By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
When Richard Bercuson moved to Durham Region a few years ago, it’s unlikely he could have predicted how involved he would be in Oshawa’s minor hockey program.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have the credentials and the resume.
Bercuson has coached for 40 years at various levels of junior, as well as at the college level, pro in Europe, and numerous minor and high school teams.
He has also taught Hockey Canada’s national coaching certification program and previously authored or co-authored manuals on a number of hockey-related topics.
For more than 30 years, he was the director of coaching for Hockey East Ontario, one of three branches of Hockey Canada in Ontario, a region which includes approximately 25,000 players.
With minor hockey being a passion for most of his life, it was natural that Bercuson was interested in contributing locally.
The challenge was he had very few connections in the local hockey community.
However, it wasn’t long before he reached out to the Oshawa Minor Hockey Association (OMHA), and has helped to develop a new mentorship program over the past few years.
The program has been well received, and Bercuson is now stepping into an expanded role.
Last month, the OMHA named him as the association’s new technical director.
Speaking with The Oshawa Express, Bercuson is frank in recalling his initial assessments of Oshawa’s minor hockey system.
“It’s been a losing association. I used the term loosely because it’s not about winning, but it is a competitive association,” he explains.
Bercuson says he was cognitive of a “negative attitude” within the association and a sense of frustration from many coaches and other volunteers.
However, despite this, he knew beneath the surface things weren’t as dire as they may have seemed.
“It really wasn’t that bad, it’s just that the perception was that bad,” he says.
To turn things around, the hockey veteran says the association needed a fresh start.
“Changing a culture requires a completely different look at how we’re going to do things. This year has been somewhat of a watershed year in that way.”
As part of that culture shift, Bercuson says they’ve focused on getting coaches to step away from their comfort area and show them “that there are ways to teach kids that are better than what we’ve been doing.”
The position of technical director will see Bercuson further develop some of the ideas he’s brought to the OMHA so far.
“It is an expansion of what I was already doing. It’s giving me, not just responsibility, but having a little bit of a hammer on what the expectations are of coaches,” he explains. “So the things that we kind of let go over the last couple of seasons, I’ll be a bit more stringent [on].”
While the overwhelming majority of head coaches have been supportive of his vision, Bercuson says the dedication needs to run all the way down the bench.
“When you’re picking assistants, you better pick assistants who are going to be engaged in your team. I’ve seen far too many assistants who lean on their sticks and do absolutely nothing, and offer nothing except to yell,” he says. “We’d much rather have assistants who are less technically capable where you can lead them in a way to what you want them to do but are open-minded and good with kids. If I see assistant coaches who are not pulling their weight, I’ll be letting [them] know.”
At the end of the day, there needs to be accountability to those who are investing in the program.
“Let’s face it, parents are dropping a fair buck for kids to be playing in this program. It’s costing them $4,000 or $5,000. If you are going to be spending $4,000 or $5,000 on anything, it doesn’t matter if it’s car parts or a hockey team. You want value for your money.”
But Bercuson is quick to point out that he is focused on player and coach development first and foremost and is making no promises that on-ice performance will immediately improve.
“If the coaches feel positive and confident in what they’re doing on the ice, there will be positive results in more games. I’m not suggesting for a second we’re going to start winning provincial championships.”
With under 600 players, OMHA is a small AAA program, and it will be a challenge.
“It’s a very small association to be running four levels of competitive hockey. To expect our teams will suddenly turn around in two or three years, it’s just not realistic,” Bercuson observes. “Some teams will, some levels will, some coaches have already turned their teams around. But it’s a process, and will be an ongoing process.”
Referring back to the “negative attitude” he witnessed at first, Bercuson believes players have been leaving the system because of it.
“They’re tired of playing four, five, six years and getting hammered. I don’t agree with it but I understand it…we have to provide a program that is enticing to keep them here.”
Even though the season has wrapped up, Bercuson is busy looking forward to the next campaign.
He has organized a major conference for Oshawa at the end of May and is expecting about 30 to 35 coaches to attend, as well as some board members, which he says is a pleasant surprise.
“It’s really unusual. Most board members don’t care about development or say they do and don’t follow up.”