the way your team is in the locker room,” said Ben Eaves, head coach of Culver Academy’s 16U team. “How much fun they are having and how hard they play for each other. Their passion stirs the passion in me to share the game with them.”

Prior to manning the bench for the 16U Eagles, Eaves was a student himself, helping prep powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary’s win its first National Championship in the very same tournament in 1999.

Eaves went on to play at Boston College before stints in the American Hockey League and in Europe. However, the camaraderie he felt at Shattuck still resonates.

“I had a really good experience there,” he said. “When this position opened up, I knew I could get a chance to work with some really talented young players at a pivotal time in their lives, not only as hockey players, but also as young men.”

“This is what i love. I wanted to give back to these young athletes.”

— Kyle McLaren

Like Eaves, Anders Sorensen found himself playing in the minors and in Europe. Upon retiring, Sorensen briefly coached professional hockey in Sweden, but was ultimately drawn to developing young talent as the head coach of Chicago Mission 16U team.

Since, Sorensen has focused on working with the Mission, as well as serving as a development coach with the AHL's Rockford IceHogs and the Chicago Blackhawks.

“I enjoy this age group,” he said. “A lot of these players have tremendous potential. They are easier to mold, [they] learn the right habits and [they] respect the game.”

Standing alongside Sorensen is assistant coach Michal Pivonka, a former Washington Capitals forward, who gets to help his son Jacob develop the same appreciation and skill for the game.

Despite appearing in 825 NHL contests from 1986 to 1999, Pivonka finds that he is still a student of the game.

“I’m learning from them every day,” Pivonka said. “It’s like my kids. I have three of them at home, but they are all different.”

Eaves agreed that the ever-evolving game offers its healthy set of challenges.

“I didn’t know how to communicate to a 16-year-old boy, I had to learn to speak their language,” he laughed.

Still, the perspective these coaches offer young athletes is immeasurable.

“Everybody thinks they work hard,” Eaves said. “But in order to come out on this stage, we have to raise the bar.”

“Nothing is given to you,” McLaren added. “You have to work for everything.”

In these pivotal years of development, who better to foster these lessons in hockey and life than mentors who have played the game at the highest level? Their experience and enthusiasm for the game will help breed the next generation of hockey players, and hopefully win a few National Championships along the way.

Missy Zielinski is a public relations assistant with the San Jose Sharks.


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