In 2011, David Hoff (Bottineau, N.D.) was invited to participate in a summer sled hockey development camp put on by USA Hockey. In his wildest imagination, the long-time teacher, coach and Northern Plains District Coach-in-Chief, never thought it would lead to being named as the head coach of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. So, it’s no surprise that when he received the email letting him know he was the 2022 Paralympic Coach of the Year, he had to read it twice to make sure he wasn’t imagining it.
Established in 2004, the Paralympic Coach of the Year is presented to a coach of an elite-level club, collegiate or national-level team, or the coach of an elite athlete who competes at the highest level of their sport.
“We are fortunate to have David leading our national sled team and he is most deserving of this recognition,” said Dan Brennan, general manager of the U.S. National Sled Team. “He brings a unique demeanor and style that gets the best out of our players and puts them in an environment to succeed.”
Hoff talks about the honor, coaching the sled team, his goal at that fateful first camp, his own coaching journey and why he thinks more coaches should get involved in diversified hockey.
USA Hockey: Congratulations on being named Paralympic Coach of the Year. How did you find out about the honor?
David Hoff: Thank you. I got an email back in January from an individual at the USOPC that notified me that I had been selected. I had to read it a couple times because I wasn’t sure if it was the real thing or not (laughs). But it was pretty cool to get the email, there’s no doubt.
USA Hockey: What does this honor mean to you?
Hoff: I’ve had a lot of people throw congratulations at me, so I guess I’ve said this in a lot of ways. Honestly, it really means to me one big thing – we have such a great group of players and a staff that’s just incredible. From the players to the staff, they do their job so well. This is so much more than about me and really about the team. Sometimes as a coach you get more attention than you deserve. Our equipment guys, our medical staff, our trainers, everyone does such a great job. So, I honestly believe that it’s a feather in the cap for the whole program, not just me.
USA Hockey: Let’s go back to the beginning before you started coaching sled hockey. How did you first get into coaching?
Hoff: I always say a lot of people get into teaching, then they find out they need a coach so they end up that way. I actually wanted to be a coach. So, I’m proud to say I always wanted to be a coach and then I found teaching as my profession. I wanted to be a hockey coach and thought I was alright in mathematics and that was the area I’d teach. Maybe started out backwards from a lot of people but coaching is what really drove me to working with kids at school every day.
USA Hockey: What age did you find that’s what you wanted to do?
Hoff: It was in one of my first years of college [at Minot State University] because I was advised to a math teacher as my advisor. So one of those first two years I kind of settled in that coaching was what I wanted to do. I enjoyed playing but I had gotten to the point where I realized I was close to the end of my playing career. I wasn’t going to make a living obviously, but what way could I stay involved in the game?
USA Hockey: And how did you get involved in sled hockey?
Hoff: Since the 90s I’ve been involved in coaching education with USA Hockey and doing coaching clinics in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. They were in need of someone to help out with the summer sled development camp that USA Hockey puts on for 60 young players with physical disabilities and someone put my name in and they sent me an email and asked if I’d be interested in helping with the camp. At that point, I had only taught one young lady who was in a wheelchair and I thought it would be a great opportunity just to professionally learn a little more about helping people or working with people with physical disabilities. So I did it from that standpoint and ended up being my favorite week of the summer and was able to get invited back each year since 2011.
USA Hockey: What were some of the challenges adapting to sled hockey?
Hoff: If you look at just physically on the ice, a lot of what we do is no different than what I did when I ran practices when I was a high school coach. The adaptations would be, OK we’re doing something in a high school program where it involves skating backwards, and that isn’t possible. So how do you modify a drill or a game so it doesn’t have that. But really the game is very much the same. It’s a little more possession than the stand-up game. We love to say, ‘possess the puck, possess the puck’ yet we’re so willing to give it away in a lot of cases. But possession is a big part of [sled hockey] as well.
But the other big challenge is, you have individuals with physical disabilities – the challenge is they want to be treated like any other athlete. They don’t want to be treated differently. I think you have to have that mindset if you want to help these people get better; you can’t feel sorry, you can’t not push them. You have to have expectations just as you would with any other team. I think that’s definitely something you have to be aware of as how you treat and push these athletes.
USA Hockey: Are there any differences in your approach?
Hoff: No. Not at all. Just reminding myself of all those different things. Making sure I don’t treat these guys any differently than I would. I treat them professionally. I think I’ve grown a lot as a person. Trying to be understanding of their situations. But valuing so much more than hockey. And when we have these weeks when we’re up in different spots, you definitely get the opportunity to get to know each one of our players. So that’s a cool part of it for sure.
USA Hockey: What have you learned?
Hoff: Every person is different. If I said that to a group of coaches, I think people would see the obvious physical differences – whether it’s a bilateral amp or a single amp, or whatever the case is. But I think just about the relationships that are so important in coaching. I really believe that the environment [of coaching] is about building relationships. And how each person is different and how that relationship is built. Getting to know each of the players and getting to know their families. I think that is so important that the players and I have a relationship that is based on so much more than hockey. I think that’s what it’s about, know the difference of each of our players, their families, their backgrounds.
USA Hockey: What do you love about coaching?
Hoff: I think it’s the constant challenge of trying to help people get better and maybe to even accomplish things even they didn’t necessarily know they could. That might be individually or collectively as a team. It kind of goes back to the part of getting the award. To me, coaching is not about a physical award or anything like that. It’s the smile on the face. It’s you and the athlete or you and the team knowing they just accomplished something that has been a goal. It might be a smile or a nod of the head or whatever. But that is so motivating to me as a coach more so than any award, it’s helping someone do something they didn’t know they could do.
USA Hockey: Why should more coaches get involved in diversified hockey?
Hoff: We have so much room to grow in our sport, not just in our sport but in our country. Sports are very traditional, meaning we provide sporting opportunities for people who look the same – able-body kids or whatever the case may be. But I think it’s extremely rewarding, it’s an opportunity to grow and an opportunity for our country to recognize that we don’t just do things for people with disabilities because we have to, we do it because it’s the right thing to do. That everyone should have opportunities to participate in sports. It’s a very rewarding experience, there is no group of people who are more appreciative of the opportunity than the people involved in para-hockey for sure.
USA Hockey: When you first started, did you ever imagine you’d be coaching the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team?
Hoff: In 2011, when I went to that first camp, my goal was simply to do a good enough job to get invited back. And that was my goal every summer. As I enjoyed it more and more, that never changed.
I’ve told this story, but in 2014, my wife and I were sitting on the couch watching the gold medal game between the U.S. and Russia from Sochi. Even then, I just enjoyed the game. There was no plan, I had no idea that two years later I would be offered the opportunity as the assistant coach and two years after that have a chance to be the head coach.
So, there was no plan and maybe that was the right thing. I just tried to do a good job and learn, and try to be a part of what was going on. It’s been a very rewarding journey for sure.
USA Hockey: What was it like to represent the U.S. in the 2022 Beijing Paralympics?
Hoff: It was really, really cool. Obviously having the chance to do it as the 2018 assistant coach, just as we did the opening ceremonies there thinking, ‘How did I get there?’ Probably a little personal but the cool part of it. I was someone who grew up and just loved the Olympics and the competition that went with it. Just the fact that I was able to be a part of it was really, really cool.
In 2022 and do it again with a little different role with a little more responsibility as the head coach to the whole team. And then to finish off with accomplishing our goal of winning the gold medal was so satisfying as well. Again, as satisfying as it was to me, it’s really about helping a group of guys who are so committed trying to be the best at what they do. And I think that’s really the rewarding part of it.
USA Hockey: How do you think your players would describe your coaching style?
Hoff: How I think (laugh), how I hope? I hope they recognize the fact that I really value their thoughts, and that doesn’t mean that we do everything that they want to do. But it’s not just about me, it’s not just about any one person.
I hope they would recognize the fact that we talk a lot about not just hockey. And we talk about life. And inclusion and exclusion and some of those things. On the bus coming back we were talking about politics and a lot of different viewpoints (laugh). I would hope that it’s an athlete-centered environment that they really feel like I value that and make them feel a part of it. And I hope that they would recognize it’s so much more than just hockey.
USA Hockey: What has made you, in your mind, successful as a coach?
Hoff: I haven’t had the traditional route there. And I say that meaning I wasn’t someone who played at the highest levels. I came through an education background, so a lot of what I do is based on the learning environment that I had there. So, I think teaching is a strength because I’ve spent a lot of years doing that. I think looking at a collective group of people and seeing individuals and then be able to try to differentiate and help each one is something that’s a strength. I hope those are the cases, but also hope that I value each of the people in the room and it’s about the person before it is about the player. I think those things go a long way when you’re trying to get the best out of people.