Sometimes You Need a Short Hockey Memory

What's Hockey?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.


Image courtesy of

It’s Just Exhibition Hockey…Right?

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.

Penalty-ShotThen 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

One of Everything

The last week of the Sharks’ exhibition season provided three quite different games along with a wealth of learning and teaching opportunities.

Game one this week, a rematch of our first game together as a team which ended in a 1-1 tie, was also the first time we would ice our entire team since having lost a few players to suspensions and injuries.  It seems the older the players get, the more likely they are to fall prey to such mishaps; that coupled with renewed vigorous attention to body, and particularly, head contact rules by the officials.  I applaud the new focus, but also understand there will be some growing pains.  If the first couple of weeks is any indication, penalties will likely be a core theme this season.  For our part, the coaching staff will prescribe aggressive, smart play.  In the rematch, we stressed the importance of setting a tone for the game early. That message seemed to ring true as we would watch the girls storm out to a 5-0 lead…in the first period.  Up to that point our previous high score for an entire game was four goals.  The other team was obviously reeling.  I actually advised one of our players to not cheer too emphatically to open the second period to which my assistant coach prophetically objected. And then it happened.  Our team suddenly and quite unfortunately came to realize we had a five-goal lead; a dangerous realization to be sure. Knowledge led to complacency. As we entered the dressing room between the second and third periods we realized the momentum had changed in a now 5-1 contest.  I exhorted the girls to pick up the pace in the third. I asked them if they were familiar with the term “put the pedal to the floor” to which their was a resounding “No!”  So much for that anecdote.  I gotta keep reminding myself to consider my audience.  Two minutes into the third our opponents netted their second marker and their confidence grew.  In another flash of the clock the lead was cut to 5-3.  We all had an uh-oh moment. Thankfully that was as close as the competition would come.  Our side woke up just in time to finish the game.  Lesson One – Don’t get complacent.

In the next two games we were back to being shorthanded as we were informed by the league’s governing body that our suspended players (whom we assumed had duly served their suspensions through our recent exhibition games) were still under suspension as they are not allowed to serve their penalties during exhibition games. The unfortunate and somewhat unjust part of the story is that they are also not allowed to play in exhibition games while they are suspended.  In my way of thinking a league sanctioned game is a league sanctioned game and a one-game suspension should not become a three or four gamer because of exhibition games, but that is a matter for another time.

Our game two opponent would be our closest rival – a team I think we all suspected we should be able to beat.  However, from the first drop of the puck the game didn’t feel right.  Our players seemed a little off – a step behind.  Of particular concern, was an inability or, more correctly, a lack of interest in passing the puck. After each shift, instructions were doled out to keep their heads up and look for the open player – basic tactics which had made them successful in other games to this point. Yet, despite our reinforcement of the facts, the passes would not come. We watched several players try to carry the black disc through or around multiple defenders, which generally doesn’t work.  Even Mr. Gretzky couldn’t win a Stanley Cup in Los Angeles all by himself.  He needed someone to pass it to.  We swallowed a bitter 3-1 loss and conveyed a stern message to the troops after the game.  Selfish play would not be tolerated and would certainly not lead us to many victories.  Lesson Two – Hockey is a team game.

Later that day we would enter game three with the hope that lesson two was still fresh in the players’ minds.  We did note a renewed vigor in their pre-game warm up – a seeming re-dedication to acting like a team on a mission. The pre-game skate was likewise brisk as was the energy off the first face-off. Right away we saw a different team from what we witnessed only a few hours earlier. Heads were up and passes were plentiful.  Everyone was looking to move the puck; a positive trend indeed.  Our first of two goals was marked by a tic-tac-toe progression from defence to forward to forward and in. Lesson Three – Learn from your previous short-comings. It’s heartening to watch lessons being learned by this team early on.

The only blemish on an otherwise solid win (and 2-0 shutout to boot) was the loss of yet one more teammate to a questionable hit-from-behind penalty, which again carries with it a one-game suspension.  We all agreed that I’m going to develop something of a reputation for producing “dirty” players. Yet, I can honestly argue that only one of the suspensions levied thus far was a clear-cut suspendable offense.  Then again, there will, without, be more of these and we will deal with them as they come.

The Sharks have a few practices in line now to prepare for the regular season, set to begin in a couple of weeks.  We’ll take what we’ve learned about our strengths and weaknesses thus far to build our team for the future; one that we hope holds on-ice success, off-ice camaraderie and fun. That’s the primary underlying lesson in all of this – enjoy playing the game for better or worse.