Does Birth Month Affect Success in Hockey?

 

The debate about whether being born in the first few months of the calendar year poses a significant advantage for a hockey player over being born in the latter months of the year isn’t new.  The argument that a player born in January of a particular calendar year will have a distinct developmental advantage over a player born in December of the same year isn’t even really something that can be debated; at least not in the “on average” sense, and especially not in the early years of physical development.  The fact is kids born in January are typically bigger, stronger and more advanced than kids born in December of the same birth year, during the early years of development.

The most polarizing, in-depth research into this trend is found in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book: “Outliers: The Story of Success”.  In his book, Gladwell argues “extraordinary success requires hard work, talent, ambition – and being born at the right time.”   He states that there is “an iron law of Canadian hockey: in any elite group of hockey players – the very best of the best – 40 per cent of the players will have been born between January and March.”  His findings are consistent with some of hockey’s greatest heros:

 

Wayne Gretzky – Jan 26, 1961

Bobby Orr – March 20, 1948

Gordie Howe – March 31, 1928

 

Counter-arguments that aim to dispel Gladwell’s claim state that these findings are subjective and not indicative of the greater success story.  Gladwell’s “40%” findings represent statistics gleaned from Canadian major junior hockey players.  In an article titled:  “Gladwell’s Big Kid Bias?” by Benjamin G. Gibbs, Mikaela Dufur, Shawn Meiners and David Jeter, the authors examine the birth dates of the 1,177 Canadian-born players who competed in the NHL between 2000 and 2010. Their findings show that twenty-nine per cent were born in the first quarter of the year—certainly not an overwhelming percentage.

Further to these findings, several of the games current bright stars were born in the latter months of the year:

 

Sidney Crosby – Aug. 7, 1987

Phil Kessel – Oct. 2, 1987

John Tavares – Sept. 20, 1990

Patrick Kane – Nov. 19, 1988

 

In order to gather the data required to give this debate the thoroughness that it deserves – breaking down variables at different stages of development while factoring in demographics, development streams (major junior vs. NCAA) and major city centres versus rural communities, etc., etc., etc., I’d have to quit my job, lose my house and marriage and bury myself in data.  For the sake of sanity and efficiency, let’s examine some key elements of development and their connection to age variation.

 

1.  Athleticism

 

To play any sport at elite levels, you need to possess some athleticism.  Not everyone possesses this and not everyone can develop it.  The fact is, through genetics and other factors, some people are simply more gifted and naturally talented.  That being said, athleticism is the first indicator that determines how high a ceiling will be for a hockey player.  Since genetics doesn’t discriminate kids born in December versus January, we continue to see Sidney Crosby’s and John Tavares’ emerge—talented freaks of athletic lore.

 

 

2.  Desire

 

When you love something, I mean truly, truly love something with all of your soul, there isn’t much that can deter you from doing it.  For some it’s music, art or science.  For others it might be a sport, like hockey.  In hockey, the players who have an almost unhealthy desire to play—an obsession, as it is—are at a much greater advantage than players who just simply like hockey.  While desire begins as something pure, it can be degraded through experience (more on that as we continue).

 

 

3.  Size and Physical Development

 

It is true that all kids vary in their stages of development.  Some have early growth spurts while others are late bloomers.  However, on average, especially at younger ages (4 – 9), kids tend to develop pretty steadily. Simply put, kids born in January of any given year are going to be a bit bigger and stronger than kids born in December of the same year.

The thing that makes these young ages so important is that this is the stage when kids first begin to develop their interest level in hockey.  Aside from several important factors such as whether their daddy played hockey or their friends play hockey, a kid’s level of desire for hockey will greatly be influenced by what is perceived as fun and some level of accomplishment.  Simply put, if it’s too hard and frustrating, young kids won’t want to carry on in it.  It’s the main reason 5-year-olds don’t want to spend their days solving quadratic equations.

Most of the kids who try hockey at young ages and don’t experience at least small doses of success, usually end of trying different activities and quitting hockey altogether.  If a kid is 11-months younger and smaller than everyone else and never gets to touch the puck, they are at an increased risk of losing interest in the game of hockey.

 

 

4.  Confidence

 

Building off of the last point, kids who experience success, usually experience peaks in desire, which leads to peaks in confidence—it presents a snowball effect.  In hockey, like all sports, confidence is one of the single biggest drivers of success.

 

 

5.  Mental Toughness

 

There is something to be said about perseverance, especially in sports.  The saying “Whatever doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger”, does hold some merit in the sports world.  Experiencing adversity at young ages can help a player develop their mental toughness skill-set.  With hockey being a mainly negative outcome sport (every change in possession comes off the back of a mistake and scoring on 20% of your shots is amazing), facing tough situations and finding ways to remain focused on your goals is of great value to a hockey player.  Learning how to do this at an early age while playing against older, stronger players is a great benefit.

 

 

6.  The Extra Year

 

This is where the tables really begin to turn for the late birthday hockey players.  There is a cut-off rule in place that decides what year a player will be eligible for the NHL draft.  Simply put, if a player is born between January 1st and September 16th, they will be eligible for the draft in one year, while players born in the same year after September 16th won’t be eligible for the draft until the following year.  This is a big advantage to a player born after September 16th because it gives them an additional year to develop before becoming eligible to be drafted.  Some have argued that NHL teams tend to lean towards drafting the “younger” players in a draft year as opposed to players held over from the year before due to later birth dates but this is simply an unfounded myth.

 

 

Being a late-bloomer, born in the December, who reached high levels of hockey, I can tell you first-hand that having a late birthday comes with many overwhelming challenges.  I had a high-degree of athleticism, an insanely strong desire to play hockey, and always found a way to fight through the tough times.  Despite this, I was always the runt of my age group, size-wise, and I experienced a lot of years during my minor hockey days where I acted as the “Grocery Stick” (The player who sits in the middle of the bench right between the forwards and the defencemen—rotting).

During the early years, these were tough times for me.  The majority of the kids I played with on my AAA teams were born in the first quarter of the year.  Being 11 months younger, there was often a significant size and strength discrepancy. As a result, my confidence was low and I spent a lot of time doubting myself.  Things didn’t really begin to level out for me until I turned 16 or 17.  By then, I had done most of my catching up and this is when my confidence began to spike, helping to level out the playing field and allowing my athleticism and desire propel my career.

Touching back on the debate and the research of both Malcolm Gladwell and Benjamin G. Gibbs, et al, both are correct.  There is direct correlation between first quarter birthdate hockey players and succession through minor hockey up to the major junior level in Canada. It is also true that once players reach the NHL, whether they were born early in the year or late doesn’t really matter.  By this time, we’re just getting the best athlete (mind, body and soul).  Even if the pool in junior is largely skewed to first quarter birth athletes, the best overall athletes will emerge and sometimes this is aided by the draft system (The Extra Year) and the development of mental toughness in players born in the last quarter of the year.

The area where birth month effects hockey the most in the first few years of playing the game—where kids dip their toe in the pool to find out if they want to dive in.  This is where the largest number of kids are weeded out.  This is why the largest percentage of kids playing AAA are born in the early part of the year.  It is even tougher for kids in rural communities that often combine minor and major levels (ie. Minor peewee and major peewee).  In these scenarios, some kids are as much as 23 months younger than their counterparts.

Once these kids hit the junior ranks and physical development levels out, athleticism, talent, mental toughness and confidence begin to take over.  Since the majority of these attributes aren’t directly linked to what month a player is born, we see a much more balanced spread in the NHL and minor pro levels.


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IntelliGym:  Revolutionizing “Hockey Sense” Training

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Talk to any hockey scout, GM, or coach and they will all say the same thing.  Beyond any physical skill in hockey, the one thing that determines the longevity and sustained success of a player is “Hockey Sense”.  It’s what made Wayne Gretzky the greatest player to ever play the game.  Gretzky wasn’t big (Listed as a very generous 6 feet, 185 pounds), he wasn’t a tremendous skater (he had that hunched over, laborious stride), and didn’t have a particularly hard shot, but what he did have was an off-the-charts, insanely high level of mental acuity.  The reason he was so much better than everyone was that he could read the game three steps ahead of the play.  Wayne Gretzky was the gold standard for hockey sense.

Knowing that hockey sense is paramount to the success of a hockey player, why can’t we figure out how to develop this skill?  The answer has always been that it’s too complicated, and in hockey, like most sports, when something is too complicated, the default, all-encompassing answer is: “You either have it, or you don’t”.  It’s easier to say Gretzky was a gift from the Hockey Gods, born with Einstein-esque hockey sense then to begin to fathom that there is a way to train hockey players to think the game at elite levels.

From a development standpoint we need verifiable correlations.  Want to score more goals?  No problem, we can count those and if we work on your shot, we can see before and after effects.  Need to become faster?  OK, let’s work on adding more leg strength and incorporate some power skating to lengthen your stride.  We can compare timed laps to determine improvement.  These are physical skills that are easily trained and can be directly linked to outcomes.  The brain, however, isn’t as easily measurable–at least not for a bunch of Hockey Dum-Dums (Me, chiefly among them).

Growing up in the culture of hockey, I always took my cues, without question, from this guy (generic all-knowing “Hockey Guy”):

 Hockey Sense

Why wouldn’t I?  He’s the coach.  He had a loud voice and a whistle and he “forgot more about hockey than I’ll ever know.”  There may have even been a time when he was a young player when he dared ask the question of how to develop hockey sense, before he was smacked on the head with a hockey stick and told to smarten up.

So, in order to break the cycle and think outside the box, how can we begin to explore how to train this mysterious intangible that all great players possess?  Enter “IntelliGym”, Applied Cognitive Engineering (ACE) training technology designed to improve cognitive performance of competitive athletes.  Originally developed for Air Force pilots by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.), IntelliGym uses “Cognitive Simulation” to develop and train the brain to improve reaction time, perception and spatial recognition.

IntelliGym is a software program automatically customized to each and every player’s strengths and weakness, and is uniquely based on positive reinforcement. It adapts to a player’s learning curve and particular needs as he develops new lines to competitive success in his neural pathways.  It’s not a hockey video game (Like EA Sports NHL 2015)—it’s not even close. It is designed (based upon extensive research) to target and develop specific cognitive skills.

 

The Science Behind IntelliGym

 

“What we have discovered is that a key factor for an effective transfer from training environment to reality is that the training program ensures ‘Cognitive Fidelity’, this is, it should faithfully represent the mental demands that happen in the real world. Traditional approaches focus instead on physical fidelity, which may seem more intuitive, but less effective and harder to achieve.”

Prof. Daniel Gopher (World-renown expert in Cognitive Science)

 

Common assumptions are that the best way to train for something is to physically do it.  Repetition makes perfect, right?  When it comes to the brain, this can be true, but it isn’t necessarily the most efficient and effective approach.  In other words, there is a better way to improve your hockey sense than just being on the ice playing hockey.  By understanding which cognitive skills make up hockey sense and isolating training through a specifically-designed, comprehensive program, you can experience more substantial results.

Professor Gopher noted regarding the reapplication of his original technology that “most of our daily activities, and specifically most of sports related activities, involve executive control processes that are responsible for aspects such as planning and sequencing activities, focusing attention, selecting between environmental aspects, switching and dividing attention between different actions, and more.”

In other words, IntelliGym includes major components that train athletes to be “Mentally Tough”.  Across all sports, insiders and outsiders alike have always marvelled over the mentally tough “Clutch” performers—players who always seem to elevate their game at the most critical moments.  From Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods, there have always been a select few who deliver astounding results when pressure is at its greatest.  Like hockey sense, mental toughness has always been a mystical intangible—too complicated to comprehend.

 

IntelliGym Results:

 

Theories are great, but hockey is about results.  How is a historically undisputed view—you can’t teach hockey sense—that has lasted over a century going to all of  a sudden be debunked by some goofy video game built by a bunch of airplane nerds?  Where is the proof that this works?

Since 2008, the IntelliGym program has been an integral component of development for the USAH’s NTDP (National Teams Development Program).  The NTDP became base camp for the further development of IntelliGym, from a hockey sense training standpoint.  Supplying subject matter expertise, the NTDP and ACE Ltd., teamed up to fine-tune the program and the results have been astounding:
USAH’s NTDP – Since incorporating IntelliGym Training:

 

  • First two USHL Playoffs
  • A total of 17 gold medals out of 21 international tournaments
  • 5 out of 6 IIHF U18 World Championships titles

 

 

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US NTDP Testimonials:

 

“We fully expect the Hockey IntelliGym to become part of the regular training regimen for players at all age levels and abilities.”

Jim Johannson, Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations for USA Hockey

 

“They just started to make plays under pressure that I hadn’t seen prior to them using the IntelliGym”

Former U18 National Team Coach, Kurt Kleinendorst

 

“It’s a tremendous part of the whole player that we’re trying to get with USA Hockey”

Danton Cole, US U18 National Team Coach

 

On top of the extensive work with USA Hockey, IntelliGym was awarded first prize at the 2010 Brain Fitness Innovation Awards and was featured in The New York Times and The Globe and Mail.

 

Injury Prevention Aspect:

 

With increased knowledge of the effects of head injuries in hockey, there is more emphasis now on protecting players, especially youth hockey players.  With how big, fast and strong hockey players have become, the best form of injury protection is awareness and spatial recognition.  The Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, a global leader in sports injury prevention and rehabilitation, has collaborated with IntelliGym to include cognitive therapy training designed to improve players’ on-ice awareness and decision making, which in turn are expected to enhance performance and reduce injury rate.

 

Like anything in sports, change is inevitable and expected.  Hockey, more than any other major sport, has experienced change a break-neck rates.  From equipment to training, continuous improvement has been the driving force behind the survival of the sport of hockey.  IntelliGym is just another example of how positive change continues to fuel the success of hockey world-wide.

 

For more information on how IntelliGym Hockey works, check out:  https://www.intelligym.com/hockey/preview

 


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Leadership: The Most Overused and Misrepresented Term in Hockey

 

The term “Leadership” is grossly overused and misrepresented in hockey.  It’s a cute buzzword for the media to use to oversimplify complicated situations and place blame.  “The Toronto Maple Leafs are struggling.  It’s time for a change in leadership.”  See how easy that is?  You can take a complicated situation and just throw a generic term at it and everyone just nods their heads.

The concept of leadership isn’t ridiculous or without importance in the game.  Leadership is one of the key driving forces to success in any venture, sport or industry—hockey chief among them.  But, where does leadership come from?  Can we tap someone on the shoulder and say, “You are THE leader of this team”, and just stand around and wait to be inspired and led into the breach?  No.

Leadership in sports has always been ahead of the game, in comparison to other industries.  True leadership in sports comes from within.  It’s a culture, a “leadership-based culture”.  Within that leadership-based culture, everyone has a particular role as a leader.  Coaches contribute by providing structure and accountability and players each play their specific role, collectively contributing to the culture.

The key to leadership-based culture is that everyone plays a key role in developing the culture and driving success.  This promotes empowerment and engagement.  This fosters the “buy-in”.  Based on popular opinion, supported by the media, most people think that coaches bark out orders and the captain says, “Ya guys. Do it”, and everything snaps to attention like minions shuffling along an assembly line.

This is an old, outdated view on how teams are assembled and operated.  Another thing this does is create the illusion that all blame or praise can be heaped upon one or two individuals.  It’s classic story-telling.  Every great story, whether tragic or triumphant, needs a clearly defined villain or hero.

Using a fresh hot topic to illustrate how this works, let’s look at the recent developments surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs (The fishbowl of the hockey world).  On the back of two embarrassing losses, the Leafs faced the wrath of the infamously ruthless Toronto media.  Stories were churned out calling for a drastic change in “leadership”.  Torches were lit and mobs gathered, all calling for head coach Randy Carlyle’s head and the captaincy to be stripped from Dion Phaneuf.

It is a much bigger sell to craft a story of tragedy and pin the blame on obvious scapegoats.  It fits the mould of classic storytelling, and quite honestly, it’s what people secretly want.  When times are tough, we want a place to direct our anger.

Based on the following fictional headlines, which article would you be more inclined to read:  “Embarrassing: Carlyle and Phaneuf Need to Go”, or, “After Two Tough Losses, 9-8-1 Leafs Refocus”?  It’s a no-brainer.  Controversy sells; always has and always will.  In this sense, the media has directly effected the perception of leadership in hockey.  It’s not the Leafs organization as a whole struggling together.  It’s Carlyle and Phaneuf screwing everything up.  It’s a “leadership” problem.

The reality is leadership comes in all shapes and forms.  Leadership is expressed and embodied verbally, physically and through behaviour and attitude from every level within the hierarchy of a team, from management all the way down to 4th line call-ups.  It’s in everything that you do and there is no perfect recipe or manual for success.

A large portion of leadership has to do with human interaction and chemistry.  Teams bond or don’t bond together over everything imaginable.  It isn’t always logical, either.  Sometimes players fight in practice and oddly, this often strengthens the bond between team mates.  Media members and analytics buffs will often downplay the effects shot-blocking, winning faceoffs, or finishing checks have on the success of a team.  From a straight statistical standpoint, you can’t directly link a blocked shot or finished check to success in hockey.  However, the courage it takes to sacrifice your body to block a shot or take a hard hit to make a play can often inspire a team to elevate their game to another level.

The same can be said about a purposeful, well-timed fight (another illogical event in the eyes of analytics and outsiders).  Sticking up for your team mates is a well-respected act in hockey, barbaric or not.  Whether you win or lose, it’s the warrior mentality—going to battle for one another—that fosters camaraderie and strengthens bonds.  This all feeds into the definition of what leadership means in hockey.  It’s about doing whatever you can to promote engagement, cohesiveness and elevate the level of play of your team mates.

Leadership can come from the strangest places. A large percentage of true leadership is fostered and displayed off the ice and away from the public eye.  As mentioned in an earlier article, “Hockey to the Workplace: 10 Transferable Competencies”, one year, one of my team mates, who barely said a word, came into the dressing room after the second period of a game during a terrible losing streak, put his dress shoes in the shower room and set them on fire. He then turned to a bewildered dressing room and declared, “I knew those fuckin’ shoes were bad luck.” We went out that third period, came back and won the game and then rattled off six wins in a row. After the game, we took the mangled remains of the shoes and glued them to a plank of wood.  The charred trophy became our good luck charm and was handed out to the hardest worker after each game the rest of the season.

This was a quirky form of effective leadership.  It didn’t come from the team president, head coach, or captain, and it doesn’t have to.  The types of things that turn a season around for teams often come from out of left field when you least expect it.  It all adds to the culture of a team.  It’s fitting for a sport like hockey where anything can happen on any given night, and often does.

All that being said, is it fair to blame Randy Carlyle and Dion Phaneuf for the perceived woes of the Toronto Maple Leafs?  Probably not, but we are mentally engineered to seek and place blame when things don’t go the way we want.  By default, it’s easier to direct blame towards the people with the most polarizing titles.  That’s just the world we live in.

Understanding this reality, coaches will direct the blame of failure towards themselves in order to protect the greater whole of the team, like a lion protecting his pride while the hyenas pick away his limbs.   Players respect this and will in turn play harder for someone who has the courage to “take one for the team”.  Consequently, this makes coaches easy targets for when enough is enough and the mob is screaming for the guillotine.

As for the captain—usually the face of the franchise and a well-respected member of the team—they speak for the players and usually will deflect blame from the coaches and direct it towards “the players”.  It all works to strengthen the bond within a team—the brotherhood, as it is.  It’s a partnership that helps to control public perception while keeping the order of things intact.

The media gets their juicy story complete with defaulted villains, the coach protects his culture by steering blame and minimizing in-house turmoil, and the captain shows the coach respect and gratitude by redirecting blame towards the rest of the pride.  It’s the circle of life.


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Guest Post: “The Hockey World Changing: Jersey Talk”

Guest Blogger Josh Smith drops in to provide some innovative information on the custom apparel and jersey industry

About Josh:

I grew up in Detroit, MI and played AAA for multiple teams (Honey baked, little Cesar’s, Ice Dogs)  growing up. After multiple trips to high school state championships and winters filled with tournaments, a few tough injuries pushed my role to management, organizing and officiating. Seeing so many angles of the game has given me a helpful perspective for players, parents, and coaches around the Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Windsor area. My main job and favorite role to play is parent and father. I don’t have any NHL or OHL experience but I sure feel like what ever knowledge I have can help give young players longevity and fun times on and off the ice!

 

The Hockey World Changing: Jersey Talk

Running an apparel sale for your Hockey team has come a long way in a very short amount of time.  In the good old days, to run a sale you had to leave your house, go into town, and find a local screen printing shop. Once you got there you could use their computer system to design your logo or graphic.  You had to pay up-front for your order (that required a 24 piece minimum per/design), wait a few weeks for it to be produced, pick up the gear, and finally distribute it to the team members.  When you are a Hockey coach or a parent supporter for a youth squad, your time is very valuable and this process was cumbersome.  Then along came the internet…

With the advent of home computers and the Internet, online shopping has become a huge business.  Shopping behaviors are changing as consumers are becoming more demanding and expectant of instant results.  Websites have sprung up that allow you to use their design software online so you can now design custom clothes right from your living room chair. What used to take hours could be done in less than one, and your gear could be sent straight to your door in only a week or two. While this advancement solved “where” you could purchase your gear, the issue of “how many & what sizes” was still a challenge to organizations, offices and talented skaters.  If you have run an apparel sale before or taken the responsibility of jersey purchasing for your team, you probably understand that most of the profits from the sale wound up in a full box of products that you were not able to sell.  Then along came print-on-demand…

New technology in decorating equipment is further changing how we take the ice.  Where setup used to play a major role in the cost to produce a custom garment, new equipment has eliminated the time it takes to setup the job which has enabled efficient production of one-off custom orders.  Why is this important?  The internet + new equipment = a new way for organization to sell custom apparel.  A few e-commerce sites like mylocker.net now offer a solution that let’s organizations run a sale where they do not have to purchase anything.  They create an online shop for your organization, you promote it to your fans, and your fans visit the online shop and purchase what they want.  Inventory, cash management, volunteer time, and up-front cash commitments are no longer required.  Your organization earns money because there is no inventory that eats up the profits.  You can sell apparel without buying it now. These advancements help us focus on our fundamentals and give us more time for skating and practice.

What’s next?  A drone that drops off your jersey at the rink so you don’t have to wait for the UPS truck to deliver it?

For any questions, comments, or just to talk hockey or parenting, reach me at: jrsmitty@umich.edu


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7-Factor Analysis: Simple Analytics for Any Level of Hockey

For decades, hockey has been a statistically simple sport.  Players who score lots of goals and get lots of points are really good.  Goalies who let in lots of goals and have low save percentages are usually not very good.  Hockey isn’t baseball.  It’s not a series of one-on-one matchups with isolated incidences.  It’s a free-flowing game with a wide variety of variables.

Beyond the obvious black and white statistics, everything has always been up for debate.  Hockey fans for years have debated Gretzky vs. Lemieux and Crosby vs. Ovechkin or Toews.  Words like character, toughness and leadership get thrown around.  There is banter about two-way play and clutch performances.  These debates are what make being a hockey fan fun.  It’s the endless comparison and argument over differing situations and variables.

For the scientific-minded fans, enough is enough.  No more “ya, buts” and “in my opinions”.  They want to know once and for all how to truly define a player’s worth.  Baseball has its WAR (Wins Above Replacement), why can’t hockey have its all-in-one determiner?

From the perspective of the franchises, who invest millions a year into extensive scouting blankets and video analysis efforts, why not try and find a way to gain an edge.  Maybe there is a formula or two out there that can more closely measure the true, overall value of a hockey player.  Everyone laughed at Bill James when he dabbled in sabremetrics, producing otherworldly statistical concoctions in his annual Baseball Abstracts.  Decades later, James is the undisputable golden boy of statistical analysis in baseball, revolutionizing the way everyone looks at player value.

Whether you like it or not, analytics in hockey is here and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.  From Corsi to Fenwick, new ways of measuring player value beyond goals and assists are emerging and building momentum.

Since it appears these new statistics are becoming common speak and a big part of today’s game, how does this translate to junior and minor hockey?  Without expensive tools and video analysis, how can we find new ways to measure worth at low-tech levels of the game?

Here is a simple, low-tech statistical approach to capturing overall value in individual hockey players, entitled, “7-Factor Analysis”:

 

The way 7-Factor Analysis works is totalling up the following basic statistics (5 with positive effects on the game, and 2 with negative effects) to produce an overall “7-Factor Score”.

 

The Positive Categories (Worth +1 for each tick on the sheet):

 

Shots on Net

All shot attempts that reach the net, resulting in a shot on goal (goal or a save) or post hit. 

You have to shoot to score and not all goals are of the pretty variety.  Teams that attempt more shots that hit the net tend to be more successful.  This category is only capturing shots that get to the net and not shots that are blocked or miss the net.

 

Blocked Shots

Opposing team shot attempts that are negated via a blocked shot by a player.

Nothing is more frustrating than having your shot blocked.  Players who block a lot of shots tend to be the players who are in good positions defensively.  These types of players are worth their weight in gold.

 

Finished Checks

A player who delivers a check (any type of body contact—a bump a hard hit) to an opposing player.

One of the most tiring things in hockey is receiving a check (big or small) and playing through contact.  It absolutely saps the energy out of you.  Over the course of a 60 minute game, this can really wear down an opposing team.

 

Takeaways

Anytime a player creates a turnover for the opposition (This could come from stripping someone of the puck,  finishing a check and coming away with possession, or beating a forechecker to a dump-in and making a successful defensive zone exit via a pass or skating it out.)

The point of the game is to score more goals than the other team and you can’t do that when you don’t have the puck.  Valuable defensive players are able to create a lot of turnovers.

 

Completed Passes

A successful pass completed from Player A to Player B, maintaining possession.

One of the most important attributes of successful teams is puck control and puck movement.  Teams that control the puck through quick, successful passes, tend to maintain possession for longer periods of time, resulting in better opportunities to score.

 

The Negative Categories (Worth -1 for each tick on the sheet):

 

Turnovers

Anytime a player losses possession of the puck, to the other team, after being in control, other than from a successful shot attempt (Shot made it through to the net).  This includes: being stripped, a finished check resulting in loss of possession to the other team, a pass attempt that misses its intended target, and a dump-in where the other team gains possession.   

Giving up possession of the puck means you can’t attack and are forced to defend.

 

Missed/Blocked Shot Attempts

Anytime a player attempts a shot that doesn’t result in either a shot-on-goal or post hit. 

When players attempt shots at the net that are blocked or miss the net, they are risking a turnover and limiting their chance to score a goal.  With possession being a major key to success, you want to ensure that your hard fought efforts to gain possession at least result in a shot on goal.

 

So how does it work?  Easy.  It is easily completed as a one or two person job.  All you need is a template that lays out all the columns for the different categories for each player.  During the game, you add a quick tick to the appropriate box for every relevant event.  At the end of the game you tabulate all of the scores for each player by subtracting the amount of ticks in the negative boxes from the amount of ticks in the positive boxes to produce an overall “7-Factor Score”.

 

Template Example:

 

Positives Negatives
Player Shots on Net Blocked Shots Finished Checks Takeaways Completed Passes Turnovers Missed/

Blocked Shot Attempts

Overall Score

 

Player 1
Player 2
Player 3
Player 4

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The McDavid Injury: Fueling the Fighting Debate

 

A second period scrap between uber-prospect Connor McDavid (Erie Otters) and Mississauga Steelheads forward, Bryson Cianfrone, revved the never-ending debate about fighting in hockey into the redline.  The fight started in the fashion that typical fights in hockey do, Player A delivers a hit on Player B and Player B takes exception and engages Player A in a fight.  On most nights, this is business as usual. This type of non-staged, heat of the moment fight is the type of fight that most anti-fighting lobbyists are willing to accept, for now, in the battle to clean up the game.

So why are people so mad?  Two things elevated this run-of-the-mill fight into a full-blow, headline story.  No. 1, Player B just happened to be Connor McDavid—the biggest prospect to come along since Sidney Crosby.  No. 2, McDavid broke his hand in the fight and speculation is swirling that he could miss the World Junior Championships.

So now, the real question is, does Connor McDavid’s unfortunate injury provide further proof that fighting is severely detrimental to the game, or does it provide proof that enforcers actually help limit these types of injuries to star players?

From the anti-fighting camp, in the red corner, it’s a simple argument:  Fighting is bad.  Want proof?  Connor McDavid is the most marketable player outside of the NHL and he got injured in a fight.  Therefore, fighting is costing the hockey industry money.

Across the ring, in the blue corner, fighting supporters are making the argument that McDavid’s injury is a direct result of phasing out the enforcer role.  Their argument is this:  Fighting protects star players and the integrity of the game.  With an enforcer present, Connor McDavid has more room to excel.  He doesn’t have to worry about players taking runs at him every shift and doesn’t have to drop the gloves and fight Bryson Cianfrone.  The enforcer keeps the hyenas of the game at bay.  Therefore, with an enforcer present, McDavid doesn’t drop the gloves and break his hand.

So which side is right?  Answer:  Neither.  The reason is Connor McDavid is a competitive athlete who plays a sport where emotions run high and split-second decisions are made.  McDavid made a big boy choice at a heated moment in a competitive hockey game and the result was an unfortunate injury.  The polarizing aspect of this injury is that McDavid was hurt in a fight.  However, he could have easily broken his hand blocking a shot or stepping on a puck (Sorry Joffrey Lupul).

Also, there is no proof that with an enforcer present, McDavid doesn’t engage in a fight with Cianfrone.  Even in the days when enforcers reigned supreme, Wayne Gretzky (The unlikeliest of all combatants) got into a couple of dust-ups.  It’s the nature of competition.  You can’t always predict when you’re going to snap.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Bryson Cianfrone isn’t a fighter.  He’s 5 foot 8 and 169 pounds, led the Steelheads in scoring last season and his leading them in scoring this season.  In 16 games this season, the fight (the only one of his major junior career) was Cianfrone’s first penalty infraction.  We’re not talking about a super-pest here.  This is one skilled player getting frustrated and fighting another skilled player and unless you make fighting a lengthy suspension, this is going to happen from time to time.

So is it fair to blame McDavid’s injury on fighting or the absence of an enforcer?  No.  Despite the star power of the injured party, it was simply an unfortunate situation.  Hockey is a competitive, contact sport and Connor McDavid made a choice during a heated moment that resulted in a minor injury.  It is what it is and nothing is going to change that.


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Misogyny a “Hockey Problem”, not an “OHL Problem”

 

The Ontario Hockey League made negative headlines recently when misogynistic Tinder rants by Belleville Bulls forward Jake Marchment and Peterborough Petes forward Greg Betzold became public.  The OHL responded quickly, handing out matching 15-game suspensions and making statements about the incidents, re-iterating that misogyny is an unacceptable practice amongst its league members and will not be tolerated.

When the news broke, there were a lot of people that were utterly shocked.  An overwhelming reaction to the language used by these players was disgust and disbelief.  The real problem, however, is that these aren’t isolated events.  Sadly, this type of behavior is actually very common in hockey (As well as other sports/entertainment industries) and in a way, the fact that this has come to light now is a blessing in disguise.

The fact that this story broke with explicit language and was attached to names has brought the issue to the surface, but the reality is, the misogynistic culture of hockey, or as Neate Sager of Yahoo’s “Buzzing the Net” eloquently put it, “Toxic Masculinity” or “Bro Culture”, celebrates this type of behavior in plain sight.  You can’t remove blame from Marchment and Betzold in this situation, but there is a much bigger issue at play here, and it’s cultural and deep-rooted.

I mentioned that the celebration of misogynist behavior is evident in hockey and here are some subtle and not so subtle examples.  Most people who are fans of hockey or involved in hockey have heard the term “Puck Bunny”.  This is a term that is often over-used and objectifies nearly every young woman who shows interest in hockey or hockey players.  It’s a stereotype that players use to demean and objectify a large demographic of young female fans.  It allows players to group women as objects and to treat them as such.

When I was coming up in junior hockey, the culture of hockey could loosely be defined like this:

 

“Don’t show any weakness and always be tough.  Beer is a big part of the game, so make sure you take your medicine.  Girls just want an easy ride to fame.  They are using you, so it’s OK to treat them like dogs, because that’s what they are. You’re the man, so if a girl tries to reject you, she’s a dumb slut.  Be legendary on and off the ice.”

 

Below are a couple of phrases/terms out of the “Hockey Culture Dictionary” that promote a misogynistic culture:

 

“Wheeling Broads”

Slang phase used to describe the act of courting or picking up girls.  Players use this term as part of a game.  To wheel broads is to up your status within the brotherhood.  The larger the number of “broads” you “wheel”, the better.  The word “Broad” (slang for woman) originated in the 1930’s.  It is derived from the fact that the most defining characteristic of all females are their hips, which are proportionally wider than the hips of their male counterparts.  The term is less respectable than lady but much more respectable than bitch.

 

“Kill”

This was a very common slang word for a sexual conquest.  We often kept a count of our “Kills” over the course of a season.  It was part of a game—yet another way to objectify women and up your status within the brotherhood of hockey.

 

So what breeds this culture?  One of the biggest contributors is the obsession with masculinity and toughness.  “Don’t be a pussy!”  In hockey, we relate success with machismo.  In doing so, we reduce anything else to a pittance.

Also, since hockey in Canada is a religion, hockey players are sensationalized, especially junior hockey players.  Kids as young as 15-years-old, take on the status of local celebrity and become the focal point of equal parts adulation and ire.  The pressure and scrutiny on these kids is immense, so in a way to cope with this, they immerse themselves in the culture and brotherhood of hockey.

The problem with perception is that most people look at celebrities and think that life is easy for them.  For most major junior hockey players who instantly become big fish in small ponds, the perceived cockiness is a mask to hide fear and insecurity.  Acting out is a form of compensation for a feeling of vulnerability.  Collectively, it becomes:  “I don’t want people to think I’m a pussy, so I’ll treat this girl like shit and show everyone that I’m not.”  This is a way in which the “Bro Culture” or “Toxic Masculinity” begins to take shape.

Think about it this way.  Why did men treat women like shit during the early part of the 20th century?  Men from the 1920s, 30s and 40s were supposed to uphold a “manly” image.  They were supposed to be “tough”—show no weakness.  Men from this era weren’t supposed to cry or show affection.  In order to uphold the image and cope with “feelings”, they lashed out and objectified women to show they were the boss.  The hockey culture has still been hanging onto this age-old image of toughness—a stigma—and the result is some of what we saw in the Marchment/Betzold matter.

 

How do we fix it?  Rules, penalties and mandates won’t bring about any significant change.  Change must come through awareness, leadership and education.  In order to break down the façade and the barriers that exist in hockey, we need to create a comfortable environment for players to drop their guards.  Being tough doesn’t mean being an asshole.  It’s OK to feel vulnerable, insecure and weak.

Until we face the stigma that exists in hockey and address the elephant in the room that is mental health awareness, we won’t be able to take the necessary steps to make positive changes to the culture of hockey.  It’s time to stop hurting ourselves and others for the sake of upholding an outdated and distorted image.

 


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Contrasting Styles:  North American vs. European

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There is a plethora of differences between the North American and European style of playing the game of hockey.  The most obvious difference, when comparing the two styles is ice surface dimensions.  North American standard rinks are 200 x 85 feet, while European ice sheets are “Olympic-sized” at 200 x 100 feet.  It may not seem like much of a difference, but when you consider square-footage, we’re talking about a 3000 square-foot difference!  That’s a nice chunk of extra real estate to dangle around in.

With extra space, we see a lot of relative differences in the style of play.  More room breeds differing strategies on both, how to attack and how to defend.  While North American hockey systems—on the offensive side—focus on “staying in lanes” and “playing in traffic”, the European game focuses on maintaining puck possession and generating speed and momentum, especially through the neutral zone.

On the defensive side of the puck, the North American game is a science.  Every piece of real estate is tracked and sectioned off.  The infusion of hi-tech video analysis allows teams to find effective ways to “cut the ice” and force opponents into smaller, low-risk areas.  The most prominent example of North American defensive strategy is the “Neutral-Zone Trap”, first employed by the Montreal Canadiens during the 1970s, but made infamous by the New Jersey Devils during the mid-90s.  The “Trap” focuses on using manpower to angle and force attacking players into highly-congested areas of the ice, forcing a higher percentage of turnovers and counter-attacks.  On smaller rinks, this is a much easier and effective defensive strategy to employ.

Conversely, European hockey focuses its defensive efforts on using speed to force turnovers.  Where North Americans are told to “Always finish your check”, Europeans rely heavily on angling and stick-checking, as to ensure that they are able to recover quicker to the center of the ice, where they will quickly re-attack.  This is why you tend to see less physicality in the European-style game.  There is simply too much ground to cover and you don’t want to catch yourself out of position.

The European game also tends to be a bit more on the cutting edge when it comes to rule changes.  For example, when I was playing in Europe, early on in my pro career, there were a couple or rules that I had to learn the hard way.  The first rule was the “Head Checking” rule, which was instituted in Europe far before it made its way over to North America.  Every time I delivered what I thought was a textbook, hard, clean hit, I was given a 2-minute minor for “Contact to the Head”, accompanied by a 10-minute misconduct.  After about five of these penalties in my first three games, I just stopped hitting players hard and spent more time just “getting in their way”.  Although I was frustrated about not be able to plaster guys, it did reduce the amount of devastating contact in the game, ultimately leading to a faster pace and less injuries over the course of a season.

Below are 3 other significant differences I noticed during my two seasons overseas:

 

1)  5-Man Units

 

During my first season playing in Europe, we had a coach, Vadim Musatov, who played 10 years in the Russian Superleague (Modern-day KHL) .  He was a long-time international teammate of Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny and participated in the infamous “Punchup in Piestany” game between Canada and Russia during the 1987 World Junior Championships.  One of the things Vadim instituted as coach was the “5-Man Unit” system.  The 5-man unit, where a line of forwards and a pair defencemen would always play together, was common in Russian hockey.

At first, I thought this was just plain weird, but after a while, I found it to be very beneficial.  Playing in consistent 5-man units allowed our team to develop strong chemistry within those units.  In North America, it’s obviously common to play with the same defence partner if you are a defenceman, or forward line, if you are a forward, but 5-man, 5-on-5 units just isn’t commonplace.

Thinking back, it made a lot of sense.  Why should we be separating forwards and defencemen when it comes to developing chemistry?  Today’s hockey is played with a lot of offensive infusion from the backend, so why not try and capitalize on it?

 

2)   Practice Structure and Intensity

 

Another major difference between hockey in North America and Europe was the way practices were structured and the intensity in which they were carried out.  Coming out of the NCAA, I was used to “practicing the way you play”. This meant finishing checks, blocking shots and always going 110%.  Every day in college was battle drills, battle drills and more battle drills.  It was all about intensity.

In Europe, after my first practice, our coach called me and my roommate (another Canadian Import) into his office and told us basically to cut out the “Tough Guy” bullshit and tone it down in practice.  Most of our practices were spent working on skill development (flow drills), controlled scrimmages, and maybe 10 minutes on system play.  We usually would spend the first 10 minutes of every practice playing “Monkey in the Middle”!  It was more about being better at hockey than being better at running systems.

 

3)  Celebration of the Hero

 

They put a lot of emphasis on “Celebrating the Hero” in Europe.  From “Man of the Match” gift baskets of booze, chocolate and cheese, to the “Golden Helmet”, worn by each team’s leading scorer, there is a lot of incentive to be the best.  From the North American standpoint, this seems misplaced as we tend to try and celebrate all the various ways players contribute to the success of a team, but in the European culture, where there isn’t as much of a focus on “roles”, it makes more sense.

You see, in most European pro leagues, teams are usually a lot more top heavy.  The first two lines are usually made up of the skilled, older, star players, while the third and fourth lines tend to be younger players who are aspiring to become skilled, star players someday.  The concept of celebrating the hero is in place to push these young bottom liners to work hard and succeed.


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There is No “Corsi” for Character

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The most heavily debated topic in hockey today is “Analytics”.  Some love it.  Others hate it.  Personally, I think any additional statistic we can extract that can possibly help us analyze aspects of the game or a player’s impact, is beneficial.  I just don’t think we can hang our hat on it.  As much of a great compliment that analytics provides, there is still one invaluable attribute that you can’t put a number on—character.

Character, in hockey, is a combination of a lot of different things.  A player with strong character is a player with a strong will to compete.  Can we statistically capture a player’s compete level?  Sure we can, to an extent.  We can analyze and collate the amount of puck battles a player wins or how many loose pucks they recover.  We can accumulate puck possession time after contact and the percentage a defenseman turns a recovered dump-in into a successful breakout.  All of these things contribute to measuring the compete level and skill a player has beyond traditional statistics, but there are still some extremely important aspects of a player’s character you simply can’t quantify.  In other words, there are some important attributes that make players good teammates, which in turn, contributes immensely to successful teams.

Here are five immeasurable aspects to winning hockey that can’t be “Corsi-ed”:

 

  • Camaraderie

 

I’ve had discussions with analytics fans before about the immeasurable importance of camaraderie to winning clubs and I am always met with eye-rolls and groans.  Some will say, “You don’t have to like the guys you play with to be successful,” which is true to an extent.  There were lots of teams that I have played on that were good teams and we didn’t always get along.  However, the best teams and most successful teams that I have ever been a part of were very, very close-knit.  These teams weren’t always the most talented teams, but everyone loved playing with one another.  There is a lot to be said about brotherhood in hockey.  It’s not just a cliché.  If you have an uber-talented team that just can’t seem to put it together, more times than not you have character issues.

 

 

  • Compassion

 

There is a lot to be said about players with compassion for others.  When you spend 9 months out of the year, living elbow to elbow with 22 other guys, you share everything from shampoo to your deepest troubles.  Living the life of a hockey player—especially a junior, college or professional hockey player—you are going to go through some dark, troublesome times.  Whether it’s trouble on the home front, slumps, a death in the family, or feelings of uselessness, it is important to have people to turn to and lean on.  Good teammates provide this stability and support.  Compassion is a big contributor to character.

 

 

  • Coachability

 

We’ve all seen the big, public battles between some players and their coaches.  It’s not always the player’s fault, you can get some real prick coaches out there, believe me.  But, sometimes you get players who are just not coachable.  They are constantly defiant and want to push their own agendas.  They are the guys who slam their stick or mope when they don’t get to soak up the full two minutes on a power play.  These are players who just simply will not “Buy-In”, and no matter how talented they are, they are absolute killers of team success.

From an outsiders vantage point, these players aren’t always easy to spot.  From time to time, the media gets a whiff of these in-house squabbles, but more often than not, these scenarios stay under the radar.  Once again, these players may be statistical wunderkinds, but are destroying the teams they play for.  Uncoachable players challenge accountability and throw everything into disarray.

 

 

  • Leadership

 

Leadership is a very broad category that takes a lot of things into account.  True leaders inspire others around them to perform at their best and promote and instill values consistent with the culture of the team.  From an outsider’s point of view, each leader wears a letter on their jersey.  In reality, great teams are built upon a leadership-based culture where every team member contributes.  Leadership is made up of 10% on-ice and 90% off-ice influence. This priceless, unquantifiable attribute is worth more than any one player’s Fenwick rating.

 

 

  • Douchebag Factor

 

We’ve all heard the term “Cancer” as it pertains to a particular player on a team.  When you think of a player who is infamously classified as a cancer, Sean Avery immediately comes to mind.  A cancer in hockey is essentially a “douchebag”.  He’s the player that nobody wants on their team.  He rats on guys to the coaching staff and hits on other players’ wives or girlfriends at the team parties.  He’s the guy who acts like a jackass at public events and gives everyone a bad name.  He’s narcissistic, selfish and will never go to bat for a teammate.  The problem is, from a perspective standpoint, sometimes these guys are the most talented players on the team.  From a statistical standpoint, these guys are often golden boys.  Outsiders will say, “Be a pro and put your differences aside for the betterment of the team.”  In theory that sounds good, but in reality, when you spend every waking moment together as a team, it’s nearly impossible for one bad apple not to spoil a bushel.


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How the Industrialization of Hockey Changed Coaching for the Better

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Before the days of player’s associations, agents, major endorsement deals, multi-million dollar contracts, multi-YEAR contracts, and television deals, a sport was a recreational endeavour with a growing entertainment value. Professional players made a bit of money, but had to work another job in the off-season to provide for their families.

Back in the days when Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe captured the hearts of hockey fans, kids dreamed of playing in the NHL, but it wasn’t the end-all, be-all. A youngster from the ‘50s and ‘60’s might have said to his dad, “One day I am going to play for the Montreal Canadiens and win the Stanley Cup.”

His dad would playfully tussle his hair and then say, “This is great, Timmy. I know you will make me proud. And when you are done, you will join me in the mills and mines to provide for your family.”

A hockey career in the NHL didn’t come with a guaranteed financial security blanket the way that it does today. Also, players didn’t yield the power that they do today. If you weren’t happy with your contract in 1956, you didn’t have any leverage. You couldn’t threaten to leave and sign in the KHL or wait to hit the open market. Owners, management and coaches held all the power and players had to shut their mouths and do as they were told.

When Ted Lindsay and Doug Harvey first formed a player’s union in 1957 and Alan Eagleson took it to another level during the late 60s, the game of hockey, commercially-speaking, began to experience drastic changes. All of a sudden, there was a major shift in power. Over the next few decades, hockey experienced major expansion, the emergence of agents, lucrative contracts and endorsement deals, free agency, holdouts, and work stoppages. The power shifted greatly from owners and general managers, to the players and their agents, and standing smack-dab in the middle of it all were the coaches.

Coaches used to be the voice of god in the sport of hockey. Strong-willed and iron-fisted, coaches of the early days were the captains of the industry. Toe Blake, Jack Adams, Punch Imlach, Eddie Shore—these guys were iconic. If Toe Blake or Eddie Shore told you to do something, you did it. It didn’t matter what it was, you didn’t dare question their authority or else you would get buried so deep in the game they’d never find you.

In the modern-day game of hockey, you can’t coach the way these legends of the past did. With the shift in power, coaches needed to change the way they conducted business or they’d be out of it. Old-schoolers say that today’s players have no respect and that today’s coaches are “player’s coaches” and are too soft.

The truth is, players haven’t changed. They still view assholes the same way they always have. The difference is, now they don’t have to take it. Nobody liked playing for Eddie Shore, but everyone tolerated him out of fear. Fear isn’t respect and the industrialization of the game has helped to clarify that.

I experienced a taste of old-time hockey coaching during a season playing overseas in Belgrade, Serbia. At mid-season, our coach, Vadim Musatov, was fired and replaced by former Czech national coach, Frantisek Vorlicek, who was a world-class asshole. The first practice Vorlicek conducted, he reamed me out, spewing Czech insults at me in front of the team with a face as red as a tomato, all because I rushed the puck past our own blue line. You see, on top of having a massive “outside voice” and being unable to shed his communist, dictatorship mindset, Vorlicek couldn’t evolve with the ever-changing game of hockey. In his mind, defencemen were 6 foot 6, slow-footed and never, ever, under any circumstances carried the puck, anywhere.

Over the course of the season, Vorlicek and I had some epic out-and-out “F— You” matches. My Eastern European teammates couldn’t believe it. It just wasn’t what players did in that part of the world. You never, ever challenged authority. I had never in my life experienced a coach like that and remember thinking that this must be what it was like to play for Eddie Shore.

The biggest difference between coaching in the 1960s and coaching today is human interaction. In 1963, a coach developed a game plan, screamed at his players to do it, or else, and they did it. If a player didn’t want to listen, he sat until he obeyed his master. It didn’t matter if it was the star player or the backup goalie, on one voice mattered.

Now, if a player doesn’t like the way a coach is treating him, he calls his agent who calls the GM or owner with threats of demanding a trade or fleeing to another league. If Pat Brisson called Jim Rutherford tomorrow and said, “Mike Johnston called Sidney Crosby a gutless prick and cut him up in front of his teammates. Now Sid won’t play for him. Either fire Jim or trade Sid.” Who would go? I think we know the answer to that.

To be a successful coach in today’s ever-evolving game is to be able to command respect by engaging players, instilling empowerment, and establishing accountability. It’s no different than in business. Successful CEOs and managers have adapted the way they lead their teams of employees. The emphasis is now on engagement and soliciting “by-in”. Today’s leaders are “working with” their employees rather than commanding them.

As a modern-day coach, you need to be able to communicate. It’s the number one prerequisite. By “communicate”, I mean you need to be able to paint a picture—a plan and a mission—and clearly define how everyone on the team is going to contribute. Developing a culture and getting everyone to buy-in and stake ownership in it is essential to success. Coaching in today’s game is all about building relationships, and through those relationships, earning trust.

The term “Player’s Coach” gets tossed around a lot in a negative light. These types of coaches are deemed to be push-overs and spineless. In reality, a true player’s coach is simply someone who cares about his players on a personal level. They are problem solvers and take an interest in the morale and psychology of their team. It comes down to simple, basic human interaction. Nobody likes an asshole. They didn’t in 1960 and they still don’t today.


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