MONTREAL -- Stephan Lebeau has a novel idea when it comes to teaching kids the game of hockey -- let them simply play and explore the game.
He registered 277 points in 377 NHL games despite lacking size because Lebeau relied on his guile to become an effective player, one that notched a career-high 80 points in 71 games with Montreal in 1992-93.
Upon his return to his home to Sherbrooke in the Eastern Townships region of Quebec, Lebeau coached at the Junior AAA level with Champlain College Lennoxville, the Major Junior level with the Victoriaville Tigres in the Quebec league, the Midget AAA level with the Magog Cantonniers and finally at the prep school level where he currently coaches at Bishop's College School in Lennoxville.
On top of that, Lebeau has a son that just completed his first season of Pee-Wee AA hockey, so it would be fair to say he has a certain degree of perspective on how hockey is being taught at the youth levels in Quebec.
And what he has seen from some of his fellow coaches bothers him, because he feels they don't allow kids to develop a love of the game in its purest form.
"I loved playing hockey as a kid because at the time, thankfully, the parents who were coaching me didn't really know much about the game," Lebeau said. "It allowed me to just play, it allowed me to make mistakes. Systems came later, so when they came I was able to apply the creativity and imagination I developed as a kid just playing the game."
This freedom that Lebeau credits with giving him the ability to reach the NHL is what he feels is lacking in minor hockey coaching today because of the emphasis on competitiveness and skill development in practice at a very young age.
That emphasis, he says, should be placed on making that learning process fun and engaging for players, as opposed to the military-style drills often seen in youth league practices.
"We always hear people say that the most important thing is that the kids have fun, but that's not always applied," he says. "What's fun for a player is not necessarily the same as what's fun for a coach."
Lebeau's emphasis in his practices is placed on the development of hockey sense, and he does that by trying to re-create situations that can develop skills that can be applied in a game.
One example he provided is a passing drill where a player waits his turn in line, passes the puck to a coach, takes the return pass and shoots on net. Instead, Lebeau tries to add a hitch where the player is forced to make a decision during the course of the drill, like if his coach's stick is not on the ice, then the player is not supposed to pass it.
That one little hitch to a time-tested drill, Lebeau says, is part of an overall philosophy of forcing players to make decisions on the ice in practice to develop their hockey sense, something that many people see as being innate, but which Lebeau feels can be nurtured and taught.
And this decision-based practice philosophy, as Lebeau calls it, ultimately makes practice more fun for kids because it provides them with a mental challenge and not just a physical one.
"I feel that from age 5 to 12 coaches are largely wasting the kids' time because we underestimate them," Lebeau said. "I want a player to be his own coach; I want him to be able to evaluate his own game. At the end of a practice I'll usually ask my players what they felt they did well and what they need to improve. They're often shocked because I'm challenging their brains, but it forces them to think the game."
This mental engagement by the player in his own development, Lebeau feels, heightens the desire to improve while at the same time enhancing a player's decision-making ability that will be useful when the speed of the game makes hockey instincts something that can separate the average players from the elite.
"It emphasizes the fact we're playing hockey. Playing golf is not just going to driving range and hitting balls, you need to go to the driving range with specific things you want to work on that you can bring with you to the golf course," Lebeau said. "It's the same thing in hockey and it makes the kid have fun, because it makes them want the puck, it makes them want to get a breakaway, it makes them want to score a goal. It makes them want to do the things that make hockey fun.
"But you get there by allowing a kid to make mistakes in practice, by allowing them to explore their creativity and their decision-making. You shouldn't tell them what to do, you should just allow them to make decisions and try to guide those decisions. I don't see myself as a dictator as a coach who tells his players what to do and when to sleep and when to go to the bathroom. I see myself as a guide."