Pesky Proverbial Primate Be Gone

Well, I don’t know if it had anything to do with the constant pleading by the coaching staff for a full three-period effort, but our young ladies did that with a vengeance this weekend, thereby dislodging their hockey albatross.

Their first of two victories came yesterday when they toppled the third place team in their own rink after skating to a 1-1 deadlock after two periods.  We did our best to convince them that they were more than holding their own despite not getting a lot of shots on the opposing net.  We reiterated our belief in them as winners, but only they could affect a positive outcome.  We hoped, as my one assistant coach mused, that they hadn’t simply become used to losing.  Our defence and goaltender were keeping their scoring opportunities to a minimum.  In the final frame, with an earful of encouragement, our charges came out with a determination we had not seen since our tournament victory so many games ago.  The Devil, bless her soul, started the albatross eviction with a pretty highlight reel goal of the top-shelf variety after a deliberate charge to the net.  Another marker would be put past the enemy keeper a couple of minutes later, which forced her from her goaltending duties.  The slumping body language of the other team was eerily similar to what we’d seen from our own side over the past few weeks.  A few questionable penalties down the stretch made things interesting, however our bending did not lead to breaking this time around. The final score read 4-1. We all agreed the post-win feeling was much better than what we’d become accustomed to.  A fine TEAM win indeed.

As with most games there is always a story within the story. This one involved my first disciplinary player benching of the season; brought on to some extent by the recent feedback from team parents.  One of our defencemen took  what we’ll call a “lazy, ill-timed” penalty with about six minutes left in the second period.  Her father, in particular, suggested it would be ok to use benching as a consequence — to send a message.  When she returned to the bench after her penalty I reminded her of my previously announced commitment to ensuring discipline from this point forward. I then told her to have a seat on the bench, intimating she would miss a shift for her unwanted foul, which would essentially mean she would miss the rest of the period.  A fair punishment from which I trusted she would learn a lesson. The third period started after a flood of the ice. As noted above, this frame saw frantic action.  I was certainly caught up in the game as we pulled ahead on the scoreboard. Then with about five minutes left in the match I looked down where I noticed the penalized player standing next to our back-up goalie.  It was obvious she had been standing there a while so I asked “Have you not been back on the ice?” to which she replied “No, I assumed I was still benched.  I was waiting for permission.”  My heart sank as I realized my single-shift message had been misinterpreted.  I’d been too involved in the game to notice one player had effectively sat for 10+ minutes (plus the four she sat in the previous period). Another rookie coach mistake. Hopefully one I won’t make again.

Before today’s game I told the recent victors this was an opportunity to start building momentum for the playoffs.  A string of three wins to close out the season may not move us up in the standings, however, it would bode well for round one no matter who we are set to face; after all, we’ve competed with, if not defeated, every team in the league. I may have also mentioned to the group I was superstitiously wearing the same shoes, socks, pants and shirt as I did the victorious day before.  One player naturally quipped, “I hope you changed your underwear.”  “Everything’s the same except that” I assured her.

As the game started, so did the momentum building I asked for.  In the first two periods the girls won pretty much every battle against a short-handed home team. They outshot the competition 24-4 and outscored them 4-0; a good start indeed.  Yet I reminded them to keep the pressure on in the final frame.  The third period started well but our opponents would net a goal of their own by deflection a puck off of our defenceman’s knee only a couple of minutes in; the clock could not tick fast enough. However, the game would take a dramatic shift as a player from each team collided and slid somewhat harmlessly into their net.   But the rival player stayed face-down on the ice following the mishap complaining of not being able to feel her toes.  This unfortunately would be the final action of the game as the trainer decided to put caution first as she should by summoning an ambulance. The player reportedly said the feeling had returned to her toes and we all hope she’s ok.  I’ve asked for a update as our player involved in the incident was pretty shaken up in having to watch the events unfold, though it was clearly an accident. Ultimately, we recorded a 4-1 victory on an understandably sour note.  I was also a little disappointed in our side not being able to finish the game on their own.

All said, I believe the mental barrier, our biggest foe the past couple of weeks, has been broken down.  There is still plenty to do in terms of playing one final strong game against the team just above us in the standings and then having to take on either the first or second place team in round one of the playoffs.  But the team has leaped over an important hurdle in re-establishing their ability to play full games and win them.  I sincerely hope we never encounter that oh so maniacal back-riding monkey again cuz he was sure tough to remove the first time around.


Being There Through the Kindness of Others

Hangin out kinda late on a Friday night.  Hockey Mom and the Boy ventured four+ hours this morning for the Midget A International Silver Stick tourney our Colts qualified for a couple of months back.  A nice experience for many who are maybe in their final years of rep hockey.   The team left amidst a first-round playoff series in which they trail two games to one in a best of five format.  Their win came two nights ago, which put them in a positive mood for the tourney.    The Devil and I stayed behind as she has two games of her own this weekend.

While I wasn’t physically there to watch the Boy and his team in their first game this evening, I was provided with a running commentary of via text from a sympathetic mom who would be my remote eyes and ears; my fan-via-proxy if you will.  This duty couldn’t fall on Mom as she was perched on the bench fulfilling her role as trainer/rabbit’s foot.  And while I wasn’t physically there, I most certainly experienced the up and down nature of the game as the Boys reportedly fell behind 1-0 then came back and scored a go ahead goal with only two seconds left in the second period. I then followed with growing anticipation as the Boy redirected a shot from the point in behind the rival goalie.  3-1 good guys.  I may have even done a little fist pump for no one but me and the dog to witness.  But then I also tracked the action with mounting disdain as the two-goal lead disappeared amid a flurry of questionable penalties. I could feel the game slipping from 400 km away. As my phone announced the next update, I had a feeling it would not be of the positive variety.  4-3 bad guys with only five minutes remaining. I wanted to jump through the phone to implore a last ditch surge by the boys.  I held out hope on the second-last mobile chime I received, which pronounced a hitting from behind penalty and the final death knell for our beloved Colts in game one.  Unfortunately in a 14 team tournament where only four squads advance to a semi-final round, there isn’t a whole lot of room for losses in the three round-robin matches.  They will hopefully continue to battle hard in search of outside shot with a 2-1 record.  I will have my cell at the ready for whoever is willing to keep me updated when game two rolls around bright and early tomorrow morning.

Later in the day tomorrow the focus will turn to my girls’ team who we’re hoping to be able to refocus for a momentum-building final three regular season games.  Focus and discipline will be the recurring message.  As always, time will tell whether or not the message is heard and applied. I’m fairly certain mom will do her own patient waiting for a scoring update sent from my phone.  She may even try to coax someone into being her fan-via-proxy.

It’s weekends like these when my good hockey wife’s notion of rigging arenas up with closed circuit TVs and offering pay-per-view or recorded coverage of our kids games may not be all that far fetched.  For now I’ll have to settle for the OMGs, WooHoos and Scooooores accompanying the goal announcements from afar.


Befuddled, Bemuzed and Generally Bedeviled

This hockey coaching thing sure ain’t gettin’ any easier.  My team of 13 and 14 year old girls is struggling mightily to say the least and while I’ve not yet thrown my hands in the air, I’m certainly near the point of calling on the Hockey Gods for some divine intervention.  To be blunt, the team hasn’t seen a check mark in the W column dating back to late November. Frustrations among the players, parents and most certainly the coaching staff are mounting as the potential exhibited by this squad to start the season, including a home tournament win, has been quashed by inconsistent, undisciplined play mixed with odd flashes of brilliance.

The latest case in point came last night when our last place team played two periods of seemingly inspired hockey and a took 1-1 tie into the third frame against the top team in our league, who to date have the same grand total of losses as we have wins (ONE!)  My assistant coaches and I, having been to this dance before, implored our charges yet again to hone their focus for the final period. We commended them on their play through the first two and let them know they have the talent to win against any team they face when the put forth their best effort. I believe we could all sense small cracks in the armour as orange peels were flung gaily at a garbage can in the middle of the room.  A couple of players were noted to be brushing their hair in un-hockey-like fashion, though for some this is a necessary evil of supporting abundant locks. In previous games I’ve suggested we focus on playing one period at a time.  In this case, I demanded even smaller shift-by-shift chunks for added clarity. And yet, the first shift of the third period ended with a puck in the back of our net followed by the same result less than a minute later.  All the hard work the players had put in up to that point was a faint memory.  Body language was not good across the board as I’m certain the phrase “Here we go again” reverberated in each player’s head.  The play would turn somewhat in our favour again for fleeting moments, but the final score signaled what would otherwise look to be a lopsided 5-2 victory for the opposition to anyone just seeing the numbers.

I am convinced at this point our biggest challenge is one of a psychological nature; yup, it’s in their heads.  When we reach the third period with a slim lead or the prospects of a win, I can almost see the players grips on their sticks ratcheting up a few notches.  Pucks are handled with more trepidation.  Passes are made with more urgency and less precision.  Battles for pucks are enjoined with hesitation.  No one wants to make a mistake, but inaction and/or ultra-caution leads to the same.  Far too often these mistakes manifest themselves as penalties which only serve to exacerbate the situation.  A little over a week ago one of our defencemen took a rare delay of game penalty for covering the puck with her glove at the end of a game; an infraction which led to us giving up a game-tying goal with only 30 seconds left.  Yet another victory narrowly aborted.  We coaches will try to counteract fear and doubt with positive reinforcement, but I’m afraid for the most part it’s falling on deaf ears; deafened by our recent failures.

Some folks around our team are no doubt lobbying for a harsh response to our undisciplined play. Some have suggested I “bench” players who are exhibiting undisciplined behaviour, which is leading to some of our downfalls. I understand their intent.  However, I contend that the team tends to hit the proverbial wall en masse, which I attribute back to hitting the panic button.  I would be hard pressed to select just one player deserving of being benched when entire lines seemingly stop skating for a shift.  That being said, I am increasingly open to doling out stiffer consequences (i.e. benching) those players who are consistently taking “bad” penalties; those who aren’t learning from their mistakes.  In principle, I am against benching players as I feel in developmental hockey sitting on the bench does little to improve the player; but perhaps sending a subtle message in the form of a missed shift might be just what the sports psychologist ordered.

With only a few games left in our regular season and playoffs to follow shortly thereafter, there is still plenty of time to salvage some positives.  I recently sent an open letter to our parent-group asking for their honest feedback, to which I received several thoughtful, positive and constructive responses. I shouldn’t have been surprised to note that each looked at the situation from the perspective of their child.  I will also be holding a pre-playoff team meeting where I intend to speak with each player individually about their strengths, weaknesses and responsibilities moving forward. The learning experience for this first-year head coach and his developing, challenging, evolving, group of young athletes continues.  While challenging, I am still managing to smile and have some fun along the way.  A couple of wins down the stretch would sure help though.