Coach’s Corner: Teaching Total Hockey with Daniel Szpakowski, U15 A1 Coach

As players grow older, the difference in skill level gets smaller and smaller. That’s why Daniel Szpakowski had made it a priority to coach his team to be total hockey players – to differentiate themselves through their decision making, their hockey IQ, and their ability to read the play.

Recently, we sat down with one of the North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association (NVMHA)’s newest coaches to learn about his playing career, his coaching philosophy, and his experience with the NVMHA U15 A1 team.

Daniel’s Playing Career and Early Coaching Career

While he didn’t grow up playing against NVMHA, Daniel Szpakowski has had no shortage of experience playing against the Storm.

The 26-year-old Coquitlam native grew up playing for the Coquitlam Chiefs. He would spend a year with BWC’s U18 Prep team in the CSSHL, before spending the next four seasons playing Junior hockey in the PJHL and SJHL.

His final year of Junior hockey was in 2017-18, where he won the PJHL Championship with the Delta Ice Hawks.

Shortly after his playing career ended, he started coaching for the West Vancouver Minor Hockey Association (WVMHA) with his close friend and former NVMHA coach, Reid Robertson.

“Reid and I actually played together in Coquitlam, 20 some-odd years ago,” Daniel tells NVMHA in an interview. “Reid and I were always playing on the same teams in Coquitlam Minor. Then when it came to Junior, we both went our separate ways – then Reid ended up getting traded back to the Lower Mainland where I was playing. He reached out to me after we both finished our last year of Junior to see if I wanted to coach, and that’s how I joined West Vancouver.”

Joining the Storm

Daniel spent five seasons coaching U11 and U13 hockey for West Vancouver, as well as coaching with the BC Spartans Spring Hockey program. It was through those experiences that he got to meet James Wall, who eventually asked him to consider applying to NVMHA as a coach.

For Daniel, coaching NVMHA’s U15 A1 team was a welcome opportunity and a chance to refine his skill set and work on the finer details of hockey with his new team.

“I did five seasons of U11 and U13,” he explains. “At that level, the focus is still learning to play hockey and you’re slowly introducing systems and more advanced concepts. This U15 team was an opportunity to delve into the finer details of the game and hone my skill set.”

“I parked a lot of concepts that you can’t teach U11 and U13 players, this was an opportunity to go back into the toolbox and teach these kids some new things.”

Teaching Total Hockey

One of Daniel’s most prominent coaching philosophies is the idea of teaching “total hockey.” On top of developing on-ice skills, he wants to ensure that his players improve their hockey IQ and decision making.

“I really want my players to be total hockey players,” he explains. “At the highest level, the lines of the game are blurred between forward and defense.”

“There’s no traditional, stay-at-home defenseman, that’s kind of gone to the wayside. My focus with all of my players is to make them total hockey players in how they interpret information on the ice and off the ice. I find a lot of players at this age can be very one directional in that they just follow the play. I don’t see a lot of anticipation, I don’t see them making the right decisions all the time on the ice.”

“By the end of the season, I want all my players to be total hockey players. They don’t focus on immediate skill but they’re practicing their vision, paying attention to tiny details in the opposition, and they’re really understanding all of our systems and why we should do the things that we do.”

He adds that as players get older, the difference in skill gets smaller and smaller. As a result, it calls on players to differentiate themselves through smaller details and how they understand and anticipate the play.

Coaching NVMHA U15 A1

Teaching this philosophy to the U15 A1 team has been a constant focus for Szpakowski. It also means that during practice, he’s constantly blowing down drills and paying close attention to details.

“I stop a lot of drills in practice,” he explains. “I’m almost obsessive over the details in drills. The team does a great job of understanding now but at the start of the season, we were trying to explain why we’re blowing the drill down or doing all this.”

That attention to detail also carries over to watching past games and reviewing plays as a team.

“We go through every single game we play, I spend multiple hours each week going through all of our video, giving tailored individual feedback, and breaking things down. Sometimes we’ll spend 10 to 15 minutes on a three to four-second slip, explaining all the tiny facets that go into each play.”

He doesn’t do it alone, however. Daniel also gives a lot of credit to his assistant coach and close friend, Alex Ambrosio.

“I’ve been really, really fortunate,” he explains. “Alex and I have been best friends for a number of years. He played in the BCHL and five years of Division 1 NCAA Hockey. So while I was coaching, he was playing Div 1 and then he played a year of pro hockey in France.”

Alex’s playing experience and his understanding of the game has played a huge role in helping the U15 A1 team develop.

“We’re extremely fortunate to have him because he’s had, arguably, some of the best coaching a hockey player could ever have. He’s really helped with our systems and skill work.”

With all the work that the team has put in so far, as well as the close focus to detail, it’s made the two coaches extremely optimistic for the second half of the season.

daniel szpakowski

“It’s been a good season overall and all of our kids have really taken leaps and bounds as hockey players,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of close games. One, two goal hockey games that we were right there.”

“We have the second half of the season coming up and I’m really excited to get back at a lot of teams that have beat us in these close games. And I really think we can make a deep playoff run.”

Outside of the games and practices, Daniel’s also been proud of the culture and camaraderie that the team has developed.

“The culture is neat,” he explains. “I was just talking to my players and a lot of them end up going to different schools. They’re really tight knit for being split across five or six schools around the North Shore.”

“They all do a really, really good job of being good teammates to each other, first and foremost. There’s no cliques or negatively towards each other, which I’ve seen in the past or even experienced growing up. These are all really good kids and humans, first and foremost, and I’m really happy with that.”

Daniel’s Advice

What’s Daniel’s advice for players who want to take their game to the next level?

“There’s a quote like ‘always give your best, because you never know who’s watching’,” he says.

“It’s so cliche but you can never, ever take a game off or decide to turn your game off. Always give your best because you never know who’s watching.”

Rapid Fire

Who’s your favourite current NHL player and your favourite NHL player of all time?

My favourite current NHL player would have to be Auston Matthews – just for the goal scoring. And then my favourite NHL player of all time, I loved Joe Thornton growing up.

What’s your favourite hockey stick of all time?

The Easton S17, scored many goals with that one.

What was your favourite number that you wore growing up?

I always wore 19 because of Markus Naslund on the Canucks. And I believe Joe Thornton was number 19 too.

Blue or White jerseys for NVMHA?

I’m a big fan of the white jerseys. They just look so clean.