Hard Hockey Lessons Hopefully Learned
The Sharks competed in our home tournament this past weekend. As usual, the games we played were not without drama or ample learning opportunities, which I believe are a big part of what tournaments are really all about; beyond the fame, glory and medal ceremonies, of course. One of the things the coaching staff and I have really wanted to work on with the girls of late is penalties as they’ve bitten us in the collective seat of our hockey pants on a few occasions this season. Tough to score or win if you’re playing shorthanded. And yes, penalties are part of the game. We just want to avoid the “dumb” penalties usually borne of frustration – roughing or retaliatory penalties taken in the heat of battle. To this end, a couple of weeks ago, I let the team know we would be taking steps to help ensure these types of lapses in judgment were kept to a minimum. I am not a coach who likes to “bench” players, however, I determined this would be the best way of getting the message across. I may be repeating myself, but one of the first times this new team “rule” was instituted, it happened to be one of the assistant’s coach’s daughters who was the subject, after she drew a 4 minute head shot call; during which we surrendered a game-tying goal. We were fortunate to come back and win that particular game, thereby limiting the sting of the reprimand; a measure, which has been used a couple more times in recent games and would be necessary this weekend.
This particular seven-team tournament happened to feature four teams from our league so there was a pretty good chance we’d come up against one of them, although we wouldn’t face any unless we advanced beyond the round robin. The tourney scheduler did a good job of setting our first three games up against squads from other leagues. Another goal of entering tournaments is to play against varied competition, but you generally don’t get much choice when it’s your own event.
The juxtaposition of penalties and drama struck early in the first game on one of the oddest occurrences I’ve ever witnessed in a game. During a mutual line change one of our defencemen and an opposing player collided only a few feet from our adjoining benches. Both players fell to the ice, but ours got back to her feet quickly while the opponent struggled to leave the surface on her hands and knees in obvious discomfort; that being said she was noted to return to the game no long thereafter. All the while, the game continued for another two minutes without a whistle being blown. When the play finally was stopped the head referee and one of the linesmen came together to have a prolonged conversation. Eventually, they skated over and summoned me down from the bench to have a ice-side tête-à-tête. The head ref proceeded to tell me he had missed what the linesman felt was a major tripping infraction; the operative word being MAJOR, which thereby enabled the linesman to call a penalty – a major penalty, which in turn meant ejection from the game for our bewildered player and a five minute powerplay for the other team, during which the first goal of the game was naturally scored against us. Not only had I never heard of a linesman calling a penalty 2+ minutes after it occurred, I had never heard of a GM73 Major Tripping penalty. To make matters worse, I would find out post-game the infraction also carried with it a 2-game suspension. We heard from the other linesman post-game that no official really saw what happened, but only the post collision result. The only, albeit important, positive from this first game was an eventual 3-2 win.
So we would enter game two (and then game three for that matter) down a member of our defence corps. We were confident knowing our second opponent had lost their first game 6-0 to one of our close competitors, but we also knew all too well nothing is to be taken for granted. As the two teams took to the ice, I noted one of my fave referees (he says trying not to sound tooooo sarcastic) would be handling the head officiating duties. I wanted to be sure I properly denoted my suspended player’s info on the game sheet so I asked her to review it for me. She immediately asked what happened in the last game and I described the unusual circumstance as objectively as I could. She patted me on the shoulder, gave me a quick wink and said, “Let’s try to not let that happen again.” I returned the wink, but dreaded what could potentially ensue. The game started and we carried a three-goal lead into the final period. With the other side having given up 9 goals to none, over the last five periods, they understandably started to get a bit frustrated and it showed in their play. Their aggressive play was unfortunately matched by our own. One of our defencemen in particular retaliated to being struck with a right jab of her own; earning her a two-minute penalty…one of those we’ve been trying to limit. Consequently, when the offender returned to the bench I suggested she have an additional rest. “She hit me first,” signaled her mild protest and frustration. To which I quickly countered with, “Yeah, but we all know they always catch the retaliator.” To her defence (pun fully intended as always), even most NHLers have a difficult time grasping this incontrovertible truth and perhaps in this we are seeing learned behaviour. She hung her head and served her extra team-inflicted mini-suspension…lesson hopefully learned. The game ended with the Sharks registering their highest goal total to date (5) and none against.
Game three was a semi must-win or at least a must-tie despite our unblemished record through the first two matches. We knew we would be in for a tougher match, but would hopefully ride the wave of our last and eye the prize of a semi-final berth. A short time into this game it became apparent our referee du jour was very familiar with his whistle and willing to use it as both teams were tagged with early penalties. As such, I gave a quick warning to those on our side to be mindful of their actions. They were for the most part until a few minutes into the final frame, at which point we were deadlocked in a 0-0 contest. An over-aggressive play in the corner ended with one of our defenders being banished for the obligatory 2 minute span; thereby putting the game and our opportunity to advance is some jeopardy. Again, luckily, we were able to kill the 2 minutes with no damage done, but again I felt it necessary to allot an extra brief punishment to try to get the point across to the offender’s teammates. Having secured/survived a 0-0 tied score, the Sharks were headed to the medal round against their nearest and “dearest” rivals.
Our semi-final opponent was familiar, but a bit surprising, as the first place team in our league entered the tourney round in 4th place, though in a tight 7-team tourney anything can and usually will happen. Once more, we realized we were in for a fight to secure a place in the Championship game. Pre-game I had fashioned a new motivational “Survivor Hockey” sign instructing our charges to Outsmart, Outwork and Outlast the other side. And indeed they did, dominating the first half of the game on the ice and the scoreboard with a 1-0 lead. The lead would evaporate before the end of the second period, making the third a race to the finish. We implored the players to keep battling shift by shift. However, a few shifts in our skating gave way to the other team’s pressure and they notched a go-ahead marker. As frustration and/or panic set in, we took the first and only, but certainly ill-timed and unwarranted penalty of the game. Shorthanded, we gave up a third nail in our proverbial coffin when again the girls’ efforts lagged momentarily and the puck found the back of our net. For a third consecutive game, I found myself patting a player on the shoulder as she begrudgingly served a second sentence. Two hard lessons learned over the span of a single period.
So the tournament didn’t go quite as we hoped, however, it was not without value for showing the team what is required to win hockey games. Keep up your efforts, especially against the tougher opponents, and keep your emotions in check against the rougher ones….always. We’ve told them these are the things they are able to control, though both are easier said than done in hockey as in life. We’ll see how things progress from here with the hope the benching subsides because as Snoopy adeptly points out, we are all really “…such a nice guy(s).”