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This is an old, outdated view on how teams are assembled and operated.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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The All-Time Hockey Movie All-Star Team

Slap Shot

Although there haven’t been a lot of movies made about hockey (At least not that many good ones), there have been some great movies and some endearing and memorable characters.  All-time beauty Paul Newman was once quoted as saying that filming Slap Shot was his favorite experience as an actor and that the character of Reggie Dunlop was the closest he ever got to portraying his true self onscreen.

Now, with several classic fictional hockey movies made over the years—Slapshot, Youngblood, Mighty Ducks 1 & 2, and Mystery Alaska—chief among them, we’ve been exposed to a wide range of interesting characters.  From Reggie Dunlop to Fulton Reed, there is a deep talent pool to choose from.  If you had to pick only two all-star teams of all the great on-screen hockey beauties, who would you choose?

Here are my picks:

 

First Team All-Stars

 

Goalie:

 

Denis Lemieux (Slap Shot)

Denis Lemieux

The fiery Quebecer was a natural born competitor with equal parts talent and eccentricity.  I always said about goalies, “Never trust a goalie who isn’t at least a little bit weird.”  Denis had quirkiness in spades and faced more rubber than anyone in the Federal League.

 

 

Defense:

 

Billy Charlebois (Slap Shot)

Billy Charlebois

Hailing from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Charlesbois was a steady defender who played sound, mistake-free hockey.  Every team needs these types of players who can log huge minutes and play against the other team’s top lines.  Charlesbois’ movie star good looks also helped foster team camaraderie as all the ladies flocked to him, allowing his teammates to pick up the scraps in his wake.

 

 

Huey Hewitt (Youngblood)

Hewitt

Aside from being a hard-nosed leader, Hewitt had a bomb from the point.  Unafraid to go to bat for his teammates or pound pucks at refs, Hewitt’s unpredictability kept opponents looking over their shoulder and created extra space for his teammates.  A natural prankster, Hewitt also kept things light in the room, further adding to a tight-knit culture.

 

 

Forward:

 

Ned Braeden (Slap Shot)

Braeden

One of the unique qualities to Ned Braeden’s character was that the actor portraying him (Michael Ontkean) actually played hockey—a 4-year career at Hockey East powerhouse University of New Hampshire, where he piled in 40 points in 29 games as a senior.  Aside from being the leading scorer of the Federal League, Braeden acted as the card game treasurer on all road trips—a very important off-ice role on a minor league team.

 

Derek Sutton (Youngblood)

YOUNGBLOOD, Patrick Swayze, 1986, (c)MGM

Derek Sutton was a born leader and natural hockey cultural beauty.  There was nobody better from the blue line in, in all of movie hockey lore.  92 goals as an 18-year-old in major junior hockey is some serious shit.  If it weren’t for an unfortunate career ending head injury, Sutton would have been a sure-fire NHL superstar.

 

Dean Youngblood (Youngblood)

Youngblood

Deaner cracks the first team due to an explosive rookie season that saw him join the surging Hamilton Mustangs during the stretch run, ultimately putting them over the top.  It was when Derek Sutton went down that Youngblood showed his true mettle, leading the Mustangs to the championship and dusting Carl Racki in an epic centre ice tilt in the process.  The fact that he took down his billet and the coach’s daughter in the same season didn’t hurt his case in making this team, either.

 

 

Second Team All-Stars

 

Goalie:

 

Heaver (Youngblood)

Heaver

Narrowing down the second goalie spot on the All-Star team was the toughest decision.  We don’t see a lot of Heaver (played by Keanu Reeves) in Youngblood, but he was quintessential to the success of the Hamilton Mustangs, backstopping them to the championship against the Thunder Bay Bombers.  Heaver had great quickness from post-to-post and was one of the earlier goalies to employ the butterfly style.

 

 

Defence:

 

Johnny Upton (Slap Shot)

Johnny

Upton was the captain of the Charleston Chiefs and a level head in the room.  Johnny wasn’t afraid to mix it up and his old lady, Shirley Upton, played an important role in keeping the wives and girlfriends in line.  Even though there was always the threat that Johnny might have to leave and go work for his brother-in-law at the Chrysler plant, you always knew he’d have your back with the cards were down.

 

Morris “Mo” Wanchuk (Slap Shot)

Mo Wanchuk

Mo Wanchuk was a classic minor league journeyman and hard-nosed, tooth and nail defender.  Fearless on the ice, Mo was equally fearless at the bar, brimming with confidence and charm.  He once took down the bar maid at the Palm Isle without a wingman.  Mo was the ultimate team guy—a necessity for all championship teams.

 

 

Forwards:

 

Reggie Dunlop (Slap Shot)

Reggie Dunlop

This wouldn’t be a proper all-star team without Player/Coach Reggie Dunlop.  Reg was one of hockey’s greatest ironmen, playing for “quite a few” years in the different tiers of pro hockey.  Once one of the game’s greatest players, Dunlop still provided immeasurable value well into his 40s, helping lead an improbable Chiefs team to the championship on the brink of disbandment.

 

Gunnar Stahl (Mighty Ducks 2)

Gunnar-Stahl

One the best pure talents in hockey movie history, Gunnar Stahl dazzled at the 1993 Junior Goodwill Games.  Equipped with a howitzer of a shot, Stahl dismantled a deep Mighty Ducks team during the round robin only to fail in dramatic fashion during the shootout rounds of the championship game.  The biggest flaw to Stahl’s game was his ego.  If he went blocker side on Julie “The Cat” Gaffney, Iceland likely would have won.

 

 

Gordon Bombay (Mighty Ducks Franchise)

MSDDETW EC004

Gordon Bombay is probably the most naturally talented movie hockey player to ever lace ‘em up.  I mean he played house league hockey until he was 10 years-old and then quit.  19 years later, after attending law school and a brief law career, he laces them back up in the AHL, bursting out of the gates for the Minnesota Waves before a dirty hit ends his career for a second time.  An innovator, much like Wayne Gretzky, Bombay used his patented “Triple Deke” to twist opposing goalies into knots.

 

 

Honourable Mention:

 

Julie “The Cat” Gaffney

 

Gaffney would have likely been on this team had it not been for sexism.  Easily the more talented of the two Might Duck goalies, Gaffney often found herself relegated to the end of coach Gordon Bombay’s bench.  Gaffney was armed with hockey movies’ quickest glove.

 

Tommy Hanrahan

 

Once one of the Federal League’s best netminders, Hanrahan’s marital issues consumed his career, sending him into a slump he was unable to recover from.

 

John Biebe

 

Despite being a fearless leader and great glue guy, pond hockey legend John Biebe’s skating ability held him off this team.  He skated like a water buffalo on cross-country skis.

 

Adam Banks

 

Although immensely talented, Banks was a soft player who tended to wither into the background when the opposition began to lean on him.

 

Charlie Conway

 

Although he was an inspirational leader, Conway’s lack of talent keeps him off this list.

 

The Hansons

 

Like the Sedin twins, these guys come as a package deal.  There just isn’t a way I can justify putting all three Hanson brothers on one of the All-Star teams.

 

Barclay Donaldson

 

Donaldson was a complete player who spent a significant amount of time up playing in the big leagues.  At the tail end of his career, his skills diminished greatly, forcing Minnesota to drop him.  It was all over the Hockey News.

 

Stevie Weeks

 

Despite being the best skater in hockey movie history, Weeks just didn’t have enough body of work to make this team.

 

Carl Racki

 

Despite being one of the greatest pests in hockey movie history, Racki’s propensity for taking bad penalties at the wrong time and adding a cancerous element to the dressing room kept him off this team.


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Hockey Sense Can Be Taught

 

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Most will agree that the best hockey players in the history of the game were special because of the way they thought the game two steps ahead of everyone else.  They had incredible “hockey sense” and this set them apart from the rest of the pack.  We can all agree that this is a very important part of hockey, so why don’t we spend more time trying to hone this skill?

Ever since I was young, I’ve always heard the saying: “You can’t teach hockey sense.” I never questioned this because it was coming from coaches, scouts and GMs—hockey authority people.  Why challenge it?  It has to be true.  Right?

I believe it is true that there are certain players who have an insanely high level of mental acuity when it comes to the game of hockey.  When you think of the term hockey sense, Wayne Gretzky immediately jumps to mind.  He was an innovator and a player who used his strong mental talents to elevate his game to an ungodly level.  And just like exceptional talents in any field—sports, arts, science or business—it begins with confidence and fearlessness.

For me, saying that you either have it, or you don’t is a myth.  I believe hockey sense can be taught, and I believe that the perception that we can’t is built upon laziness and fear of the unknown.  The first step to opening the mind is to break down barriers, toss out myths and unleash creativity.  In order to do this, a culture built on positivity and self-confidence needs to be created.  In other words, make it fun.  Once kids feel comfortable, they will drop their guards and this is when true development can occur.  This removes the fear out of the game and unleashes a hockey player’s greatest weapon:  confidence.

When a hockey player is confident and devoid of fear, he or she is a force to be reckoned with.  Have you ever experienced the feeling a player has after scoring a goal?  In the shifts following a goal, you feel quicker, stronger and re-energized.  The game slows down and you feel like you can accomplish anything.  Now, imagine you always felt like that.  That’s the power of confidence.  Great players thrive on this—always have.

Nowadays, minor hockey teams rely heavily on system play due to the grossly misguided pressure to win.  There are even a large number of people who believe that hockey systems teach kids how to think the game at a higher level, when in all actuality this is stripping the kids of the creativity that is the foundation of the game.

As a major peewee playing AAA hockey, I had a coach who spent 90% of our practices teaching us “The Trap Forecheck”, “The Left-Wing Lock”, and power play breakouts that would make your head spin.  I remember the anxiety I felt every time I stepped onto the ice.  I had a million things going through my 12-year-old brain and not one of them had to do with reading and reacting.  Most of the time, I would just get the puck and shoot it off the boards and out.  I was terrified to make any mistakes.

As a coach at the junior A level, one of the biggest problems I saw with young players was a severely low level of mental acuity, which was ironic because every OHL and NCAA scout was looking for players with hockey sense.  Players were so reliant on systems that they didn’t have the ability to read and react.  Their minor hockey organizations had trained them to be so focused on “Option 1”, “Option 2”, and “Option 3”.  They didn’t have a feel for the game.  Hockey is a game that is filled with breakdowns and turnovers.  There is no right or wrong, because sometimes the right decision ends up being the wrong one.

So how can a coach teach hockey sense?  Step 1 is to create a positive environment and encourage creativity.  Encourage your players to play without fear of reprimand and try new things.  Step 2 is to design practices to include drills that require more reading and reacting requirements and freelancing, rather than structured paths and directions.  For example, if you’re designing a breakout drill with forecheckers applying pressure, provide basic positional structure without direct paths or instructions.  This allows the players to learn how to read and react to pressure.  Even though they may struggle initially, the positive culture you have created will help them work through adversity and develop the mental skills required to overcome.

The number one rule above all else when building hockey sense in young players is: “Be Patient”.  It takes years and years of practice to hone any skill, especially mentally-oriented skills.  If you start with a positive culture that celebrates creativity and structure your teachings around reading and reacting, this will empower your players and provide them with a huge leg up when they reach higher levels in the game where system play becomes more important.

Remember, it’s much easier to teach systems to a player with hockey sense than it is to teach hockey sense to a player who only knows how to follow a system.


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