by Judd Spicer | AHL On The Beat
A goal is never just a goal, a save is never just a save, a win is never just a win.
While hockey, on its icy surface, is a game of seeming alacrity and immediacy, behind each accomplishment (or, every plight) are hundreds of behind-the-scenes hours of labor and research.
For the Coachella Valley Firebirds, abaft the visibility of a stacked roster and a Stanley Cup-winning coach, there’s a 23-year-old man in Buddy Holly-style horn-rimmed glasses who serves as the club’s “eye in the sky.”
Hired before the Firebirds’ inaugural season as the team’s video coach, Erik Elenz doesn’t have pads, doesn’t lace up skates and doesn’t don a numerical sweater. But the Indiana native has as much to do with the team’s success as every player on the roster and each coach on the bench.
Working pre-game, post-game and in-game, Elenz is charged with organizing piles of hockey video data, and the metrics therein.
On a recent game day – the front end of a back-to-back versus Bakersfield and Colorado – Elenz had long completed his front-end duties of pre-scout video work.
“On a game day like today, I’ve already prepped video for the week for Dan and Jess,” Elenz said, referring to head coach Dan Bylsma and assistant Jessica Campbell. He also facilitates pre-game video meetings for Bylsma, Campbell and assistant coach Stu Bickel.
“They’ll have the video up, I run their clips, and it’s, ‘Next video… next video… next video.’”
Such a task pales to the time-crunch demands and celerity of in-game work, for which the title of “coach” is decidedly earned. With Bylsma, Campbell and Bickel on the bench, and goalie coach Colin Zulianello overseeing action from an Acrisure Arena box above, Elenz is in the arena’s bowels, working his computer and communications from the coaches’ room.
“During the game, I’m on the headset with Jess from the bench, and Colin up in the box, and I’m live-tagging the game throughout,” Elenz detailed. “So, basically, between those communications, I have the video game feed and I’m telling the computer what’s happening.”
Working with Mac-based software and a hotkey language unto its own – “B” for breakout, “F” for forecheck, etc. – Elenz spends games rapidly tagging and tracking play with all manner of metrics.
“For people who have used some video software, like Premiere Pro, think of the big timeline bar,” he said, “but then, in that timeline, there are all the little marks along the way. For my work, I’m making 60 rows of those little marks.”
The work is a fast-moving mesh of pictures and numbers.
“I’m constantly tagging things, and then I’ve created a spreadsheet in our program that auto-populates data,” Elenz continued. “In the NHL, they get that data live on the bench with tablets. Here, it’s all us. If they want, say, live faceoff data, that’s on us, and we communicate it through the radio. As quickly as I can, during radio or TV timeouts, I’ll have ready for them about 20 different numbers that they care about.”
Via radio communications, the other coaches query Elenz for useful observations and data in real (and rapid) time.
“There are a lot of different things happening at the same time,” Elenz said. “Let’s say there’s a forecheck or a faceoff. I tell that to the computer, and then Dan will ask Jess and she’ll ask me on the radio, ‘What happened on that forecheck?’ or, ‘What happened on that last faceoff?’
“And I’ll say something like, ‘This guy went to the right position, but the opponent made a good wall play, so maybe we can adjust something there.’”
As the ice heats up in taut games, Elenz has fast learned the need to express himself with level-headed accuracy.
“I’m separated from the bench, but I still need to be calm and collected on the radio and be sure I’m really precise,” he said. “And that’s not always easy on the radio, with the crowd in Jess’s ear. So, while I do feel that same emotion and excitement of the game, it’s my job to quell that, to clearly communicate to the coaches who are right in the middle of all that action and activity.”
For those who recognize the game-card Bylsma is jotting upon during play, many of those notes go right to Elenz. In short time, no less.
“The big thing is when the first and second periods end, intermissions start, coaches walk down the tunnel and I’ve got 30 seconds to make sure the computers are all good for them,” Elenz said. “Everything needs to be ready in seconds. Dan will come in with four or five things and he’ll go, ‘All right. Eleven minutes on the clock.’ I’ll bring up that time on video, show it to him, he’ll say, ‘Go back’ or ‘Move forward.’ Or, he’ll ask something like, ‘Show me every O-zone faceoff,’ and I’ll bring all of those up for him.”
With organization, comes success. With success comes rapport. And with rapport comes trust and familiarity.
“It’s about specifically knowing what your coaches want and need – that’s most important,” Elenz said. “A video coach can tag a thousand things every game, but it’s knowing, say, the hundred things that our staff is really looking for. And from those, it then becomes about finding the handful which really matter – but even with that, all hundred things need to be exact.”
Elenz’s gig is not for timid – or, tired. On the recent game day in question, the video coach ultimately spent 18 hours at Acrisure Arena.
“I’m here pretty early; I try to get here by 6 o’clock,” he said, “But I still can’t beat Dan here on a game day.”
While acknowledging Bylsma’s vigor, Elenz is further impressed by the head coach’s ability for managing both technology and people.
“Dan is a great presenter of information,” said Elenz. “His energy, how he’s able to convey his thoughts and what the players should be doing during the game, it’s all pretty outstanding. Some coaches can’t do much with video and need a lot of help; but he’s very well versed with computers, and really, really good with video and his clips.”
While Elenz is careful not to take credit for a score or a save, he grants his spoke in the Firebirds’ wheel.
“There are some instances where a specific video leads to a goal,” he said, “or, for a goal against we’ve shown in meetings because we don’t want it to happen again – and then it doesn’t happen again. For me, I just want to help the team win as many games as possible.”
Hockey isn’t merely a game of goals – it’s a battle of information.
“Everybody needs a person they can rely on, and I’m so fortunate that Dan and the rest of the coaches rely on me to give them information that’s important, to give them topics of discussion to study as a team,” Elenz said. “Some people might say I’m the guy behind the screen, but I take a lot of pride in helping the coaches make important decisions in real time.”