3 January 2017

They used to call me Coach

Simply the Best.
Standing behind the bench will always be one of my favourite memories. Coaching hockey occupied everything about my life from 1987 to 1995 and there will always be a spot in my heart for those teams that became my extended family for 7 months a year. Looking back now, I long not only for those simpler days, but for the time when I could feel the vast and open possibilities of the future.
My seven years as a Hockey Coach run right through some of the most difficult, joyous and interesting times of my life. This are how I see them now, through the lens of nostalgia, tinged with love and a little bit of regret.

Goalie Coach (1988/89)
At 15, coaching was becoming my life.
It started after I had been playing for a couple of years and was coming to the realisation that my playing career (I wrote about it here) was soon to be over. My skills never quite matched my heart but I didn't want to walk away from the ice completely. We had become increasingly more involved at our local minor hockey association in  Stoney Creek and in 1988, I was asked by Al Kaine to help out with his goalies. I was so happy to help pass on some of my knowledge, as little as that was at the time, and leaped in with both feet. Mom or Dad had to drive me to the games still as I was only 15, but they did it because they could see how passionately I loved the game and knew it was good for me to be involved in the community. Al was a proponent of fast and aggressive attacking hockey and along with my minor hockey coach, Sid Nelson and later on, mentor Rick Ferroni, was instrumental in helping to form my style behind the bench. It was a glimpse into what I could do with my mind and of course the ever present numbers ( I was into stats way before today's obsession with them) to help shape strategy and plot a winning game plan.

Getting My Feet Wet (1989/90)
The very next season, Dad and my Uncle Jim volunteered to coach a team with my middle brother Dave on it and I went along with them as an assistant coach. It was also the year that I ended up with my own team as my little brother Mike needed a coach and I leapt at the chance to get behind the bench with a few of my pals.
I was always a student of the game and I strived to learn all about not just the skills I could teach, but ways to motivate and inspire these two groups of young people. From my own experience with both good and bad coaches, I took the lessons and applied them to myself when I grabbed the whistle. I swore to be true to who I was and treat each kid fairly, be demanding of performance but ultimately try to be a positive influence in their lives. I took courses to become a better coach and worked to bring interesting and new drills to practice to help them improve.
Coaching my first team with my pals, Kevin, Kyle and Mike.
That season saw many things occur, including The Party (read about it here) that changed the direction of my life and my first Championship as a coach. The Penguins finished last in the standings, but led the league in parties and it was fun to be able to help my brother Mike, a goalie, continue his development. Brother Dave's Pee Wee team was another story altogether and was a juggernaut in the playoffs. Led by Dave's swift skating and aggressive defence, this team was a throwback to the teams I had played on a few years earlier. Fiercely loyal to each other and never afraid to take it to the other team, these kids became an extension of my philosophy of going after what you want with reckless abandon. I will always have a special place for this team in my heart because it cemented my path after I stopped playing the next year.
These guys won it all. Dad and Uncle Jim brought out the best in them.

The Lost Year (1990/91)
1990 brought many changes to my life and I was behind the bench again coaching Mike's team as we moved into the Pee Wee division (12/13 year olds). I was in and out of my parents house at this point and it probably led to the teams struggles because I was not able to focus on doing my best. I always regret that year of my life, not only because of the hardship I put on my family and friends with my behaviour, but because I can't really remember much about this team. It wasn't a championship team but as '90 turned to '91 I started to get my own act together and the next season was to be the start of a two year run that gave me hope about a future in hockey.

Things Start to Come Together (1991/92)
An almost dream season and where I found my best coaching and managing
Having cleaned up myself and returning to school, I was a little more focused as the 1991 season began. Once again coaching my brother Mike, I was joined behind the bench by my best friend, Kevin, who had been with me since the beginning and brother Dave, who handled the defense that was our hallmark. Mom came aboard as manager and she was the glue that helped form an amazing group of parents who were vocal and enthusiastic in their support. I began wearing a sport coat and tie to emulate a more successful approach and it worked. Look good, feel good was true then and now. I worked hard to create a positive environment and with my assistant coaches, built our practices into skill sessions that took us near the top of the standings. We won the local Christmas tournament with Mike playing perhaps one of his finest games ever in a 3-0 win that we were outshot 29-10 in. I'll never forget the smile on his face after that one.
Come playoff time, we took on my first real "rival" coach, Harper Appleton. While time has taught me that is a pretty funny thing to think that about another volunteer coach in minor hockey, at 18, I was full bore to beat this guy. We met in the semi-finals and our defense nullified their high scoring forwards with Mike doing yeoman's service in net. We moved onto the final and lost the first game of a 3 game series in overtime. A few days off before game 2 and I was boiling over with enthusiasm. I knew our strategy and close knit team were going to win despite the loss and my gut told me to go all out in my pre game speech. My old coach, Sid, had told me you couldn't try to gear the players up to high before every game and to be judicious when you brought in the big guns of motivation and inspiration. The next two games were not close (5-2 and 7-0) and it was a bit of a preview of what was to be my favourite team and year of coaching I was ever to have.

My Best Year Behind the Bench (1992/93)
The best team I ever coached. Period. Full stop.
The 1992 season dawned as the year I really felt I came into my own and began to coach with a true passion. I took a job working night shifts so I could be completely focused on hockey and it was a good move. The 1992/93 Bantam (14/15 year olds) Stoney Creek Lightning will always remain the very fondest memory of my time as a coach and it was equal parts the success, parent support and players who gave it their all. This was to be the height of my personal joy and it was once again the same people helping make it possible. Dave, Kevin and Mom were back with me and we knew that our success of the year before was but a taste of what we could do. Led by Mike in net, this was a talented but not easily corralled group of kids. I had purposely took on some of the players other coaches felt were troubled and difficult to coach because I knew I could get to them, help them and by extension the team have an amazing year. We started off a little rough as I tried to find the right motivation for each kid, but when the season really got going I could feel the team gelling and coming together. These kids quickly bonded and were often responsible for keeping each other honest. Lack of effort was the only sin I preached against and rarely did that happen. My "rival", Harper, was once again in the same league and after a loss in the Christmas tournament in overtime and his team leading us in the standings, he looked to have the upper hand. I felt the team was drifting, winning and losing with equal effort and it was after a loss to a team from nearby Grimsby (we played in a loop with a few other small communities), in which their goalie was late and they played with an empty net for half the game and six players on the ice. My guys had thought it would be an easy win and played selfishly, trying for goals instead of working as a team. I said nothing after the loss and when we hit the ice the next morning at 6 a.m. for practice, I told them to toss their sticks into a pile at center ice. Happily thinking we were going to scrimmage, they were shocked when Kevin and Dave calmly picked them up and took all their sticks and the pucks to the bench. I then told them that if they didn't want to play as a team and work together like we had seen the night before, they didn't need sticks. Thus began the one and only time I bag skated my team. Nothing but skating drills for the entire hour, followed by a heart to heart meeting after changed the course of our season. We never lost another game for the rest of the year, going 15 and 0. The commitment level, closeness and desire on this team came together and we just didn't win, we dominated. The Interlock playoffs saw us win 7 games by a combined score of 37 to 10, including an 9 to1 win in the finals. Our local Stoney Creek playoffs were pretty much a walk as we won 5 games straight, scoring 32 and only giving up 8. Defeating league leading and once again rival coach Harper in the City final was the icing on the cake as our season finished with an 8-1 Championship game win. One of my favourite players and fiercest competitors, Donnie Stacey scored 4 shorthanded goals and shutdown the league's leading scorer in the process. This was the year I thought seriously that coaching was going to be where I would stake my claim to hockey glory and the next season I took a step forward while also stepping back.

Moving on Up (1993/94)
As the 1993 season began, I had taken a role with one of my mentors, Rick Ferroni coaching a rep team in Minor Atom (10 year olds). It represented that step up I mentioned, as this was a higher level of competitive hockey. The step backward was going from head to assistant coach/manager. It was evident that I needed some guidance to be able to move up in the coaching ranks and my experience with this team was an eye opener. The parents were a lot more intense, the games seemed to take on more importance and the kids under a little more pressure. I brought my style of interactive coaching with me and learned from Rick the importance of not only skating drills, but doing things that others never would. We used some unorthodox Russian inspired drills and I was also left with the teams goalies as my charges. I hope we imparted some skills and made them not only better players but people in that first season of rep hockey for us. Both Rick and I were rehabilitating our often short tempers with those we disagreed and working together, we quickly discovered our common love of seeing the kids get better and of course, winning. Ultimately we fell short of our goal, but I was excited when we were awarded the Major Pee Wee team in AAA the next season, as it represented the highest level of competitive Minor hockey and a true step toward my goal of professional coaching.

The Last Season (1994/95)
1994 was to be my last year coaching. I was now coaching two rep teams, with my own Head coaching gig of an Atom A team to go along with my duties to Rick and the AAA Pee Wee team.
Over 100 games and an equal number of practices to go along with travelling all over the province and a full time night shift job at Tim Horton's was heaven to me and I could feel the strength of my future coalescing every time I took to the ice or got behind the bench. Both teams made the finals of their respective leagues but were ultimately unsuccessful in winning it all. Coaching at the higher levels was indeed giving me inspiration and I had plans to take even more advanced coaching courses to increase not only my knowledge, but my chances of someday finding myself behind the bench full time and getting paid to do so.
It was the end of one path and the beginning of another.
The End of Coaching (1995)
Life, of course, had other plans for me and it was while I was winding down this season and preparing for the next that I met someone who would help shape a new direction in my life. I was never one to do anything in half measures and when I fell in love for the first time, it was with everything I had. My choices in life have never been overly logical, often done with passion as opposed to thought and I abandoned my old dreams for new ones over the objections of my love. I should have taken her support of my coaching dream and listened when she implored me to keep at it. I unwisely didn't and will always wonder what would have been had kept my spot on the bench while learning to love.
But time is a great healer and to this day I'll run into a former player and he'll call me Coach. That is what makes me smile the most about my time as a leader and teacher of young people; to know I made a difference to some of these kids and I am humbled by their love, many years later.
Perhaps my own management style is patterned after my coaching one, I was always a players coach and to this day always work hard to build a team and help those in my charge achieve their goals at work and in life. Hockey taught me a lot and I hope one day to be able to give back a fraction of that.
The game will always mean more to me than the score and if you want to know the truth, there are times when I am slowly drifting off and I can hear the scrape of the blades on the ice, the slap of the puck off the boards and see myself on the bench one more time.


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