Maco Balkovec grew up playing hockey in Port Moody – and after many years away he’s back in BC, as the new Director of Hockey Development at the Burnaby Winter Club.
For the previous 16 years he ran high school hockey programs in Wisconsin, where he won state coach of the year honors at two different schools.
Balcovec was born in New Westminster and played his minor hockey in Port Moody and Burnaby Minor before moving on to the BCJHL with the Cowichan Warriors and the Merritt Centennials where he was named All-Star Defenceman in his final year.
He earned a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, where he played for 4 years under Head Coach Jeff Sauer.
In his fourth year with the Badgers, (1994-95) Balkovec was tied for third on the team in overall points, with 4 goals and 34 assists. Fellow defenceman Brian Rafalski finished second in the scoring race for the Badgers that year.
Balkovec was drafted in the fifth round of the 1991 NHL Entry draft 110 overall by the Chicago Blackhawks, and played three years in the ECHL before finishing his pro playing career with Grefrath EG, in Germany in 1996-97.
He’s clearly excited to be back in Canada, and heading up the storied BWC program.
“When you walk into this building you feel it – there is such a special tradition here, unequalled in this area, the number of guys that have played here that have gone on to be successful.”
Balcovec remembers there were a couple of players two years older than him that moved to the Winter Club after a rue took place in Port Moody.
“That’s when Chris Joseph was playing here, when Joe Sakic was at Burnaby minor and Danny Lorenz. There were a lot of high profile guys playing from this area, but everyone’s focus was on the Winter Club.”
Oh No, Small Ice!
Balkovec recalls that most teams coming in had the same reaction – oh no, we’ve got to play on that small ice.
“The funny part is that small ice surface may have been a key ingredient in a lot of success players and teams that have played here have had. They’ve had to operate in a small environment so that when they get out on the big ice, they’ve had more touches, learned to operate in small spaces, and because the game is really a series of one on ones, it has done them an actual service.
“When you look at Hockey USA, and Team Sweden with their youth development program, and what finally Hockey Canada is doing this year, looking more and more to lots of small games, lots of cross-ice stuff, it relates back to small ice play.”
Balcovec is quick to point out that small ice games and cross-ice play are a component of success, but not all he’s going to do with the BWC program.
His point is, what everyone used to think was a weakness of the Winter Club program, was really a strength.
“I was talking to Cliff Ronning about that this summer, and Glenn Anderson when they were running their camps here, and both of them talked about the size of the rink being a factor.
“No one took the puck to the net as aggressively and tenaciously as Anderson did, he had to, you didn’t have a choice when you played here. Five strides and you’re at the net! Both guys said the small ice was the thing that really stood out.”
Balcovec has recently been named head of the U18 BWC Academy team after the unexpected departure of Ben Cooper, who was offered a position as Assistant Coach, Video with the Canucks. So he’ll be heading up a team again, as well overseeing the entire BWC program.
Academies focus on long term
When asked about the rise of the hockey academies, and if it indicates a move towards an American high school hockey model in Canada, Balcovic commented that Hockey Canada is strongly supporting the growth of hockey academies, at least for now.
“The academies are really heavy on the development side. You end up getting 130 to 150 practices, 80 to 90 professionally managed sessions off ice, as well as at least 50 games.
“That’s a model and a ratio we know is much more beneficial to long term athlete development, never mind that it takes into account scholastics, travel and games all on weekends, practices done by 4:00 pm, eat home.
“It centralizes all those things, and makes it a lot easier on the family. And as we know, these are all student athletes, so it allows time for the academic component to develop.”
On the perennially tough question about a participation mandate in an elite hockey environment, Balkovec pointed out that BWC doesn’t just have four A1 teams.
“That’s not the majority of our athletes. We have to be very, very conscious of paying attention to those kids that are developing, and some may be late developers, to those diamonds in the rough who are out there. We know they may not be the best players at 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12 years of age, but they keep progressing.
“I want to be very conscious and pay special attention to make sure we’re developing all our players so they’re all getting great attention, coaching opportunities, so they don’t feel like they’ve ever wasted a season.
“They may not make the team they want to make, but the way I’d like them to look at it is that failure is our best teacher in a way; though the key is not to look at it as failing, but as a way of motivating yourself to continuing to progress.”
Balkovec says he likes to compare it to riding a bike, guys process at different rates, some are ready to go full out from the first moment, others take a while.
It’s not how great you are at 8
“What I’m concerned about is not how great is the player at 8, but how great is that player when he’s playing at 18. We’re not worried about our 8 year olds being the best, but about our 18 year olds being the best they can be.
“We don’t want players quitting at midget, which they do in many cases, because they’re not getting good coaching anymore. I want to keep these kids in the game, guys that think their on the periphery when they’re 14, 15, 16, 17.
“There are so many stories, not just in other sports but also in hockey, of late bloomers. I want this to be a place where kids are going to get that attention, no matter what level they’re at, A1, A2 or A5.
“We want those kids to feel as important as anyone else.”