The Devil, her Sharks teammates, several parents, one grandpa, Momma and I embarked on a 6+ hour road trip this past weekend to play in a tournament in Pittsburgh. This city is one of a few U.S. hockey hotbeds thanks to guys like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and some kid name Sid, who’ve led the success of the Pittsburgh Penguins over a couple of decades. One of the advantages of playing so far away from home is the opportunity to play against teams you won’t otherwise compete against during the regular season. Indeed this particular tournament offered up three U.S. based teams and two from our home province, albeit from distant regions. Of course, for some there is simply the attraction of visiting a somewhat foreign country or city. We did, in fact, ourselves transport one player on her longest trip to this point in her life and her first across an international border. Another reason for travelling as a team is a chance for the players and family members to get to know each other better off the ice, at the hotel or at breakfast, lunch or dinner. From the girls perspective, there is at least one other benefit to playing games in the U.S…..Shopping…in this regard, girls will be girls; though I readily admit to being something of a shopper myself (apologies to other proud hockey dads). During our three-day experience, most of us crossed all of the aforementioned benefits off our lists, while also getting our share of exciting hockey action.
With a game on Friday afternoon and uncertainty around border traffic, we decided to travel on Thursday evening so we could wake up near the rink, which we knew was only 10 minutes from our hotel. Little did we realize how difficult it would be to find the latter. Finding Pittsburgh was relatively easy, but it turned out our hotel wasn’t actually in Pittsburgh, leaving us at the mercy of an ill-instructed GPS. What should have been a 6.5 hour trip was extended by roughly 60 minutes. So much for extra rest before Game 1.
Luckily, day one would only see our squad playing one game as one of the original seven tournament combatants from the U.S. had to bow out after having incurred a goalie injury. I’m fairly certain female hockey players and particularly hockey goalkeepers are not in ample supply. Case in point was our second match opponent; the Carolina Lightning who, yes, were the Tier II Girls Hockey representatives for all of the Carolinas (and they only had 11 players in total as opposed to our squad of 17). However, our first game was against a team from New York State, where female hockey players are more plentiful. When you play new teams you never know what to expect and such was the case with this opponent. Our charges came out hard maintaining the balance of play and creating several scoring opportunities through the first period and a half. Unfortunately, they surrendered a goal on one of the other side’s few shots deflected in front by one of our defence, which would be a bellwether for the next two matches. Nearly another 12 minutes of game time passed before the next goal was scored…again by the wrong team. As some times happens in girls hockey and/or sports in general, the “dominant” team is not always the victor. Not the start we wanted, but there were a lot of good things to build on over the next couple of days.
We would get to play tourists before any more hockey would be played; starting with an hour long drive to a somewhat local outlet mall. Again, to be clear, I am in touch with my metrosexual side and enjoy shopping as much as the next hockey mom, so don’t immediately assume I’m complaining. Momma and the Devil actually had to remind me dinner would hold precedence over bargain hunting. A few hours later, back at the hotel we settled into delivery from a local takeout joint and had a few families pile into our room. With two games the following day, the evening was relatively uneventful.
A few of us made plans to check out downtown Pittsburgh and the home of the Penguins the next day as game two was scheduled for late afternoon. At the Consol Energy Center, we got more than we bargained for as we knew the home team was on the road. A kindly older security guard named Dennis, beaming with Penguin pride, was more than happy to give us our own personal mini-tour of the joint; telling us stories about the history of the building, Mario Lemieux and the Penguins along the way. A perk of being Canadian hockey-type visitors. After lunch at the aptly named Blueline Cafe across the street from the rink, we made our way to face our next foe with hopes of better results.
Our game two opponent would be the aforementioned, short-handed troop from Carolina with a diminutive goalie giving us ample hope for a notch in the Win column. While we were pretty dominant again (shots on goal were probably 3-1 in our favour), the Sharks continued to have a tough time finding the back of the net. We would settle for a 1-1 tie, forcing the need for a positive result in our third and final round robin game.
Bring on the final US opponent, a NY team from the Southern Tier, and a chance to secure our first win of the preliminary round. We knew we were guaranteed a fourth game, but wanted it to be a semi-final instead of a consolation game, or as one of our players referred to it, the Numby Bowl. I don’t know what the Numby Bowl means. I do know it doesn’t sound good. The third game with a 9:20pm start followed a familiar pattern to the two which preceded it, with the Sharks maintaining the balance of possession and scoring opportunities. Yet, the score at the end of a somewhat heated affair was 2-2; leaving me wondering where we’d finish. I was suspicious when the opposing coach pulled his goalie in the tie game to try to secure a win. Little did I know a loss and two ties with a very low goals against record was good enough for a 3rd place berth ahead of the team we’d just played. We’d take on the 2nd place team, likewise from Canada, bright and early the following morning. The girls would have to figure out how to find the ever-elusive W if we hoped to play in the Final.
The team came out strong for a fourth consecutive game, only this time they were able to find the back of the net in relatively short order; scoring the first of a tournament high three goals just a few minutes into the first period. Another strong performance from our goaltender resulted in only one marker against and we were Championship game bound. At this point, the tourney was a success regardless the result. The glass half full scenario we now faced was a game which would not start until 4pm, which meant we wouldn’t be starting our 6+ hour trek home until after 6pm. Monday morning would not be pleasant. Ahh, the things we do for our kids.
Going into the final we knew we were in tough against the first place finisher from round robin play (another Canadian squad from Southwestern Ontario), who had outscored their opponents 20-5 in their four prior matches. Undaunted, in my pre-game talk, I told our players they had more than earned the right to be in this final contest and they would be rewarded if they stuck to the game plan, which had brought them this far. This little talk was preceded by a synchro dance move, which the team had apparently been working on a fallback should the hockey thing not work out. I was both pleased and scared to see the girls so loose.
A game plan primarily consisting of hard work and communication. At the risk of sounding like a whiny coach, this championship game was marred by terribly inconsistent refereeing. Our girls took their share of bad penalties, but there were at least a half dozen or more called against both sides which took pretty much all of the flow out of the game. We alone were assessed seven trips to the sin bin in the 2nd period alone. The Sharks held their own through and trailed by a score of 1-0 until the Devil and a linemate streaked into the offensive zone with less than a minute left in the 2nd. A certain hockey dad was beaming on the bench as the Devil fired a shot up over the blocker of the opposing keeper to knot the score at 1-1. The third period saw no goals so we headed to a tense 4 on 4, five minute overtime, in which we were assessed one more penalty for good measure. Isn’t there some unwritten rule about penalties in OT? Again, not that I’m whining or anything. Luckily, we survived the OT, which meant the worst solution to decide a game was nigh – the dreaded shootout. Prior to the game I was asked to pick 10 shooters, hoping I’d never have to see them take the ice. The team with the most goals after the first five shooters would be declared the victor, otherwise shooters six through 10 would engage in a sudden death showdown. In the showdown, I unfortunately missed what I’ve been told was one of the finest cellies (hockey celebrations) in recent history, as the Devil re-enacted the team’s pre-game dance right in front of the oppositions bench. When she returned to our bench she said “I feel like such an asshole.” Ah Midget hockey. The showdown was uber-intense to say the least, but long story short, we lost this portion of the competition by a score of 3 goals to 2; thereby settling for 2nd place overall. An excellent result overall, albeit bittersweet in light of how close we had come to winning it all.
Mentally and physically drained, we jumped in our vehicles and headed home. Two of my three passengers, who had played five games in three days, deservedly slept most of the way. I can honestly say six and a half hours later I could not have driven another kilometre. And the next day was a long day indeed. However, the weekend overall was a decided success from my perspective both on and off the ice. The team was challenged and fought hard for their Finalist trophy. Only time will tell if this weekend will give them a shot of confidence as we head into the teeth of the regular season. They’ve certainly proved to me and I hope themselves, they have the ability to play with any team when they work hard as a team.
Early returns are positive as just yesterday they won their first regular season game back 2-1. This match also happened to be their home opener and an opportunity to promote breast cancer awareness with some funky pink jerseys. Even yours truly got into the act, sporting a lovely hot pink boa on the bench. If nothing else, I get the sense this team is really starting to come together; another critical component of their long term success methinks.
We’ve a couple more games this weekend and plenty more challenges to follow. We’ll see how far this current momentum can take us, then adjust as needed when an inevitable lull comes, cuz we all know hockey, sports and life in general is all about ebbs and flows. As always, with the blessing of the Hockey Gods, we’ll gladly take more flows than ebbs thank you very much.
As you venture through a hockey season, particularly early on, there are shifts and games you want to remember and those you’d rather forget. In the Sharks’ first tournament and few exhibition games of the young season, we had a our share of both. Before the first tourney puck drop, I stressed the importance of using this event and these initial games as learning opportunities. All the coaching staff was looking for was a full and honest effort; similar to what we had refreshingly seen in our other exhibition games leading up to the round robin event. We would work on some specific tactical things as we went and get as much benefit from playing a minimum of four games in two days as we could. If we picked up a couple of wins along the way it would be awesome, but certainly would not be the sole measure of the team’s success.
Our first match would be our most useful and telling as we would be playing a team we are expected to be facing in our regular league play. I was admittedly a little nervous for this one as I expected this to be one of the stronger teams in our loop and therefore a real test for our new, relatively young squad. Indeed our opponents came out aggressively and we were pleased to see our troops rise to the challenge. The other side pushed and we pushed back. A decidedly evenly matched affair unfortunately saw us on the wrong side of a 3-2 final score. However, the score could have just as easily been reversed in our favour if not for a bounce in the other direction. We exited game one very pleased with the outcome and hopeful about those which lay ahead.
Several hours later we would engage our next foe with buoyed expectations based on our first semi-positive result. One wild card would be the time between games, which can always be a challenge in tournaments like these. As this game began, I felt we maintained an advantage in terms of our speed and numbers as the other side had a short bench. We would, of course, still need to use the perceived edge and execute or in other words skate, pass, shoot and score. As the game progressed, the players were able to fully accomplish only three of the four. A second, albeit admirable and full effort, did not translate into pucks in nets (an all too familiar scenario in girls hockey). As the game wore on, it appeared we were destined to play to a 0-0 tie, with our goaltender making some key saves to keep us knotted. Then, with less than 5 minutes remaining, one of our first-year right wingers unleashed a surprising semi-slap shot from just inside the right face-off circle, which found its way over the shoulder of the opposing goalie and under the crossbar behind her. Our first victory of the year raised spirits higher. We all looked forward to making even more progress on day two.
Back at the rink just over 12 hours later, we knew our next challenger would likely be our toughest as we noted their 2-0 record. Suffice it to say, this was the first game to be stricken from our combined memories. I especially had to remind the starting goalie of the short memory lesson as I removed her from the game at the end of the second period in a veritable heap of tears. To prove my point and stick to my post-game promise, I won’t even share the score here. Rather I and the coaching staff encouraged our players to embrace another important adage “Shit Happens” and looked ahead to game four for redemption. This message appeared to ring true for most, but some, like the Devil in particular, took this loss hard; even harder than I would have anticipated. Though it seems there were other factors at play where she was concerned. Something else sticking in her craw, which Momma and I will need to work on as the season progresses and we build this team on and off the ice. I did and will continue to tell her along with anyone else who asks that a new young team needs time to grow, learn and gel. She as well as anyone should know how sometimes even a last place team can come back and defeat a highly touted first place Goliath.
Despite our implorations to put game three behind us, it undoubtedly left a mark and sewed a dangerous seed of doubt in some as we entered game four. A fourth game in two days only a couple of weeks into the season is challenging enough. As in game two, after a quick review of players on the ice, I felt we had better overall talent, but then watched our girls lose battles, shifts and ultimately the contest by a 2-1 score; after falling behind 1-0 in the first minute. In typical hockey fashion, an excellent stifled opportunity for our side was immediately answered by a 2 on 1 goal for the bad guys – a goal from which the girls never fully recovered.
There would be no advancing to a playoff round for our side, yet overall we had to be pleased with three one-goal games including our first victory (notice how I didn’t even mention the other item we are never to mention again). I’m reminded of last year when our first win took nearly a month to arrive and last season was a relatively successful one in the end (if you don’t count the Devil’s broken leg incident).
We’ve played two more games since the tournament with less than stellar results on the score sheet. Sort of a one step forward, two steps back scenario. However, these again are just exhibition matches (or so I keep telling them) and meant to provide ample opportunities to fail and learn.
In the technology world, of which I am intimately familiar, many pundits say it’s important to fail faster in order to learn and ultimately succeed faster. I believe this likewise applies to sports teams, be they young or old, though the lesson is much tougher to explain to young adult female athletes I assure you. Cue another oft-heard cliche which states “You’re never as bad as your worst lost nor as good as your best win.” Methinks the same again holds true for this squad, who’ve shown signs of brilliance, while lacking consistency. I take some solace in knowing we’ve yet to play even one game with a full roster as injuries, suspensions and jobs have already gotten in the way; an all too familiar midget-aged circumstance. The risk we run with a young team is the potential for them to lose confidence as they lose games. We need to build on the successes of our one-goal games; accentuate the positive strides we’ve made. We can and have skated with quality teams. Only once have I seen the team stop skating and with semi-good reason (of which we will never speak). I am hopeful our veterans, including the Devil and her 2nd and 3rd year mates, take a leadership role on our cues to bolster the spirits of their younger cohorts. To their credit, I have been impressed with the level of maturity exhibited by players I’ve known or coached for a while now and some of the new players I’m still getting familiar with. I should not be surprised as I am struck by the fact they are all becoming independent young women. Yes, I do still need to be reminded from time-to-time. On another positive note, we have an abundance of practice time over the coming weeks, which we will use to work on skating, shooting, passing and gelling; before the games start to matter just a little more.
Three years into this coaching gig and I’m still learning every week, game, practice because when you’re dealing with people, be they young or old, everything is dynamic. I expect this won’t change any time soon. If any of you have any suggestions on how to carefully and successfully fail faster in this game or life in general I’m all ears. In the meantime, we’ll all try to forget most of the bad and stay focused on the good.