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Oshawa minor hockey making moves

Organization taking steps to improve AAA program

Richard Bercuson speaks to members of the Oshawa Bantam AAA team as part of a mentorship program he has developed for Oshawa Minor Hockey. Bercuson is now leading efforts to revitalize the city’s AAA program (Photo supplied)

By Chris Jones/The Oshawa Express

Richard Bercuson, technical director for Oshawa Minor Hockey Association, says there are big changes on the way for the organization.

The technical director says AAA hockey in the city is in need of change, as he hopes to improve the competitiveness of the organization.

Bercuson says the organization has to be better at several things in order to become more competitive.

“We have to be better conditioned, we have to be better prepared, we have to be better coached, we have to have more practice time and we have to use it effectively,” he says.

Oshawa Minor Hockey just instituted a four-year plan for AAA.

“At the AAA level, we are probably the smallest AAA centre in Ontario with just over 600 kids,” explains Bercuson. “So we have a particular challenge that most other areas don’t have in that we can’t rely on numbers. We don’t have 25 kids walking through the door who are bonafide AAA players.”

He notes other associations will have those 25 players or more, while Oshawa is struggling to get 15 or 20.

He made recommendations to the OMHA board in December last year asking them to look at several strategies he believes will get the AAA program back on track.

However, Bercuson notes, “Even if we adopted all of these recommendations, we will still be struggling to be at the top of leagues, but at least we’d be competitive.”

Bercuson has been running a development program for Oshawa minor hockey that is in its second year.

“It’s improved a lot,” he says. “But at the AAA level we’ve kind of let it go as if it was the same as the other three competitive levels – AA, A, AE – which you can’t do because they’re supposed to be the elite. So we have to treat them accordingly and raise expectations accordingly.”

He says the board has agreed to put over $170,000 into improvements for the program, such as off-ice training, offseason off-ice training for peewees, bantams and midgets, and instituting a mental performance training program.

“[The mental performance training program] is a pretty rare occurrence in minor hockey because we train the body a lot, we train the skill level, but we don’t train the mind,” he says.

Bercuson also says they will be using what he calls the minor hockey equivalent of what professional teams and players use to track analytics.

“We’re going to be tracking improvements in various aspects of the game,” he says. “A couple of which the coaches will have to do, such as pass completion percentage and scoring chances, so that system wide we show improvement.”

He also says the program can’t analyze improvement through wins and losses, as he believes doing so doesn’t paint a realistic picture of whether teams have improved.

“Most other associations – in fact, all other associations – are very broad programs that begin with the kids age four or five, and we don’t have that because the two house league programs in Oshawa are not affiliated with us,” he says.

According to Bercuson, this means the organization needs to be better all the way across the board.

“We have no wiggle room to be ordinary,” he says.

The aim is now to get kids to train properly during the offseason, in particular the older players, according to Bercuson.

He says the organization wants to quantify gains being made.

“[To] see how much we can improve each year incrementally in things like goal differential, penalty minutes, and scoring chances. And if we can improve those and address them in practice, then we believe that we can compete and be in the top five in most age groups.”

Bercuson says this is “the most ambitious initiative [Oshawa minor hockey] has ever undertaken.”

He believes this is because “to make improvements in a program is one thing … but to invest over $100,000 from the association’s reserve funds, to invest in our minor hockey teams is asking a lot.”

He says this role is shared with parents, as they will be “footing half the bill.”

While Bercuson doesn’t know the exact amount parents will have to pay, as it varies from team to team, he estimates it will cost them around $3,000 to $4,000.

“But at least there’s been a recognition on the board that we’ve pretty much sucked at AAA for years, long before I got here… going back 20 years, the teams have been really poor,” he states.

Although just marking his first anniversary as technical director, Bercuson has actually worked with the organization for two and a half years.

He says he observed as a mentor during the first year and a half, and said to the board, “Are you guys happy with [the on ice production]? Because we’re pretty weak.”

Bercuson explains most organizations will have weak and strong teams, but Oshawa was different as in the AAA program, “everyone was weak.”

The technical director compares the state of Oshawa’s AAA hockey program to that of a house where every room needed a fresh coat of paint.

“It needed a fresh coat from top to bottom,” he says with a chuckle.

According to Bercuson, he has heard plenty from parents about the state of AAA hockey in Oshawa.

“Consider yourself in a position where you’re dropping $4,000 or $5,000 for your kid to play AAA, and you know the game results, or the season results before the season starts,” he says. “You know you’re going to be sixth or seventh out of seven [teams], you know you’re going to lose most games, you know you’re going to be whacked most games, and that’s pretty frustrating.”

Bercuson says the board has been very supportive in putting the new program together.

“They invested a lot of money, and in some cases a lot of time, we’ve expanded our mentoring program, we’ve expanded our development program, coaches have to abide by certain guidelines for what they do in practice, and what they don’t do in practice because there’s certain things we don’t want them to do,” he says.

Bercuson says coaches and the board are buying into it, despite the fact they’re still losing.

He notes while the teams aren’t seeing huge changes in wins and losses, they’re now only losing playoff games by one or two goals, whereas before that was not the case.

“There’s no comparison to what I saw in my first year here in 2016-17, it’s a completely different look,” he says.

For more information on the changes coming to AAA hockey in Oshawa, there will be a town hall meeting on April 6, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Oshawa Civic Centre, Bobby Orr Room, 99 Thornton Road South.