"Jari's teachings and the Sk8On program were instrumental in my personal skill development. This is exactly the type of live program, personal service and attention to detail that a family should expect from a live school. If you are in the GTA area & are able to attend this camp you are fortunate. This is a great article on someone that is a positive influence in the game of hockey for a change."
Steven Stamkos (left) leaves the ice with hockey guru Jari Byrski. Byrski is a buddhist, an artist and an expert in child psychology, the latter of which makes him the perfect foil for many pro athletes.
RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR
Jason Spezza, the Mississauga-bred centre for the Ottawa Senators, walked into a dressing room recently. Before he sat down, he hopped over the equipment bag belonging to Mike Cammalleri, the Montreal Canadiens forward, and settled into a spot across from Jeff Skinner, the NHL rookie of the year, and Wojtek Wolski, the New York Rangers winger.
Why was the foursome of pros, slated to make a combined salary of about $20 million next season, spending a summer’s day at the decaying Vaughan Iceplex, where the goal nets, like the walls, have holes? They were there to see Jari Byrski, the noted skill development coach.
Byrski, who’d been talking on the phone, ended his call.
“What? No hug? No kiss?” Byrski said to Spezza in the raspy accent that hints at his Polish-Ukrainian roots.
Said Spezza, rolling his eyes a little: “You were too busy doing business. You’re a businessman now.”
The 28-year-old Spezza, who has been attending Byrski’s on-ice classroom since before he was a teenager, has witnessed first-hand the growth of Sk8On (pronounced Skate On), Byrski’s thriving hockey school. When Byrski isn’t packing his summer camps to waiting-list-only capacity with boys and girls as young as 6, he is booking time with NHLers referred to him by longtime clients.
On the day in question, for instance, Adam Hall of the Tampa Bay Lightning had been calling on the recommendation of teammate Steven Stamkos, the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goal scorer.
Stamkos, 21, began learning at Byrski’s foot around age 8. Thirteen years and a new $37.5 million contract later, he’s still seeking answers from the 50-year-old guru.
“I keep coming to Jari,” Stamkos says, “because I keep improving.”
It’s not that Stamkos and Byrski’s other devotees, in this metropolitan area filled with no end of certified power-skating Yodas claiming to possess the secret to the NHL good life, don’t have choices. And certainly Byrski, who grew up poor in a small village in Poland, is an unlikely mentor to the stars.
He gave up playing the game competitively at age 13 or 14, he says, because he “didn’t have the work habits” to become an elite player. He’s long been a Buddhist, not to mention an artist who dabbles in mixed-media creations he often bestows to his players. (Stamkos, upon winning gold at the world junior championship a few years ago, received a rendering of a post-goal celebration fashioned from acrylic paint, egg shells and glass).
And Byrski found his adolescent passion not on the ice, but in books. When he wasn’t studying child psychology, he was sitting in on philosophy classes for fun.
But hockey was a longtime love, and after he immigrated to Canada in the late 1980s, he began teaching the game to his son, Matthew, who’s now 28 and helps run Sk8On. After working as an instructor at the popular hockey school run by Russian Yasha Smushkin, Byrski founded Sk8On in 1993, touting “European hockey skills” in the land of Don Cherry.
If Byrski has differentiated himself in a crowded marketplace — and he says it took five or six years to establish a viable business — it’s as a proponent of no end of unconventional methods.
He’ll ask players to stickhandle with everything from a golf ball to a puck that weighs twice the regulation six ounces. His most advanced charges toe-drag and zigzag through complicated gauntlets of pylons and pucks and stick shafts. Stamkos, who can currently make an argument that he’s the best player in the world, calls some of Byrski’s drills “almost impossible to do.”
There are those who have scoffed at the impracticality of it all; this week, for instance, Byrski had Stamkos repeatedly flipping pucks a few inches into the air.
Says Spezza: “People see his stuff and say, ‘Aw, you don’t do that in a game. Why would you do stuff like that?’ ”
But Stamkos is a believer: “You’ll see, sometimes in a game, I’ll try little things that I wouldn’t have tried if I hadn’t come to Jari.”
Byrski, who has inspired a number of imitators, says he designs his programs to stretch his students’ limits; musicians, he points out, often spend hours doing exercises they’ll never perform in concert.
But the appeal of his approach goes beyond drills. Stamkos says Byrski’s best trick is building confidence in young hopefuls. He does that, in part, by bellowing enthusiastic, if spare, praise. He’s also been known to interrupt a class to demand that a school-aged player sing, preferably loudly, in front of a group of peers. (Stamkos remembers belting out his share of Britney Spears and Spice Girls).
“You look back now, and it gives you that confidence on the ice,” Stamkos says.
Fostering self-belief in the land of NHL dreams is lucrative business, to be sure. This past week Byrski ran a week-long camp for 30-some kids who paid $595 apiece. An estimated $20,000 in weekly gross revenue is decent slogging, and he’s had better weeks.
So, as Spezza says, he’s a businessman.
But Byrski points out that ice time is expensive (about $350 an hour in prime time, even at his rickety home rink); that he pays for necessities like insurance and a staff of instructors to keep the coach-pupil ratio low; and that his line of work, which keeps him in skates as many as seven hours a day, has taken a physical toll that includes a chronically sore back and a torn meniscus in each knee.
“People think I sleep on a bed of money, and it’s not true,” says Byrski with a laugh. “I have to save for my retirement. My body’s telling me I don’t have too much time left in this business.”
If his sunset is nigh, he’ll be leaving when demands never been higher. This week, in addition to the kids’ school in Vaughan, he put some of Canada’s best 14- and 15-year-olds through his paces at a camp run by the NHLPA. He also found time to work with the usual stream of NHLers, his prized repeat customers, many of whom he calls his friends.
“All hockey schools present some kind of benefit, and a lot of coaches think it’s about drills, or it’s about speed and tempo and power skating. And to me, yes, they’re important,” Byrski says.
“But to me, the most important thing is the relationship. That is the little secret that a lot of coaches don’t understand. It’s about having kids get the feeling that you genuinely love them, genuinely care, that you are excited to see their progress, not just on the ice, but seeing them growing and becoming young boys and young adults.”
Byrski on his beginnings in rural Poland: “My mother said I should go to law school. We were the poorest. We didn’t have TV and we didn’t have electricity. We had no toilet. We had an outhouse. For the most part, everybody else in our village had electricity and bath tubs and toilets. So I went to law school. But after three months, I said I couldn’t do it. I wanted to go to the psychology department. And when I did that, I had to move out. My mom was very unhappy.”
On Stamkos as an 8-year-old: “His father, Chris, came to me and said, ‘Hey, I want you to teach my boy because I cannot teach him. He won’t listen to me.’ I would be his voice with Steven.”
On the 2007 death of Ania, his common-law wife of 15 years: “I fell apart. The only time I would leave home was to go grocery shopping. I had a beard like Moses. I would put my trousers on top of pyjamas. But I watched TV. And on one of the channels, I spotted Team Canada (in the world junior championship). Steven (Stamkos) was playing. It started to get me into life a little more. It started to wake me up.”
On his role in his students’ success: “It’s not like I taught them talent. My role would be to enhance it. But I think, with or without me, they would still be great NHLers.”
On the number 8: “It’s the most interesting number in the world. When you imagine writing the number 8, you go from left to right and across, so you see the world from every angle. Wolski (who wore 8 as an NHL rookie) gave me a Rolex watch. On the back it says, ‘From 8 to 8.’ Brent Burns (another student who also has worn 8) texted me after he signed his new deal (with the San Jose Sharks). $28.8 million. He said, ‘I thought you would appreciate the number.’ Stamkos wears 91, he says 9 minus 1 equals 8. But I don’t like the minus.”