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Skating with Coach David Cunniff

Background: Coach Cunniff has the unique ability to develop talent because he himself was a late bloomer in the technical aspects of hockey.  He was lucky enough to win a high school state championship as a young player; off that state championship team there were very few of his teammates that were able get Div 1 hockey offers.  He also played in the midget national championship and was surrounded by the nation’s top young talent.  

His father is a legendary coach and Cunniff has been around the game for a long time.  He decided to continue playing into college at Salem State where he continued to have team success and qualified for the national tournament.  During his time in college he started to change the way he approached the game and started “training like a sprinter”. He has always been involved with boxing and other sports so toughness and athleticism were not the issues.  He needed to learn how to be a better and faster skater to continue to move up the ranks in hockey.  

His hard work offered him the opportunity to try out in the ECHL where he battled his way into an American League contract and a solid spot in the second best league in the world.  He would spend hours shooting pucks and working on individual skills, but he was forced to play both forward and defense depending on the roster at any given point in the season. This gave him a tactical advantage as a coach and became known as a “rink rat” from his days as a young boy watching his father coach and now as a young pro doing whatever he could to get better.  

This work ethic landed him a coaching position in the American Hockey League working for the San Jose Sharks affiliate in Cleveland.  At that time he was given penalty kill and defensive bench boss duties. Along the way he had amazing mentors that he would credit for his detailed approach to technical skill development as well as the tactical side of the game.  

During one of our early conversations Cunniff mentioned that the approach at that time in San Jose was to take a strong group mentality when it comes to player development.  The team would have 2-3 development camps in the summer that were conveniently located for the prospects and keep the groups smaller. This style of development camp allowed Cunniff and other staff members (Tim Burke/Doug Wilson et al.) to create very individualized experiences for prospects as well as a great opportunity to evaluate various characteristics of each prospect outside of simply tactical evaluations of the player.  This created what Coach would call hockey 101, and the technical aspects of the game became the primary focus of camp. (sounds amazing to me)  

Hockey 101

Why is this approach so interesting?  Turning development camp into hockey 101 allowed these elite coaches to catch and fix technical issues in a small setting and give prospects things to work on during the season without giving them tactical advice that may or may not be relevant to the team that they would be going back to whether that be in college or junior programs.  “Fix it young” says coach Cunniff “If they come to you at age 20 with poor skating habits it is probably too late.” 

During these years before the CBA changed the rules on development camp they experimented with various combinations of tactical teaching from separating forwards and defenseman into groups.  This had the predictable “silo effect” where forwards did not understand what the D were doing and visa versa. This led to combining the positions in tactical sessions so that everyone on the ice was on the same page.  

Cunniff has been in the American hockey league for a long time.  We both agree that it is a very interesting sample size at this level.  You have a mix of young talent with NHL potential, solid American League guys who don’t quite fit an NHL roster but are essential for organizational success, and last but not least hockey players who have spent multiple seasons in the NHL and are on the backside of their careers.  

The motivations of each player is different but two things are abundantly clear: 

1. Being removed from the line-up is a huge motivator to improve for all players 

2. Surviving on athleticism will eventually run its course and technical issues will need to be addressed at some point.  

Another glowing review of why “teach them young” is such a powerful statement.  In the older players there is a “greater sense of urgency” explains Cunniff. “They have been there before and will do anything to get back there and stay there.”  Younger players that move up and down between leagues are also very motivated to learn technical ways to gain a tactical advantage and this is where Coach Cunniff is master of his craft.   

Stay tuned for our next blog, where Coach Cunniff will walk us through most common mistakes in skating.

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