Bowling Green assistant hockey coach Maco Balkovec, coaching at the collegiate level for the first time, is hoping to add value to the little things players do in games and in practice. The British Columbia, Canada native has taken control of “Tuesday skills day” practices where the team attempts to work on the subtle aspects of the game.
“As a coach, one of the things I’ve tried to focus on is the little individual skills and the little plays that you make in 5 feet. Hockey is all about 5 foot races. Being able to make a play out of that allows you to be successful,” Balkovec said.
It can be intimidating at times for someone in a new environment to create change or become a strong influence on the physical skill players have. Balkovec finds that taking it one step at a time reaches any level of player.
“Whether you watch super high-level hockey or low-level hockey, it’s no different,” he said. “It’s about creating space, being able to manipulate the puck, being able to use your hands and those patterns that you need to be able to use in order to be successful.”
It was at the junior level when BGSU head coach Ty Eigner met Balkovec in Wisconsin. Eigner was playing for the Madison Capitals at the time and staying with a billet family Balkovec would visit occasionally.
“Ty and (his brother) Trent (Eigner) were both there and they were awesome dudes. I really enjoyed interacting with them,” he said.
Fast forward about 30 years later, and Balkovec found himself at the helm of the Burnaby Winter Club. A junior program and prospect pipeline in British Columbia, where collegiate coaches would come to scout. Eigner and former head coach Chris Bergeron would take visits to the BCHL showcase, where Balkovec was also stationed.
“They recruited, initially, captains. That really spoke to me because they were talking to me about how they’re all about people. They’re all about taking kids that want to be at that program,” Balkovec said. “You don’t have to play at Bowling Green. Eigner will tell you, we want people that want to be Falcons.”
Even with his emphasis on skill, Balkovec is behind the gravity of character as well. It is something that connected with him in his recruiting discussion with Eigner, and something that he used to get a foot in the door when Eigner was named eighth head coach in Bowling Green history.
“I felt that we were kindred spirits in terms of what we valued in life. So, when he got the (head coaching) job, I texted him right away and said ‘Hey Eigs, congrats. If you need a guy let me know.’ I just kinda threw that out there. He literally called me two seconds later and we had a quick chat,” he said.
When Eigner made his way back to B.C. for another BCHL showcase, the pair had coffee together and wound up chatting for over two hours. Balkovec was invited to town for an interview, and now he finds himself with the opportunity to better himself while shaping a better team.
Teaching skills can be a tough thing to hone. Skilled players have become prevalent throughout the higher leagues of hockey, which are now fast-paced games and focus on the players that can stickhandle the puck in a phonebooth, and everyone is at a different level with and without the puck. When breaking down the play; however, it emphasises actions anyone can master.
“It’s no different than a golf swing. If you can manipulate and make small, minor changes you can get a major improvement,” Balkovec said.
With “Tuesday skills days,” all players are partaking in drills that capture the small details.
“You’re going to make mistakes. The game moves so fast and there’s so much pressure,” Balkovec said, “but if a player fumbles a pass, the reason they fumble the pass is because they’ve not given themselves a margin of error to deal with. If you have both of your hands outside of your right hip and the puck is coming from the right side, you’re going to be able to make that play. If you have your hands in tight, which is what we call T-Rex arms, and you make a mistake you won’t be able to recover from there.”
Under the microscope, players are now going through repetition in skating and positioning in order to spot concerns that can be corrected. The same goes for games. Balkovec will record videos with his phone and text them to players attached with instructions on what to correct.
This way the information is going straight to the player in a comfortable way. Players are going to be on their phones after games, so getting a text message from Balkovec adds to the routine portion of assessing and adjusting these skills. It also makes it a little more personable.
“To me, hockey is hockey. It’s about creating great relationships with your players and getting them to trust you, and you have to trust them,” he said.