By Mike Max

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Hockey is about seeing the ice and understanding where the puck will be, more than where it is.

With that in mind, one Twin Cities coach said it sounds kind of like chess. Inspired by a movie on Bobby Fisher, he brought a chess expert to Bloomington Jefferson High School to help his girls hockey team get better on the ice.

The Bloomington Jefferson girls hockey team was finishing up on the ice the day the coach hit them with the news.

“Coach told us we had dry land after practice. We were all ready to warm up or run,” defenseman Maddie Vorlicek said. “Then we all head in that little room and he brings us this master of chess from Russia who can hardly speak English, but taught us how to play the game.”

The teacher was Igor Blacinchek — a soccer coach from Russia who wanted to teach them how chess relates to hockey.

“We have many similar positions,” Blacinchek said, describing how learning to use pawns can benefit the team.

It was the brain child of first-year head coach Craig Shepherd. He played for Edina on a state championship team in 1984, then went on to Michigan State and played professionally in Russia.

“All fo these coaches that I was around, from a young age until I was older, were always teaching a creative type of play,” he said. “It wasn’t a dump-and-chase game.

That’s why he believes theses moves on the board translate to moves on the ice — because it’s about conditioning the mind, not a muscle.

“You have to protect your side, but also try and attack their side,” Jefferson defenseman Nicole Nightengale said. “So it’s hard to think about all the moves you can do, and what your opponent can do, too.”

Coach Shepherd sees himself as a hockey coach to be sure, but he says he also hopes the chess training can be an educational experience.

“You see the same thing you see in hockey,” Shepherd said. “You see fear. You see aggression in the way they play. You see hesitation in their thought process. You see happiness. You see sadness.”

He says that’s a lot like being on the ice.

“A lot of times you’re four steps ahead of your opponent,” Vorlicek said. “And I think that’s what coach is tryin to tie into hockey games now, is that we’re always a few steps ahead of our opponent.”

If nothing else, he’s taking them away from what has become the norm for high school kids, and bringing it back to a simpler time.

“We’ve got Twitter, we’ve got Facebook, we’ve got Xbox — everything’s digital now. Kids are on cell phones all the time,” Shepherd said. “Parents are coming to me and telling me their kids are asking them to buy chess boards for Christmas.

Mike Max