Friday, September 9, 2011

An open letter to hockey parents ...

Hi gang,

With the start of a new youth hockey season, I thought I'd re-visit my first season, when Brynne decided she was going to be a hockey player (one of the proudest moments of my life! She's in the first row, second from the right!). I got tabbed, somewhat blindsided, actually, as the head coach of the Agawam Squirt C squad. Here's my open letter to my parents, which I think also conveys why I think sports -- and hockey in particular -- are so important. Plus, I've always thought of coaching as more than an obligation to our kids ... I see it as an obligation to all the coaches who took the time to teach me, and to the game that has taught me so much over the years. And one that continues to teach me. Let me know what you think!

Welcome to the 2008-09 hockey season

Dear Agawam Squirt C parents and players,

Welcome to another year of Agawam hockey! Sorry this note is coming after our thrilling 3-3 stalemate vs. North Andover, but our staffing came together rather late (or maybe the season came a little too early!). Unbeknownst to me, I was "volunteered" to coach the Squirt C team, along with Jere Moroney, by President Apgar. Still, I welcome the assignment, and am looking forward to the coming season. The energy our kids displayed last Sunday has definitely energized me as well.

First, though, I wanted to echo Lee's earlier letter regarding Agawam's early start date, and the obvious conflicts that arise with fall sports. Clearly, hockey is not the be-all of your child's extracurricular activities, especially in September (my Brynne is juggling soccer, swimming, and lacrosse Fall Ball as well!). All that Jere and I ask is that you keep us posted as to the dates, especially the games, when your child can't attend.

I also wanted to let you know a few things about me, and my relationship to the game. I've played hockey for the better part of the past 40 years, and have coached for the past 12. I work primarily as a senior staff member for Bertagna Goaltending, though I've also coached at the high school (Hamilton-Wenham) and college (Endicott) levels. Simply, I love the game, which is why I still play several times a week, despite having entered my second half-century (and despite a host of nagging injuries), and why I'm thrilled that my daughter Brynne has decided to give it a go.

My philosophy regarding sports in general, and hockey specifically, is pretty straightforward. I think sports are an important, even essential, tool in teaching life lessons: camaraderie, teamwork, discipline, resiliency, respect, and sportsmanship. The fun comes not only from individual accomplishment, but in seeing the team succeed through mutual effort and cooperation. I also believe that children at the Squirt level are fully capable of understanding and appreciating these basic ideals (if not the "life lesson" aspect). As coaches, it's our job to help them with that understanding.

During this season, I hope each child will grow as a player and as a young man or young lady. Confidence, as John Buccigross once wrote, is the single most important trait for a young athlete, and we want to cultivate that among all our players. At this age, I'm less interested with their skill set (and wins and losses), and much more interested in their behavior, both on and off the ice. I hope to create, along with Jere and the other coaches, an environment where each player can thrive within the team concept, which I believe will result in team success. I will move quickly to short-circuit any behavior that isn't conducive to the team: woofing at opponents, showboating, talking back to the refs, or arguing with teammates, to name just a few pet peeves.

I want the Squirt C's to be a team that the players and parents can be proud of, regardless of what our record is. (Don't get me wrong: I like to win as much as anyone, and I'm sure Jim Cabot would be happy to vouch for how testy I can get during our NSSA skates! But I never want winning to trump sportsmanship.)

We will emphasize the basics. Play a north-south game, skate your lane, don't bunch up, cover your man on D, back check, talk to one another, skate with the puck when you're open, and pass to the open man or space when you're not. Everyone will play offense, everyone will play defense, and, yes, everyone will strap on the goalie gear for game or two. Playing every position is the best way I know to foster an appreciation of what your teammates are dealing with.

Last, I welcome input from parents. I understand that coaching youth sports is a delicate balancing act, and not everyone will agree with my approach (or the approach that other coaches might take, for that matter). I promise you this much: I will strive to be as consistent as possible in putting the team interests above the individual interests of any one player. Hockey is, after all, a team sport, and that's why it works so well as a teaching tool for life in general. That said, if you feel that there are issues that need to be addressed, please don't suffer in silence. My door is open.

Many thanks, in advance, for the opportunity to work with these youngsters.

All the best,

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Another hockey season gets under way ...

Hi gang,

Tonight, another hockey season starts up for my daughter Brynne, which means another season of coaching youth hockey starts up for me. I've been coaching for more than a decade now, and I almost always feel like I'm investing part of myself with my "students," whether they're Mites, PeeWees, high school players, college students, even full-blown adults. But when it comes to coaching my daughter, and her friends, the dynamic changes. Frankly, it pulls on the heartstrings a bit more. And sometimes, that's a beautiful thing ... Here's a column I wrote a few years back, about one of those memorable moments.

An uncommon, heartfelt apology

As a youth hockey coach, I get to see, up close and personal, the entire spectrum of human behavior, from kids to parents to grandparents. Much of it, frankly, isn't very pretty. And I suppose some think of me and my Old School ways in the same vein. I take the "iron hand, warm heart" approach to coaching. I don't cut the kids much slack. I want them to enjoy sports, but also want them to respect the game. They need to know that games aren't created for their entertainment; the games exist to challenge them, to help them learn and grow. The enjoyment comes from mastering a skill, from learning that extra effort is always repaid in full, and from sharing a unique camaraderie with teammates.

Still, I oftentimes think most parents don't get this approach. My bride once coined the phrase "soccer day care," and I think that probably applies to youth hockey as well. At least town-sponsored programs. Don't get me wrong; I'm not a fan of the over-the-top, win-at-all-costs approach either. But sports, really, are about challenging yourself, getting knocked on your butt and getting back up, and repeating the process until you succeed. It's not about being pampered, or about the nice gear your well-heeled folks can buy for you. In sports, it's about what YOU can do on the ice. No excuses (despite the fact that we live in an area where parents will make every excuse, no matter how preposterous, for their child!).

But every now and then a moment happens to remind me why I do this. It might be an exhausted smile, a rare "thank you," a spark of recognition that what you're preaching is getting through. Last weekend our Squirt 2 team had a game (at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., at a rink an hour away) against a squad from Haverhill. Unfortunately for Haverhill, their goalie didn't show, which meant some poor kid without the proper equipment had to stand between the pipes. By late in the second period, with our squad winning 5-0, my assistant coach and I implemented a "three-pass minimum" in the offensive zone (like I said, the other team didn't have a goaltender, and we had no intention of running up the score). We re-emphasized that rule between periods. It was, we said, not only the right thing to do from a sportsmanship perspective, but our players needed work on their passing.

In the third period, one of my defensemen, a burly, likable kid (we'll call him "Bobby," in the interests of anonymity), intercepted a clearing attempt and took a shot from the point without the requisite three passes. My assistant and I immediately agreed to take him off the ice. This is where it gets interesting. I asked Bobby if he understood why I pulled him, and he sheepishly admitted he knew he should have passed. I emphasized that there are times when you have to resist doing what you want to do, and instead do what's right (in this case, pass, so we could be good sportsmen). The boy nodded. A moment later, he mumbled something behind me. When I asked him to repeat it, he said: "I'm sorry, Coach." It was incredibly sincere.

The next time I looked at him, he had tears running down his cheeks. I was really moved ... this young man really cares about the game, and really cares about doing the right thing. I was proud of him. "It's OK, Bobby," I told him. "We're good, right?" He quietly said "yes." And I knew we were.