Been a little while since I wrote anything here and there’s a whole bunch of reasons/excuses I want to convince myself are responsible as work, life and hockey have collided on multiple fronts of late; the good, the bad and sometimes ugly as they say. This is by no means meant to be a pity party, however, there’s been a bit more of the latter two conditions than the former for my liking. In years past, hockey has always been the escape mechanism. Hitting the ice for practice, watching either the Boy or the Devil kids play games and just having fun playing those games has provided welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of everything else. Unfortunately, the last month or so has seen the hockey and everything else getting all mixed up in one big blurry mess. To the point, where I can honestly say for a bit there I wasn’t really looking forward to visiting the rink. Rather, I was welcoming a short Christmas break from the everything. Aaand, as luck would have it, my stocking was filled with a nasty case of the flu rendering me virtually immobile for a week (insert sympathetic gasps or groans here). So bad, in fact, I missed three of my own rec hockey games, though the last may have had something to do with the dramatic final game of the the World Junior Hockey Championships between Canada and Russia. I was schedule to make my return to the ice at 10:30pm last Monday night. At 9:15pm, the score was 5-1 Canada and I had my hockey bag at the door and was ready to return to rec league action. A mere 10 minutes later, Russia cut the lead to 5-4 at which point the Devil asked, “You’re not really going to miss the rest of this game are you Dad?” Nuff said and I remained couch bound until I heard the Canadian anthem denoting a triumph for the home side after a nervous final frame.
On the other personal hockey front, I knew before we started there would be on-ice challenges with our team this season, but I was hopeful and optimistic of an overall successful campaign on the strength of having a good group of girls; who I and my staff would work on getting on the same page. To date, and particularly lately, there have been more challenges than successes. Anyone who knows me, or has read my ramblings over the last few years, knows hockey success for me is not synonymous with winning. Rather, I just want to make sure I’m keeping the team on an even keel, providing a positive influence and seeing to it the majority of players are having fun. The last couple of weeks haven’t been much fun. Of course, winning a few games here or there or at least competing has a way of making things a whole lot more enjoyable. In the last 14 games we’ve only managed one of those ever-elusive Ws, combined with a whole bunch of less attractive Ls; many of which are have been of the lopsided variety. Losing has become a bit contagious. Once behind, momentum quickly becomes our greatest foe. An antidote is admittedly becoming increasingly difficult to concoct. The optimal place to work on a cure is practice, however, those have been sporadically attended, perhaps likewise due to the lack of on-ice success. Losing breeds apathy, particularly in older teens who have a bunch of other ways to occupy their time (see school, jobs, boys and families).
A few weeks ago, I and one of my assistants decided to lighten the mood by staging a shaving-protest who’s end is contingent on two consecutive wins for our side. Much to Momma’s ongoing chagrin, by Decembeard continues to flourish well into Januhairy. I do continue to hope to become reacquainted with a razor sooner rather than later. Perhaps a little help from the Hockey Gods is in order.
One of the primary frustrations with this team has been the promise and flashes of brilliance they’ve shown from time-to-time. Our biggest enemy has been consistency; which is to say, three full periods of hockey played by the entire group at a level these girls have proven they are capable. As a coach, I can’t help but feel at least part of the answer hinges on motivation; meaning my/our ability to motivate consistent effort, at the heart of which is positivity. I can and have hearkened back to a previous team who went from worst to first in a relatively short period of time.
Back in real life, the first weeks of the New Year has dealt a couple of sobering shots across my mortal bow, reminding me of the importance of making hockey fun the priority; for me and my players, particularly the one wearing #8. The Devil remains the primary reason I want to go to the rink, regardless the Ls or Ws. Hockey, he says to himself knowingly, is and must be held high as pure fun balanced against sometimes harsh work/life realities.
Hockey has been called the fastest game on Earth. Though fans of Jai Alai or Hurling may argue the point, it is certainly the fastest game where the players (not the balls, pucks or other objects) are self-propelled across a slick surface and not mechanically aided by a horse, car or some other instrument. The other major team sports (football, basketball, soccer and baseball) are virtually in slow motion by comparison. The speed of the game played on ice is definitely one of its biggest attractions. With speed, comes a degree of danger, which no doubt serves to heighten the attraction. Hockey can be a dangerous game as players race around the ice with sticks in hand on razor sharp skates. You need only ask NHL players like Erik Karlsson or Dave Bolland who both had their ankle tendons accidentally severed by skates over the last couple of seasons. Most older NHL hockey fans will quickly reference goaltender Clint Malarchuk who’s neck was horrifically cut by a blade back in 1989. Those who are squeamish should probably not watch the video below, but I offer it here for its shock value and for fans of blood and gore.
Regardless the level of hockey played, accidents do happen. I personally recall one men’s rec game a couple of years ago when I failed to put in my mouthguard. Without fail during my first shift an opposing players stick accidentally came up and caught me square in the chicklets. No major damage was done, but I headed directly to the change room to retrieve my guard and have tried not to play without one ever since. In my often client- facing career, it would not be good to show up looking like Bobby Clarke from the 70s, as much as the look may appeal to the ladies.
The danger associated with the game is also given as one of the main deterrents by parents thinking about signing up their children and a partial reason (#2 to cost) for a drop in minor hockey registration in Canada. There are plenty of documented stories, like the NHL ones above, of kids getting concussed or cut. With the aforementioned speed of the game these things are bound to happen. If we want to grow the game we’re going to have to come up with ways to make it safer; including developing better equipment. I’ve recently come across a company who’s doing it (full disclosure…I have received free products from the company to test and talk about). BASE360 and Garmatex have partnered to develop and market a new base layer product (tops, pants, shorts and socks), which incorporates cut-resistant Kevlar® in the “cut zones” around a player’s calves, ankles and wrists. This company also develops base layer clothing for speed skaters and law enforcement officers, which naturally adds to the sense of security you feel when wearing it. BODYARMOUR is a line specifically developed for sale through Canadian Tire.
Generally, a couple of the problems and complaints many athletes have with wearing protective equipment is the restrictiveness of it or the heat buildup caused by the additional layer. However, I can attest as a player (albeit far from professional calibre) who does more than his fair share of perspiring, Base360 actually cuts down on the amount of sweat you feel when you play. I usually only wear ratty sweat shorts and sleeveless base layer shirt under the rest of my gear, so I was initially hesitant to wear full length compression pants (with a built in jock, which goes without saying is another critical protective item) and a long sleeve shirt. I was amazed after my first game in the gear how relatively dry I was. I’m not sure where my normal buckets of sweat went, but they were not hanging from my arms or legs and the Base360 gear was dry as well. “Is this some sort of magic cloth?” I asked my perplexed self. The Devil has also taken to wearing the new gear and has likewise marvelled at how well it works as a base layer. As both a player and parent, I am comforted knowing we have the additional layer of protection against unintentional skate blade incidents. While he never encountered any issues, I certainly would have outfitted the Boy in this stuff had it been available when he played competitive hockey. To me this part seems like a no-brainer for the parents of any hockey player at any age. Maybe this type of gear (cost notwithstanding) should even be deemed required equipment just like neck and mount guards. Most kids are already wearing some type of base layer, so adding the extra protection of Kevlar® without adding extra bulk only makes sense. What price do you put on making sure your child is fully and properly protected knowing accidents do happen? I’m pleased to have been introduced to Base360 and encourage hockey moms, dads and players alike to try it out for themselves.
I’ve pondered whether or not I should share this for a while, not wanting to come off as another whiny hockey coach questioning a referee’s judgment and spewing sour grapes after a loss. However, upon reflection and after having retold the tale to several empathetic friends and family, I decided it was well worth relating, if only to illustrate the oddity for your enjoyment and my own catharsis.
The story begins with a second rematch on the road with a league rival against whom we’d lost by a goal and tied 1-1 in our two previous meetings. We on the coaching staff were enthusiastic about our chances to even up the series with a victory of our own and some momentum built on the team’s play from the past week. Unfortunately, our momentum was squashed a few minutes into the first period when a turnover in the neutral zone was followed by a bouncing puck finding its way through our goaltender. A second goal for the bad guys just before the end of the first resulted in some droopy shoulders on the part of our skaters. With two periods to go the deficit was certainly not insurmountable and I urged the team to keep battling as they had in recent games. Battle they did until halfway through the second period when when our foes found the back of the net again. Shoulders would continue to shrug on and off the ice resulting in yet two more goals against and a 5-0 hole with a period to play.
Between periods I had one simple message for the team, “Let’s just go out and win the next period.” I told them to get back to playing smart, aggressive hockey as we knew they could. You could sense the frustration in the room mounting. Back on the ice I was happy to see a different team. We were holding our own. We were getting a few scoring opportunities. Early in the period, there were what I thought were a couple of missed calls by the referee as our girls were either interfered with or, in one instance, hauled down. With Momma in my ear of late regarding the chirping of refs, I held my opinions to myself. Momma has warned me our oft penalized team may be getting a reputation, which may have been a factor in my impending dilemma. As the game wore on one of our players took her frustration out with an indisputable body check and served a 2 minute penalty as a result. When she returned to the bench she was reprimanded, however, on her next shift she made her way to the sin bin again after being called for an apparent head contact infraction, which I did not see. Regardless, when she was done with this second penalty I let her know she would not be playing in the final couple of minutes of the game; which I think she already realized.
About a minute later, with only 46 seconds remaining in regulation time, the real crux of this saga arrived. As an oncoming player tried to enter our defensive zone one of our bigger defenders stood straight up to greet her. The smaller player crumpled to the ice. About four or five healthy steamboats later, the head referee raised his hand to call a body contact penalty. I am certain no call would have been made had the greetee bounced to her feet. As the referee escorted my player to the penalty box I may have calmly suggested he note the presence of two teams sharing the ice. Without hesitation he turned and shouted, “Jeff, do you have a problem with me?” (Yeah, how the hell did he know my name? Guess he spent some time reading the game sheet.) Then he skated over to address me and I stepped down from the bench to meet him. I was so taken aback by his initial use of my first name, I can only paraphrase what he said next…”Jeff (he did it again) do you not see what’s happening out here? Are you seriously questioning my calls? In all my years of reffing I have not seen such an aggressive team. Maybe you should go back and learn how to coach.” Our team Captain staining to my right argued, “He can’t say that!”, with which I concurred, but returned to my spot on the bench bewildered by the ref’s verbal attack. Before he left to speak with the other coach he shouted, “Jeff, if I see one player leave this bench you are outta here!” I wasn’t sure what he actually meant by leaving the bench and waited for him to return to resume play. After a 30 second conversation with the other team’s coach he skated towards the faceoff circle, first stopping to issue one more warning, “Jeff, did you hear me? One more player and yor’re gone.” Despite my best efforts I could control my tongue no longer and shouted back, “Ohhhh, I hear you LOUD and CLEAR!” George Costanza, for all you Seinfeld fans, woulda been proud. I coulda used a little “Serenity Now!” I did not, however, at any point utter a single cuss word, which in retrospect may have better justified my fate. As you can imagine, a mere moments later I stepped down from my bench, stepped out onto the ice, slid over to and then thru the opposing team’s bench, which stood between me and the lobby, where I would watch the last 46 seconds of the game in disbelief. To add insult to injury, the home team would register one more goal for good measure. I, for my egregious indiscretion, would earn an extra game suspension. To my captain’s credit, she attempted to reason with the referee post-game and was told he may have missed a call or two, but we were still too aggressive.
At the risk of sounding bitter, I’ll contend this particular striped fellow’s perception was clouded. I did not, nor would I ever, condone overly aggressive play. We admittedly have a couple of players who have self-discipline challenges we have and likely will continue to struggle with. But at the top of my list of team rules is Respect for opponents, teammates and yes, even refs. Without knowing what may have brought his outburst on, I’ll suggest this particular ref could stand to take a peek at my list.
At practice three days later, I made my first order of business an apology to my players, for losing my composure as I’ve asked them to maintain theirs in the heat of battle. With no recourse, I took my league prescribed medicine in the next game, sitting with my parents up in the stands and wringing my hands through a 1-0 loss.
This weekend I’ll return to the bench for our home tourney with my lips firmly pursed. I have no plans on leaving again any time soon, but sometimes you never know what this game will throw at you. A good story or two at the very least.