NHLers go back to school

 Vancouver Hockey School instructors Yogi Svejkovsky and Derek Popke demonstrate puck protection to Anaheim Ducks Rod Pelley and Andrew Cogliano during a session last week at the Richmond Ice Centre. - Christian Lau photo
Vancouver Hockey School instructors Yogi Svejkovsky and Derek Popke demonstrate puck protection to Anaheim Ducks Rod Pelley and Andrew Cogliano during a session last week at the Richmond Ice Centre.
— image credit: Christian Lau photo

As the National Hockey League lockout drags on, the number of players signing with teams in Europe is growing.

Already, more than 150 NHLers are playing overseas.

But opposite that are the just as many North American players who have opted to stick close to home—among them Anaheim Ducks Andrew Cogliano and Rod Pelley, the latter of whom is an unrestricted free agent after his contract with the Ducks expired at the end of last season.

While both players would love nothing more than to be in the midst of another NHL campaign, they’re hardly putting their feet up. In fact, they’re using this time to improve all aspects of their games.

Cogliano and Pelley are “students” at the Vancouver Hockey School, learning advanced lessons in skating and puck control from renowned skating instructor Derek Popke and skills coach Yogi Svejkovsky.

Working out this past week at the Richmond Ice Centre, they focused on drills that can be immediately transferred to game situations and make them more effective players.

“You can have a skills or skating coach show you all these fancy moves that make you look good on the ice, but they’re not real useful in an NHL game,” says Pelley. “Derek and Yogi show you things you can master and that aren’t going to be high risk—like gaining more ice when you’re down low with the puck just by shifting your body and using a cutback to get some space or a shot off. It’s great to get out and work on things that you kind of overlook during most of the season, so we’re trying to utilize the time now to work on drills that will eventually help us when the lockout does end.”

Though he’s widely considered one of the top two or three skaters in the NHL, even Cogliano is seeing the benefits of the drills.

“Yogi focuses a lot on skills with your hands and protecting the puck, while Popke complements that with skating drills like how to come out of turns,” says Cogliano.

“Am I working per se on skating in straight line? No. But a lot of it has to do with edges and  being able to be quicker than the defencemen below the red line or working down low, spinning off guys and getting to the net. I feel with my game a lot of it’s getting open and trying to take advantage of my speed and they’re helping me with that.”

A native of the Toronto suburb of Vaughan, Cogliano, 25, is small by NHL standards at five-foot-10 and 188 pounds. But the former first round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers (25th overall in 2005), who played two seasons at the University of Michigan and in 2007 helped Canada win gold at the world junior championship in Sweden, has been remarkably durable. Since turning pro with the Oilers in 2007-08, he’s never missed an NHL game, including all 82 with the Ducks last season after being traded to Anaheim in the offseason for a second round draft pick.

After playing four seasons with the Oilers, which preferred a wide-open style that suited Cogliano, it was a bit of adjustment joining the Ducks—especially under former head coach Randy Carlyle.

“But now with Bruce (Boudreau, who replaced Carlyle midway through last season), it’s more up-tempo skating which I really like and that suits me,” Cogliano says.

“We had a great end of the season last year it’s too bad we couldn’t carry that momentum. But it’s why I’m doing stuff like this, so when we get to camp I’m not stalled. I have to take this (situation) for what it is and use it as an opportunity to keep things fresh and come up with new workouts. I’m feeling revitalized working with (Popke and Svejkovsky).”

Cogliano, who says the five NHL seasons have gone quickly, feels while he still has plenty of room to grow, he’s matured as a pro and become a more versatile and smarter player who is ready to take the proverbial next step.

“Being and NHL player is a full-time job and you’re always thinking about how to get better,” he says.  “This career can be short for guys and I’m trying to keep it going as long as I can.”

At 28, Pelley is at a crossroads in his NHL career.

A native of Kitimat, the five-foot-11, 200-pound center was acquired last December by the Ducks along with a seventh-round pick in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft from the New Jersey Devils for Kurtis Foster, Mark Fraser and Timo Pielmeier. While not a big scorer (he’s amassed 29 points in 256 games), Pelley was a plus or even player in 30 of his last 35 games.

A second team all-star in his final college season at Ohio State University, he signed with New Jersey as a free agent in July, 2006 and split his first pro season between the NHL team and its American Hockey League affiliate in Lowell, Mass. He played most of the 2007-08 season (58 games) with New Jersey and has been a full-time NHLer since.

Pelley reflects fondly on his career in hockey, which is rooted in small-town B.C.

“Growing up in northwestern B.C., Kitimat was a great town for a young player,” he says. “We had two rinks, which is pretty amazing for a community of 9,000 people, so that meant lots of ice. From there I played on good junior teams in Prince George and Vernon and then managed to get a scholarship to Ohio State where I played out my fours years and matured as a player and person.”

“I give a lot of credit to (New Jersey general manager) Lou Lamoriello for giving me an opportunity (to play pro) and believing in me,” Pelley continues. “They were very honest and forward with me from day one and let me know what my capabilities were and where I fit in, and took me into the family. (As an organization) they demand a lot, no doubt, but that’s what winning is all about. You see the success they’ve had over the last 20 years (including five conference championships and three Stanley Cups). It was a great experience.”

He says the trade to the Ducks mid-season was an adjustment, especially moving coast to coast, but made easier by the support of the NHL players’ association and the Ducks which enabled him to focus mostly on the game.

“And I was there 12 days after Boudreau was hired, so he was kind of in transition too,” says Pelley. “But he’s bounced around a lot during his career and knows how a player feels. He kept asking me how things were going. And the Ducks couldn’t be a greater group of guys.”

But as an unsigned free agent, Pelley now finds himself playing a waiting game—not only awaiting the start of a new NHL season but signing a new contract.

“But I’m willing to do that and be ready from the day the games start,” he says. “You need complete belief in yourself. Sometimes that’s easier than others and it’s a business we’re in and being mentally strong is a big part of it. If you can get through that, there are jobs available when the lockout does end.”

By his own definition, Pelley is an honest, hard-working checking line forward—a foot solider if you will. He does a lot of the grunt work and makes the sacrifices like blocking shots. He may play fewer minutes that players on the top two or three lines, but they are important minutes. Without players like him, you don’t win Stanley Cups.

“It’s always fun and rewarding to work with good players and good people,” says Vancouver Hockey School instructor Svejkovsky, noting Cogliano and Pelley emanate both qualities.

“But whether it’s minor hockey players (Svejkovsky is director of hockey operations at the Seafair Minor Hockey Association), the (Vancouver) Giants (he is a skills coach with the local major junior team), or NHL players, while there are differences in a variety of things in terms of drills they’re very similar,” he says. “Any player has a window to get better each day. Games can be mentally draining, but coming on the ice (like Cogliano and Pelley) to work on things that can get you better is most important. Obviously it takes more details to work with better players, but it’s still about teaching and understanding how fix this skating motion or that shot or move that can make a player better—and being able explain why it’s important.”

As a former NHLer himself (a first round draft pick of the Washington Capitals in 1996), Svejkovsky is also able to relate well to the pros and what they need to be effective.

“I’m lucky enough to see a lot of players that helps me set the curriculum,” he says. “And the game is changing constantly, so with the Giants I’m able to see what’s changing and help the players develop. Right now the biggest change is that every player has to be able to (contribute in all areas). Defencemen need to be part of the offence and forwards part of the defence.

“And with the speed of the game, it’s  important to anticipate and read plays. You have to be a student of the game, no question, while constantly working to get better at the things which make you who you are.,” he adds.

Popke, who founded the Vancouver Hockey School, is a widely-respected skating consultant and has worked on-ice with numerous junior and pro players as well as the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs. But even was surprised by the  quickness of Cogliano.

“The power and speed he can generate is amazing , but we changed a couple things that can make him ever quicker. He was surprised, and said he’d never been shown some of this stuff before.,” says Popke.

Cogliano and Pelley contacted Popke looking for some training opportunities that would be more than just simple skating and skating with the puck.

“(Typically) when coaches tell players to  turn around cones and stuff like that, no one shows them details incorporated with the turns,” Popke says.

“Cogliano and Pelley were saying they can usually go to a skating coach or a skills coach, but they don’t know the other aspect. Here, they’re getting (to learn) with two guys with two different niches. While Yogi shows them the puck skills, I’m breaking down the skating. Cogliano was even saying with the turns, he didn’t know how many players in the NHL knew them. Coaches don’t have time to work on these during the season.”

Further reflecting how much the game is changing and evolving, Cogliano and Pelley also noted that power skating when they were in minor hockey was just skating up and down the ice.  Lttle or none of the detailed instruction kids get now was available .

“Working with these NHL players is a challenge for us too ,” says Popke.

They constantly want to get better and as an instructor you want to push yourself too.”


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