Last week saw the Devil’s team play two exhibition games against what will be nearby regular season rivals. While these early season games are scheduled and played to gauge where each team is at relative to the competition, there is also an opportunity to set a tone for the season to come so ideally you’d like to be able to put your best skate forward. Of course, some might argue it’s better to play your cards close to the vest; saving your A game for later in the year when it really matters…presumably the team will improve with time to practice and “gel”…and sure the other teams will only get better as well depending on coaching, personalities and a whole slew of other factors.
In these two particular games, with the teams being as geographically close as they are and the lack of boundaries in girls hockey, we end up playing against very familiar players who have been previous foes or in some cases even teammates. So there is some added emotion to contend with, which can be a good or bad thing. Pre-game I tried to spin the emotion in the right direction, pointing out the importance of setting a tone and trying to use the competitive relationships as positive motivation.
Game one would present the first such challenge as my starting goaltender would be facing the hometown team who released her in their tryouts a few months back. We welcomed her to our team; readying ourselves to circle these head-to-head matches on our calendar. We were hopeful of a good showing based on our opening tournament results and a few good practices since. Indeed, the girls did start with a flurry in the first period, taking a quick 1-0 lead. However, this would be the only goal they would score while the visitors would tally three of their own in the second frame. For whatever reason, we became a bunch of individuals rather than a team of passers, which did not serve us well. Plays we designed were neglected or forgotten. At the break for a flood between the 2nd and 3rd, I would exhort my charges to pick up the pace in the final stanza, which they would. However, the teamwork we saw the weekend prior did not return; thereby meaning a return to the drawing board would be required in the practices leading up to Game Two.
Following a couple of aforementioned practices, where passing and teamwork were the focal points we entered game two against an even bigger rival; both for the girls and yours truly. Again, for the girls because of close geographic proximity and prior run-ins. I had at least one of my players tell me she was feeling physically ill at the prospect of playing against a couple of the girls on the other team. This game would even have some extra meaning for me because this particular squad includes one player I unfortunately had to release (a move which was not taken well by her parents) and a couple of other players who would not even try out for my team (in their own home town) based on experiences from seasons’ past, which have been detailed here previously and do not need to be rehashed. Suffice it to say, personalities, perceptions and perplexity came into play, as they so often do in minor hockey.
We did expect a tougher challenge going into this game and expressed the same to the team before they hit the ice. Our foes quickly proved to be a well-coached bunch (with an ex-NHLer at the helm) moving the puck well in our zone. They would take an early 2-0 lead though our side skated and passed the puck much better than they had in their previous match. We would get one goal back, which seemed to shift momentum back in our favour.
Then the hockey gods provided a little extra drama as the Devil was hauled down by a defender following an excellent backhand pass which had set her off on a breakaway. We all watched as the head referee crossed her arms above her head signalling a penalty shot. The Devil would need to get the puck past a former teammate who now tended goal for the other side. She came down the ice with speed, looped to the left and then back to the right stretching the goalie from one post to the other. The Devil valiantly tried to lift a backhand shot up over the keeper’s padded left leg to no avail.
A couple of minutes later a little more drama ensued as a scrum broke out in front of the rival net. A few misguided punches would banish one of ours and one of theirs to the penalty box with our side getting and extra two minutes for the indiscretion. We would retire to the dressing room still down 2-1 with the 3rd period and a brief penalty kill situation ahead of us. Unfortunately, a well designed three-pass play on the opening face off in the third would end with the puck being deposited neatly behind our netminder; a crushing blow to be sure. We had done very well to compete with this team for two periods, but penalties and frustration would lead to a 5-1 final deficit…not indicative of the overall effort. The game ended with one of our forwards hammering a foe into the boards; a move met with unwelcome cheers from our bench. Post game, I did my best to downplay the score, assured the girls the effort was to be applauded and reminded them Respect is to be one of our Guiding Principles; thereby discouraging their cheers for the late game body check.
We’ve a couple more practices and an exhibition game this weekend before we start the season for real. While these three games don’t “count”, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in or around our team or I’m sure those we’re playing who thinks they don’t matter.
Penalty shot image courtesy Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penalty_shot_(ice_hockey)
I told the my players before this past weekend’s early bird tourney we were there after only a couple of practices to get a quick sense of what we have to work with; to get an early barometer on the strength of our team relative to other teams presumably at the same level. That was the on-ice hockey goal. What I didn’t tell them, but believe we all realized, is it was also about building a team culture and hopefully watching the players bond on and off the ice. And, of course, all of this was to be guided by our newly adopted principles with Focus and Hard Work front and centre. I was pleased to note after two days and four games we had accomplished our preliminary goals and then some as the team competed increasingly well in each contest
The first game of the round robin format pitted us against a team we thought would be one of our tougher rivals and a potential regular season foe. Indeed they proved to be a strong side, but ours was equal to the task through two periods in skating to a 2-2 deadlock. Then unfortunately, early season jitters, rust or simple unpreparedness kicked in as the score clock announced a 5-2 scored for the bad guys. The hard work was there, but the focus fell off a little.
Game two was against one of the two tournament home teams. As a coaching staff we identified a few things from the first match we wanted the girls to work on. Throughout this game we watched them work extremely hard and follow the direction we were giving them. Though dominant, the only thing they were not able to do was score at least one more goal than the competition, settling for a 1-1 tie.
This second game also provided one of the odd highlights of the weekend. After what appeared to be a simple fall by an opponent near our team’s bench, several of our players broke out in hysterics. Now I probably shouldn’t condone such behaviour, but the immediate reaction by the object of their derision was priceless. It was one of the best “If looks could kill moments” I’ve ever witnessed. The player skated off with catcalls in her wake. I did my best to remind my players not to disrespect another player through the tears in my eyes.
On to game three and coincidentally the other tournament home team; yup, two teams from the same centre…just imagine what games between those squads must be like. Having seen them play in an earlier game, I thought we were up for a bigger challenge, but again our charges proved to be the stronger side, holding the balance of play in the opposing zone. Yet again we fell short of registering a W with a 2-2 draw.
Regardless the scores in their first three games, the team entered would enter the quarterfinals armed with the knowledge they could compete with anyone in the tourney, having arguably won eight out of nine periods of hockey to that point. However, having finished third in their division, they would have to face the number one team; a challenge to be sure. Our pre-game message was simple…keep doing what you’ve been doing – playing hard and listening. The ladies would proceed to take a 1-0 and 2-1 leads, but would enter the third period knotted at two. Unfortunately a defensive misstep would keep our side from advancing to the semi-finals. Yet, the players we encountered in the dressing room after the game were hardly ones who had just felt defeat. They, like us, knew how well they had competed, how hard they worked and how much promise these first four games have given for all those to follow.
So I don’t have a post-tourney victory pic to post here, but I’ve a pretty good feeling their will be flashes going off in front of this group before too long provided we guide them in the right direction.
Speaking of pics, last night was team picture night, which is generally not a highlight of anyone’s season. Little did I know this would provide yet another bonding opportunity for the team as I watched and heard 15 girls shriek as each stood up to pose for their personal portrait. If I hear as much laughter at the end of the season as I’ve heard over the past five days, one important pillar of team success will have been accomplished.
Tyler Shoots his Tooth Out with a Slap Shot
Priceless. Nothing like a little hockey aided dentistry. If the kid goes on to play competitive hockey it might not be the last tooth he loses to the game.
Had a chance to see most of the Devil’s and my new team have their first “non-official” skate together and through some expected summer rust there were some really good signs of things to come. While several of the players have not played together, many have, and those connections were readily obvious when they called to each other for a pass or instinctively new where the each other would or should be during a scrimmage. One of the things I’ve dreamed of seeing and more importantly hearing from younger-aged hockey teams is communication. Getting them to look up, call out each other names or simply call for a pass can be like pulling teeth when they’re eight years old. Here, with an older group, the importance of this critical component of the game has sunk in and surely seems natural. Of course, this will likely be true of every other team we face, so our team will also need to excel in other areas if we expect to compete with those squads.
Prior to taking the ice I decided to lay down some coach/team philosophy and look to get pre-season buy in from the group. What I perhaps grandiosely positioned as “The Guiding Principles”, jotted down on a bristol board (as I became accustomed to doing in my previous head coaching stint two years ago) and affixed to the dressing room wall for all to see were five simple tenets: Positive Attitude, Respect, Focus, Hard Work and Communication. Though they likely didn’t need much explaining, I took some time to review each in the context of “our” team and what “we” should expect of ourselves and each other. To solidify the importance of those expectations, hockey trainer/Momma had a great idea in suggesting each member of the team, players, coaches and trainers alike, sign the back of our mini sports Magna Carta. We stopped short of signing in blood, but I’m hopeful the messages left a mark and I’ll be re-affixing the document to walls before the next several practices and games for lasting effect. I said, and firmly believe, a team built around the top four principles and anchored by communication will succeed; regardless the finals scores or standings.
Having set some ground rules, I, the coaching staff and the team will start the real work this week beginning with a short practice followed by a minimum four and hopefully five-game tournament where we’ll get our first true glimpse of what we have to work with and on. Would I like a couple more practices before jumping into the fire? Sure. But we’ll go into this weekend with few preconceived notions and will hopefully be pleasantly surprised…or not. Either way, the real goal of this weekend is to start to build a team and culture based on the aforementioned principles with an eye towards success on and off the ice.