“Poland?” I have had this asked to me at least a few hundred times in the last few years. “Poland? Why the #### are you in Poland?” Is usually the next round of questions.
So, obviously by my surname, most people recognize I have Polish ancestry. That part is simple.
When I first visited Poland though, beyond the natural beauty, and the incredible architecture and history, I found a broken hockey development system.
Jokingly I tell people when they ask me about the time difference between Poland and the East Coast of the United States, I tell them it is “six hours and thirty years”. Because thirty years behind is just about where Poland is when compared to the United States and Canada when it comes to hockey player development.
That’s not to say there isn’t talent in Poland. Because there is a whole lot of very raw talent. Some of it exceptional and loaded with great potential.
That potential unfortunately is being lost. Talent is being wasted, and the game in a once powerful international hockey program is dying a slow spiraling death.
Training techniques, practice plans, game planning, and team building are so far behind the modern hockey world it is not surprising Poland has not iced an Olympic team since 1992. Yes. Europe’s largest country has not iced an Olympic team in nearly thirty years!
My friend Krzysztof Oliwa and I used to joke around about going back to Poland and changing things. Funny how life can turn a joke into a mission of sorts.
When I first came to Poland, I watched games and practices and remained silent for over a year. Making small connections and having conversations with people in the second year. Then the pandemic came.
During the pandemic I thought about how this could be an opportunity to give players a place to play safely and to show Poland how we do things in North America. The Play Safe Stay Safe program was born as much out of necessity as it was out of desire to show people in Poland there is another way forward.
Sure enough, we were able to build a team in the pandemic made of almost all North American players. We trained the North American way, and sure enough we had great success.
Even though every referee hated us, made calls against us, and every team hated us, we simply kicked the crap out of just about everyone.
Why? Because we used modern training, modern teaching, and modern development methods that have been proven to work in Canada and the United States.
Listen to Polish fans and coaches though, and they think they should keep on moving ahead as usual. They want to stop the flow of import players so more Polish players are in the professional league.
Yes. They want to keep out the talented imports so that the Polish players who can not make it anywhere else in the modern hockey world can earn insanely high wages while not working hard.
Make the system so that you simply have to wait long enough and eventually you will be able to milk a salary out of government funded teams when you couldn’t make a salary in a real league.
The DEL in Germany is a fully open league. The KHL in Russia is fully open and the NHL is fully open. Those leagues are the most successful league because every player has to earn his spot in the league. It is not just given to him simply by his birth nationality.
Yes. I just pissed off everyone in the Polish players Union. When a team of average players from North America comes in its first year and kicks your development teams asses, you are in real trouble.
So, I submitted a plan.
A plan to fund Polish development while taking advantage of import players and their need to play in a COVID safe environment. As well as their desire to gain exposure to European scouts.
The plan, much like the one used in USA Hockey and Hockey Canada, with money flowing downward toward youth teams would attract more children to play.
Development takes place before the Professional level. It begins with the very youngest of players through U20. Money is spent on their development, not on professional player salaries.
The plan, would require real coaching certification using the ADM as its model.
The plan requires that the ways of the past be put aside for programming that has been proven to be successful. The same programming that just came to Poland and showed everyone that it can be successful.
No more forcing young players to play professionally. The formation of a legitimate junior hockey league. More practices. More games. More fun. More player development.
No more communist era tactics of training your players to death. No more screaming at players.
Age specific programming across the board. Coaching certifications for each level with a set standard at each level.
No more practices where players are standing around half the time. No more same old, same old drills that accomplish nothing. No more of the same old breakouts, same old fore checks, same old soft perimeter play.
Structure. Accountability. Defined goals and measurable results. This is the future.
You know who is against it? Not the federation bosses. The fans.
The fans are against the modernization of Polish hockey. They long for the good old days, yet the good old days are gone forever. They say Polish players aren’t good, but they don’t want to change to make them better.
Who else is against it? The Polish Press. The Polish hockey and sports Press outlets think that foreigners are hurting the game. When in fact if not for import players a good ECHL team from North America would beat Poland’s best easily.
Some former players are also against it.
Recently Gabriel Samolej a decorated former Polish player came out publicly and criticized how the Professional league was ruined because of import players. He and people like him would like to force more young Polish kids to play professionally before they are physically and mentally ready to play against grown men.
Yet, in North America, teenage boys are not allowed to play professionally unless they are NHL draft picks and in the NHL. So why would any country, especially one that hasn’t been to the Olympics in nearly three decades, think that they know better?
Gabriel Samolej and those sharing his opinion are hockey development dinosaurs. And dinosaur’s are extinct.
So I have asked Poland many times now, why they expect different results when they keep doing the same things they have always done? No one can answer the question.
If you can not point to the success’s of what you are doing, isn’t it time to ask “why” you keep doing it the same way?
Poland in many cases copy’s systems, training plans and development ideas from Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Not a bad idea if these countries could regularly beat the United States and Canada. Why copy the countries that are not the world leaders? Because its easier?
Why copy the Czech and Slovak teams when you can not beat the Czech’s and Slovak’s? Why not copy the USA and Canada teams who beat the Czech and Slovak’s with regularity?
These basic Polish development tools are outdated, and the game tactics are easily predictable. So predictable you know the breakout and fore check being used before the puck leaves from behind the goal line.
You know where the shots will come from and you know the entire game plan within ten minutes of the first period.
In-game bench management and tactical changes are nearly non-existent.
The United States and Canada keep players in the right age specific programs for as long as its needed. There is no hurry or rush to move them up to “pro hockey” before they are ready.
In Poland for the last thirty years, players have been pushed to competition levels they are not ready for. Young players are physically dominated by older players.
Young players are not given opportunities on the power play and penalty kill. Yet, teams wonder why these young players don’t excel in these arena’s as they get older?
When Canada and The United States lead the world in development, and the blueprints for those successful programs are easily available, why are you not using them to build your program? That is the question parents and young players in Poland are asking. The longer that question goes unanswered, the more families walk away from the game.
I always believed that when you see something that is so obviously broken and you know how to fix it, that you simply should fix it. No matter how difficult.
As I prepare for the 2021-2022 season, I am looking for more North American players to bring over to Poland for a great international playing and cultural experience. I am signing players with Polish ancestry. We will have our team, and it will once again be successful.
And slowly, other young Polish coaches and owners are coming around and they want North American players now too. Slowly those same coaches are asking if they can get this new information on training, and practice plans. That information and assistance is given freely, the same as its done in North America between coaches everywhere.
While it is going to take time, the communist mentality in Polish hockey will begin to fade. With the change, success will come. Slowly, but it will definitely come.
Talented players will demand change. Or they will continue to leave Poland as they always do for the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany, Sweden, Canada and the United States.
There is too much talent in Poland to waste it. The players and parents are starving for the new way of playing and training. In the end, youth always wins, the old ways slowly die. Just as they should.
And now you all know the answer to “Poland?”. Six hours and thirty years? Maybe just twenty nine now.
Joseph Kolodziej – Adviser