AUDIO: Story includes audio interviews with Nelson Emerson and Mike O’Connell from the Los Angeles Kings development staff.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — Years ago, the Los Angeles Kings ran their annual summer Development Camp for their young prospects as many National Hockey League clubs still do: focusing on the on-ice part of the game, including lots of scrimmage time. Some teams emphasize the scrimmage portion of their development camps, using that to retain and increase fan interest during the off-season lull. Some teams even go so far as to make their development camp scrimmages enough of a spectacle in which fans buy tickets to watch the games.
In the early years of their Development Camp, the Kings did that, too. But as Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi built his team into a two-time Stanley Cup Champion in recent years, their Development Camp has evolved into one that stresses off-ice instruction and training as much or more than on-ice instruction and drills. In fact, over the past handful of years, it has not been uncommon for the Kings to not play a scrimmage at all during their Development Camp. On top of that, their camp is so low-key that the team does not announce exact starting times for on-ice sessions, and only one day is designated as “media day,” when the local media are granted access to the prospects and the development staff for interviews.
One gets the idea that that the Kings are all about getting down to business when it comes to their Development Camp—they want to make sure that they have the undivided attention of their young prospects.
“We take this week to make sure that we’re teaching the kids a little bit about our organization,” said Director of Player Development Nelson Emerson. “We don’t want to put them in a situation where people are up top, and they’re evaluating on wins and losses, goals or assists, and things like that because it’s the middle of the summer. It’s still early July, and we want these kids to start learning some of the traits and the fundamentals of what we try to teach around here with the L.A. Kings.”
“The one thing about this camp is [that] it’s not an evaluation camp,” added Emerson. “I mean we’re here to teach, and that’s what’s so fun about it. You look back at all the years we’ve been doing it [and] it’s a really rewarding experience. It’s so fun to watch the new players who haven’t been here before, but you can certainly see the difference in the players that have been here in the past.”
Kings Senior Advisor/Development Coach Mike O’Connell said it’s all about turning young prospects into pros.
“We know what we want to do,” said O’Connell. “We understand that we have five or six things we want to work at hard and we just go with what we think.”
“We’re going into our tenth year,” added O’Connell. “We’ve had some pretty good success with some of the players coming through and we just stick to what we think is important. Dean has given us some pretty good latitude and he understands what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s basically just trying to make these guys pros, make them understand how lucky they are and how much work it will entail to reach the NHL.”
Like Emerson, O’Connell indicated that evaluation takes a back seat to instruction.
“We really take it slow here, so to get a real good read on what the players can and can’t do is difficult,” O’Connell noted. “We break it down into pretty specific skills or ideas or theories and try to get them to understand how we do it with the Kings. So probably by the end of the week, we’ll have a better idea of what we have here. But they’re all tentative, and the players who have been here [before] understand what we expect, so it’s kind of nice to have two or three or probably half the players that have been through this, so they kind of lead the way.”
A big part of Development Camp has always been a focus on turning bad habits into good ones.
“We have a couple things that we really stress in how they practice,” O’Connell explained. “We really want to try to change their habits—change the bad habits and really kind of work on their real good habits. Again, their goal is to be in the best league in the world and the players they’re going to try and replace understand what they’re doing, so we have to make sure that we speed that process up for them as well and make sure that they’re prepared as possible.”
“Most of the habits are things that are industry-wide,” O’Connell elaborated. “Practice habits, basically—practice like a pro, prepare like a pro. Receive a pass like a pro and make a pass. They have to understand that we expect it—a bad pass is unacceptable and to try to get them to work at it. Most of our drills, as any drills are, are unopposed so there is no reason why a pass shouldn’t be made. Instead of getting another puck and going again, we make them understand that it’s unacceptable.”
A big part of the Kings’ style of play is puck possession, and learning that part “LA Kings Hockey” starts at Development Camp.
“We believe that from Dean Lombardi to [head coach] Darryl Sutter, [puck possession] is an important part of our hockey team,” said Emerson. “Whether you’re a defenseman or whether you’re a forward, you have to manage the puck correctly. You just saw in that four-on-four scrimmage out there, we were asking the kids to make plays. We wanted them to pass the puck well and to receive the puck well, not to bobble the puck. We showed them a lot of video on how important it is to make sure our team is looking after the puck. In regards to individually, we make sure [to go over] puck protection and the plays along the wall, and we teach the fundamentals of that for sure.”
“What we talk about is keeping the puck away from defenders sticks, and Mike Donnelly does an exceptional job of that,” added Emerson. “You’ve really got to break it down for these kids and take them back to the basics, really. It’s their stance; it’s where they hold the puck. In junior hockey and college hockey, if you make a mistake, or if you make a poor decision, a lot of times, because you’re such a good player, they put you right back out there. But at the pro level, when that happens, maybe not the case, so we teach them the importance of that.”
O’Connell discussed what the players need to do differently in order to improve their puck possession.
“[Puck possession is] something that we really stress,” he said. “It’s something that we really stress in some of the fundamentals that we do in where to carry the puck and how to carry the puck and how to penetrate without getting the puck stripped. That all requires a change in some of the way they do things—not exposing the puck and trying to keep it away from the opposition while you have it. Again, you can’t just tell them. You have to show them over and over and over again and try to get them to understand the importance of it, as well as the players who don’t have the puck.”
Indeed, hockey is a team game, and without all five skaters on the ice working together, there can be no puck possession.
“Let’s face it,” O’Connell said. “[New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady is a tremendous passer, but those players have to get open. If those players don’t get open, I don’t care how good of a passer he is, he’s not going to find them. We really stress that these players need to get open as well.”
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings Director of Player Development Nelson Emerson. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Nelson Emerson (3:53)
Mike O’Connell (5:34)
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