Not Quite the Right Colour

The weekend unfortunately ended on a semi-sour note with a 3-0 loss and a silver medal in the championship game versus the host team.  As in previous games, our players came out with guns a-blazin’ registering several good scoring opportunities in close.  We were literally all over them for the first half of the first period, but our scoring woes continued.  Looking back we were able to win two games and tie one other with only three tallies in total.  To their credit, at the other end of the ice, our goalkeepers kept us in each one of our five games holding the opposition to a total of only five goals. Yet the opposition would bounce one past us near the end of the first and another partway through the second period.  Press as they may, our shooters would come up empty…on at least a couple of occasions inexplicably.

Silver Tournament Medal

I believe there were a few contributing factors to our loss in the final game including having to play the home team (who got to sleep in their own beds last night as well as play a meaningless game as a warm-up this morning) and perhaps a hangover from last night’s tumultuous victory.  No matter I contend the loss was only semi-sour because the girls get full credit for the effort they gave this weekend. Though the players’ post-game faces would tell a different story. I’m selfishly happy they were disappointed at the loss.  Someone along the way has said you have to lose before you can really learn how to win.  Losing in a final like we did today may benefit us down the road.

If tournaments are about growing as a team, practicing team tactics against some different competition and having a little fun, I believe I can successfully say, “Mission Accomplished”.  At the same time, I’m confident the girls themselves recognize there is still much work to do to get this team to next level.  While there was no lack of effort, there was still some questionable decision making, and some selfish play with the puck – stuff we will continue to address in practices and games.  While both are important to success,  you can teach skills or systems to follow, but you can’t instruct desire or effort – that has to already be flickering inside just waiting to be ignited.  We certainly saw some flames burning over the last three days.

#imahockeycoach #imahockeydad

Period by Period

Yesterday was one long, but ultimately very satisfying day of hockey. We started with a 7:30am wake up call in a foreign hotel room.  We were actually fortunate to get a relatively quiet hotel room, which could not be said for one of the Devil’s teammates who apparently listened to Moose Calls and barking dogs (yup, in a hotel) until 5am.  Still the Devil, like most teenagers has a deep-rooted appreciation for her weekend beauty sleep, so 7:30 was not welcomed.  I don’t think the shower actually shut off until 8:15, which left just enough time for a light breakfast before heading to the rink for the first of three games spread out over 12 hours.

sharks girls hockey team

My plan of attack for the day was presented in the pre-game talk of the Sharks’ first match. “There’s lots of hockey to play, so let’s just try to focus on one period at a time.”  Clichéd I know, but in order for these girls to succeed I thought bite-sized chunks made sense. I’m trying hard to remember not to overload the message – keep it simple just like I would want it delivered to me.

Game one found us dominant from the start against a team from our regular league. The game began with a tic-tac-toe passing play ending in a scoring opportunity.  Several other scoring chances would follow, however, as is too often the case in girls hockey, the red lamp would not be lit.  They would remain merely unconverted chances.  Between missing the net on point blank shots, the opposing keeper making some brilliant stops and in at least two cases the puck simply not finding a way to reach the mythical mesh, the first contest would end in a 0-0 tie. One particularly spectacular play featuring a pass from the point, a shot and a great deflection struck a startled goalie in the shoulder. She had no idea where the puck came from or where it was headed. Some would say she was in the right position.  In this case she just got hit by the puck. There was no actual save made. That’s the way it goes sometimes.  Our own keeper was given full marks for her shutout effort as well.

After an incredibly well organized team lunch (all team lunches have the potential to go sideways depending on the preparedness of the establishment, which is a topic for another day), we headed to rink two to tangle with team from the city hosting the tourney.  We watched them play earlier in the day and knew we would be in a battle.

The arena we arrived at was a charming old venue somewhere between anywhere and nowhere. It brought me back again to some of the rinks I played in many moons ago.  The ice surface appeared to be quite a bit smaller than a standard rink, which would require a specific game plan against a fairly big team. Even the player bench configuration was unusual as the two teams would face each other across the ice instead of being side by side. And finally, the girls were presented with a new and novel experience of jumping over the boards and down onto the ice as the doors to enter the bench from the ice were situated in a fashion which would not allow for an easy exit. After one of the first shifts, I heard one of our players quip to another “How was your first trip over the boards?” to which she replied “It was a lot of fun, but a long way down.”  Priceless.

Before the fourth period of the day, I told the girls their tournament destiny was in their hands.  A couple of victories would place them in a one-game, winner-take-all final on Sunday. But the focus (and there’s that word again) would be on period four to start.  Focus and fight they did.  They used their superior speed to cause turnovers by their opponent. They battled hard along the boards and in the corners for loose pucks. They won the first period, if only from a moral perspective.  About halfway through the second period  a large, labouring forward from the opposing side would wind up for a slap shot just outside of our blue line. A seemingly harmless salvo would suddenly dip and dive under our netminder’s glove. Our goalie had played so well in this and the previous tournament game that I implored our troops before the start of the third period to continue to fight; to pull even as reward to her.  However, we would remain scoreless for a second consecutive contest only this time it would result in our first loss at 1-0, setting up some good potential drama in our third and final game of the day.

In order to advance, the girls would need to dig down a little deeper to defeat an opponent near and dear to my heart; the oft aforementioned arch rivals including a couple of post-tryout “defectors”.  We knew they hadn’t played since the early morning and hoped a long layoff in their hotel pool (maybe even the hot tub or sauna) would provide something of an advantage.  Our side, on the other hand, needed to get through periods 7, 8 and 9 in that order.

As the game began, we were the decidedly more aggressive, dominant team.  Our players were putting their exhaustion behind them; pushing forward with a tangible determination. Yet, it still felt like goal scoring would be at a premium as shots zinged by the net or found their way into the glove of the animated backstop of the other team (her antics along with those of other goals are perhaps another topic to be explored down the line). The scoreboard screamed out 0-0 at the start the third (or for us, the ninth) period.  I told the team we had made it to the end. We now just needed to win a single 12 minute contest.  Halfway through the third our opponents did us a favour taking two consecutive penalties to give us a two-player advantage.  While we again had opportunities, we were not able to convert. It looked and felt like a second 0-0 tie would be our fate, making a trip to the Finals a little bit more of a dicey proposition requiring other positive outcomes in other games we could not control. Then, will a little over a minute left in the game, our young charges decided to turn their intensity up one more notch; an impressive feat some 15 hours after this day of hockey began.  An end-to-end rush by one of our defenceman culminated in a mad scramble in front of the cage holding our fate. I didn’t actually see who made the final poke at the puck, but I clearly saw it resting victoriously at the back of the net. The bench, parents in the stands and conquering players on the ice erupted.  Five seconds later I was down in front of the next three forwards to take the ice shouting “FOCUS!”. The Devil reports that my eyes were a little wild, if not bulging out of my head, with excitement. Thirty seconds can be a lifetime in a hockey game. I wanted to be sure we spent that lifetime out of our defensive zone, far away from any potential tying goal.  Indeed we did as the final five successfully defended our suddenly slim, but oh so welcomed 1-0 lead. The game unfortunately ended with the increasingly incensed little goalie darting out of her net and launching herself inexplicably into one of our players trying to pin the puck on the boards to finalize the proceedings. I am hopeful there are no lasting effects from that contact. The buzzer would sound  bringing with it one more small off-the-bench, on-ice eruption.

In a few hours we have another date with the host squad, only this time on a bigger, more familiar rink. Regardless the outcome, our team has had success here this weekend.  It will no doubt be a hotly contested affair where goals will be at a premium.  I think we’ll just plan to take it one period at a time.


Focusing on the Same Thing

At our practice last night I called the Sharks out as I and another coach noted a distinct lull in intensity.  A couple of players were heading to and lingering around the water bottles a little too long, others were down on a knee for extended period of time while a couple of others were actually splayed out on the ice at the end of drills like they’d been shot. I was fairly confident the problem wasn’t one of conditioning, but rather one of focus. The same problem has seemingly been plaguing this squad in all of the games they’ve lost so far this season. To date, we’ve been able to match the speed of nearly every team we’ve played. We’ve been able to out-work and out-hustle most teams.  Yet we’ve only managed to do that for an entire game on maybe one or two occasions.  Even our finest effort to data, a five-goal outburst in the first period, of a game was followed by two periods of hanging on for a 5-3 victory.

So I posed my “loss/lack of focus” theory to the players at practice. They all, to a player, contended conditioning is not an issue.  Though that may have in this been prompted by the realization that admitting a conditioning problem = conditioning drills, which in turn = lots of skating followed by even more skating.  I tried to reinforce how important it is for them to maintain their intensity for three full periods. We’ve told them in games where they are not the most talented group that they can compensate by being the hardest working.  In this they are not unique, as sports are chock full of successful teams who reap their successes via their determined efforts.  As always, I try to be careful to temper my expectations with the realization that we are instructing 13 and 14 year old female athletes; who have yet to mature psychologically and who may have any number of other influences on their developing minds; from parents, to school, to boys, etc. That is not to say they don’t comprehend the message being delivered, but rather they may not fully realize how, nor have the capacity, to process what we are attempting to relay along with all of the other conflicting messages they are receiving.  We plead for our roughly 30-40 minutes of focus per game all the same.

And so today we entered a guaranteed four-game tournament a few hours north of home with games against two familiar rivals from our regular league, who we get to play in 2 of our 3 games tomorrow (a busy day, indeed).  Tournaments represent opportunities to refine team tactics and build team bonds.  I was heartened to hear that before our first game tonight the team held its own meeting, without prompting from any coaches, to talk about their focus.  Sounds like my message was received, which again is all I can ever ask for. I’m genuinely pleased if even a little bit of what I say sinks in.  My plan for today’s pre-game speech was to continue the focus discussion. Their own pre-game chat served to reinforce my motivational intent. The start of the game to follow was further validation as there was a distinct sense of focus displayed on the ice.  And while there were some tense moments in what would ultimately be a 2-1 triumph, buoyed by a fine goaltending performance, we could not question the girls effort or desire to win. Our only criticism tonight came in the form of a plea for the players to not rush in pressure situations, which is always much easier said than done from behind the bench. The only goal against us this evening came with 9.5 seconds left on the clock when support broke down.  An errant puck found its way slowly through a sea of skates and sticks to wreck a deserved shutout for our keeper.

Tomorrow’s challenge will be to establish and maintain the desired focus through no less than three games beginning at 10am and ending at 10pm, with the third contest coming against perhaps our greatest league rival, who dealt us a  2-1 loss only seven days ago.  Quite the task for a group of 17 teenage athletes, who may rather want to hang out at the hotel pool and who certainly didn’t want to hear me announce a 10:30pm curfew after tonight’s game.  Yet, I’ve faith the majority will indeed honour the bedtime policy.  My own Devil lies slumbering in a pull-out hotel couch only a couple of feet away as I record today’s events.  I am hopeful of reporting back on a playoff berth tomorrow evening, however, as usual, only time, effort and a decided level of focus will weave that tale to its conclusion.