New York Islanders center Mathew Barzal is an example of the dynamic, finely tuned skills that are almost routinely displayed by the top pro players in today’s game. He’s also representative of a modern trend: young players receiving specialized training and skill development at an early age, which has them arriving in the NHL better prepared than ever before.
One outfit that is trying to scale that approach in the Internet age is Scoolu, which offers a range of individual expertise from pro experts across sports, music and dance. Think of it as getting tips from a sports hero, or insight and guidance from someone who sees basketball, tennis, drumming, MMA — and of course hockey, among others, the way few do.
Among their hockey experts is Islanders legend and NHL Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier. I exchanged thoughts with him about what they’re doing, how skills development has changed since he was skating in his youth back in Saskatchewan, and of course about the current Islanders and how all this comes together in today’s game with players like Barzal.
Lighthouse Hockey: Did you receive any skills-based attention when you were growing up, or did you learn mostly by trying things on the rink or pond?
Trottier: Like most kids, we were shown various skating and stickhandling drills. It was mostly about putting in hours and hours of practice to improve confidence and execution. My dad was very influential for me growing up as were many of my coaches.
LHH: How have skill-based training approaches evolved since then, and over the years as you were an NHL coach and/or player development staff member?
Trottier: The largest evolution in skill development has probably come from the ability for players to actually see themselves performing on video and improve from there. The use of video has also increased the number of mentorships for athletes and helped fine-tune that process.
Each generation seems to be getting more comfortable with this kind of instruction and coaching.
LHH: As a player, you were a complete, well-rounded package in pretty much every facet, but was there any particular skill or trait you really worked on or were proud of improving?
Trottier: Yes, faceoffs and stick strength were two areas I took great pride in improving as a player. Stamina and off-ice conditioning for injury prevention were a couple of other areas. I always made sure to focus on skills execution and team performance at every practice. Having Mondays off was paramount to unity and chemistry.
Ed. note: Among the Islanders dynasty legends who entered the league in the mid/late ‘70s, Trottier led the pack by playing 1,279 regular season games and playing productively into the early ‘90s, when he added to his Stanley Cup ring collection with some other team I forget.
LHH: How did you get involved with Scoolu?
Trottier: I got involved with Scoolu through NHL alumnus Todd Bidner and Steve Wicklum. The company was called “My Pro Hero” at the time, and it’s been great to watch it evolve into Scoolu. Since I’ve started working with them, the level of coaches available to people has grown tremendously, especially away from hockey where they’ve always been strong. For example, you can now learn MMA from Conor McGregor’s striking coach, get shooting tips from Steph Curry’s skills coach, get tennis lessons from Roger Federer’s coach or learn to play the drums from Lady Gaga’s drummer. [Ed. It’s true.]
LHH: What types of skills or focus areas can a hockey player expect to improve with Scoolu?
Trottier: There are many areas where players can benefit from the Scoolu platform. Chief among them are conditioning, efficiency of skating technique, power/speed improvement and increasing their rate of effectiveness in terms of execution. Scoolu has a bunch of great coaches that can help with all sorts of puck skills from stickhandling to passing to shooting.
Another valuable tool Scoolu offers to players further along in their career is help with preparation and skills at the higher levels, with or without the puck, such as body position angles and defensive or scoring techniques.
Also, for players that are at the higher level of prospects or professionals, Scoolu has programs to help with marketing and branding themselves as they get to the pros. This gets overlooked a lot by prospects and can really help with where they’re drafted or handling some of the off-ice opportunities of being a professional athlete.
LHH: What kind of niche does Scoolu fill — or what are the typical kinds of players who can benefit from Scoolu? (e.g. players in their offseason? Players in remote areas who might not get access to individual attention?)
Trottier: Alongside having access to top-tier coaches when a player is living in a remote area and summertime training, the biggest advantage of Scoolu instruction is the access to former and current NHL players, instructors and coaches.
The video and real-time effectiveness of Scoolu’s individual coaching and instruction time can be of incredible value as they prepare a player for the team drills and concepts — like breakouts, forechecking, defensive zone and neutral zone pressure and defense, powerplay etc. – that they’ll encounter when they get back to their teams.
LHH: Can you think of any NHL/AHL pros you witnessed who worked on specific skills and saw a difference while already a pro?
Trottier: Most of the current players have conditioning, nutrition and sport-specific trainers along with the team’s conditioning trainer and nutritionists. A lot of the very best players have never stopped working on their skills and more and more veteran players are looking to extend their careers by seeking personalized coaching.
LHH: Turning this back to an Islanders context, here’s a question I often ponder: Can you compare how Mike Bossy thrived as a sniper during his career vs. how today’s best shooters approach beating today’s goalies?
Trottier: There is only going to ever be one Mike Bossy. No one has been better than him at scoring goals because of his quick, accurate and powerful release. All the best scorers share those same traits. It’s just that Mike was the very best at them to ever play the game.
LHH: And now to today’s Islanders: Granted, almost no one can be Mathew Barzal, but...how can a young player today try to be more like Mathew Barzal?
Trottier: Mathew Barzal is a special player with dynamic skills and skating technique.
It really comes down to practice time and proper coaching when young players are trying to improve. But Barzal is a uniquely skilled player with exceptional vision and determination.
LHH: What are your thoughts on the Islanders this year? And how about the new arena in Belmont?
Trottier: The Islanders will be a Top 10 team again. They’re disciplined, balanced. Stingy and gritty on defense. They’ve done a great job developing an identity and have embraced the success that they have found because of that.
Belmont is going to be a special venue. It will be “state of the art” and magnificent. It already has a luxurious and magical feeling because it’s surrounded by so much equestrian history. Not to mention the excitement from fans about the location combining the Islanders’ great history and their destiny that’s still to come.