This was not Sesame Street; the letter S was not sponsoring practice. But in a vibrant color and capital letters, Rockets coach Ryan Huska and his assistant, Jeff Finley, were imparting a lesson. Myers had been playing as if he were a 6-footer, and Finley's daily hectoring about using his stick to increase his sphere of influence had yet to sink in. But when he saw the word stick, Myers says, the light bulb went on. "I played six years with [the 6'6"] Pronger and saw how he used his size and how large an area he could control with his reach," says Finley, 43, a former defenseman who played 708 games over 15 NHL seasons. "Tyler wasn't good at it. In fact, it never had crossed his mind how effective he could be if he used the stick.... We were teaching him to use [it] but also how to play people one-on-one, how to read a rush, how to play an odd-man rush. This was pro-type stuff intended to prepare him for the pro game."
"Myers would have been impressive in any era with his size and skating," says Red Wings assistant coach Brad McCrimmon, who played alongside Bourque, Lidstrom and Pronger in their early years. "He would have been making good plays, but the holes in his game would have been apparent. He'd be running around more and picked apart a lot if he hadn't been taught good habits by a solid NHL defenseman like Finley. The stuff like stick and body position and using the wall [to clear pucks from the defensive zone] ... a lot of that was hit or miss years ago until the coaching in juniors got so good."
In the past decade, since Rockets owner Bruce Hamilton revamped his club to mirror an NHL franchise, ensuring his coaching staffs always included someone capable of teaching advanced defensive principles, a series of respected junior coaches and assistants with pro blue line experience have sent a disproportionate number of talented defensemen to the NHL. There are as many defensemen from Kelowna in the league as there are linebackers from Penn State in the NFL. They include Myers; Keith, the 2010 Norris winner; Nashville's 25-year-old Shea Weber, whose muscular shot ripped right through Germany's net in an 8--2 Team Canada victory at the 2010 Olympics; the Canucks' Alex Edler, 24; and the developing Luke Schenn, 20, in Toronto. "The days in junior hockey when a 19-year-old would mentor a 16-year-old, show him the game, are over," Hamilton says. "Now it's coaches.... We spend a lot of time on fundamentals, showing our D-men where to be in their end of the ice."
Kelowna, of course, has not cornered the market on hockey knowledge. Doughty played with the Guelph Storm for former NHL forward Dave Barr and assistant Jason Brooks, now the Storm's coach, who harped on stick positioning and keeping his "head on a swivel." Doughty also learned the principles of right place, right time. Sometimes you need that in life, too. When Bogosian left his hometown of Massena, N.Y., to attend Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, a detour before a junior career in Peterborough, Ont., he was fortunate to spend a season being instructed by a Cushing teammate's father, a gentleman by the name of Bourque. "One thing that Ray stressed was he liked to come late and jump into the rush from the off side [opposite the puck]," Bogosian says. "He'd try it at least once a game. When Ray says something, it pretty much sticks with you."
"All these kids have been fast-tracked because of what's happening at the lower levels," Senators general manager Bryan Murray says. "When a guy like Denis Potvin was coming up, there were smaller teams, smaller programs, not as good competition. Now there's an all-star system. The best kids get to play internationally. It forces guys to get good in a hurry."
"[They] are more mature," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau says. "You used to think of defensemen as guys who didn't make it until they were 28, 29. I can't tell you why it's happened, but I also think that if you see a young defenseman who can play, you're more apt to play him than a young forward ... because every team is looking for a defenseman."
So, are they there yet? Are they there yet? Not only are they there, they're everywhere.
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