by Brian Coe || AHL On The Beat Archive
Puck drills, scrimmages and punishing bag skates are a staple of most American Hockey League practices. But the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins coaching staff has taken a bit of a different approach when it comes to preparing its players for the rigors of a long season.
Oh sure, the Pens still practice shooting, stick handling, defensive coverage and puck control, but they’re also making a concerted effort to improve other areas of their games.
Enter Besa Tsintsadze, the diminutive but demanding instructor who has been working with the team for the better part of three seasons now. But his skill set isn’t exactly what you’d expect to see on a hockey rink.
A competitive skater from a young age, Tsintsadze came to the United States from Russia about 10 years ago. He spent time as the principle skater for Disney on Ice, and traveled the world with several other skating companies before settling in Northeast Pennsylvania about five years ago.
“I used to live in New York for three years, and when I signed a contract with the Ice Capades we started traveling around the world,” he said. “We had a gypsy life. One day you’re in Australia, one day you’re in Japan. It’s travel, travel.”
Besa and his family moved to the area shortly after the September 11 attacks in 2001, cashing in the hustle and bustle of life on the road for a simpler one in Northeast Pennsylvania. Soon thereafter he began working part time with the local Penguins, usually skating with a handful of players before practice.
A typical Besa program for the Pens will incorporate a series of short, controlled movements, designed to work on stability, balance and quickness. The drills are challenging, but they’ve proven to be beneficial to many of the players who have passed through the Wachovia Arena doors.
“I’m happy to work with the Wilkes-Barre Penguins,” said Tsintsadze. “I love to just share [my teaching] with the people.”
And the Penguins seem to love having Besa around just as much.
“It’s just amazing to see such a great skater,” said Penguins’ forward Jonathan Filewich. “A lot of us aren’t even going to get close to that [level of ability]. So it’s great to have a teacher like him.”
"I did some power skating when I was younger, but he really seems to know what he’s doing out there. It’s definitely different," said Tim Sestito. "It’s pretty tough. He makes you kind of go out of your comfort zone. It’s hard."
Head coach Todd Richards believes that Besa’s skills are only part of what he brings to the team, though.
"What a great guy to be around. There’s a guy that I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in a bad mood," Richards said. "Every time you see him, it’s a great day. It’s his attitude, and when he comes in he brings that attitude with him. It’s funny how he walks into a room and you automatically feel better, because he’s there."
But the local Penguins aren’t the only players Besa is helping to improve. He was invited to Pittsburgh’s training camp in September to help the NHL Pens’ skill sets as well.
“I spoke with [Sidney] Crosby and he said, ‘Besa, I’m young. If you see some problems I have please push me, tell me the drills I need to do,’” Tsintsadze stated. “Speed, technique, moves, quick feet, footwork. Especially today in hockey, they need this kind of stuff.”
Besa got some cheers of his own from the training camp crowds, as he did a little showboating at the day’s conclusion. He also pulled double duty, acting as an interpreter for Pittsburgh newcomer Evgeni Malkin
But Besa’s involvement isn’t the only thing that makes a Penguins’ practice a bit different from the ordinary. Take, for example, a recent series of on ice escapades.
After going through a series of regular drills on Oct. 10, coach Richards broke the players up into two groups, assigned each group to a separate end of the ice, then broke out the blindfolds.
What came next combined fun, frustration and team building into one practice.
One player from each team strapped on a blindfold, while another was given the responsibility of verbally guiding him through a group of cones, over a stick and finally to a puck which had to be put into the goal. The timed event took the two teams, going head to head, just over 19 minutes to complete.
"Claude [Noel, Milwaukee Admirals head coach] and I in Milwaukee were thinking of ways of getting the guys to communicate. I thought of blindfolds, creating something where you’ve got to get them to talk," said Richards. "It teaches how important communication is. But I think the other thing it does is it builds trust among your teammates."
Filewich was one of those players who was skating blind, being guided by Erik Christensen. Luckily that twosome completed the course with few issues, but it was anything but easy.
"I’m trying to skate as fast as possible to get it done, but you just have so much trust in the person that talking," he said. "What happens is you think you know where you are, but you’re so off. That’s the thing. You have to keep your mind clear and just let him guide you, because there were times where I thought I knew where I was, and I started skating and feeling it out, but I was way off.
"It teaches you a lot, that’s for sure."