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

Encouraging Start To A New Hockey Season

Let's-Go-SharksWe’re just a few practices into a new season of girls midget hockey and my initial trepidation at having to work with a group of relatively unknown players has surprisingly turned to cautious optimism. My concern at having a young team with half of the players in their rookie midget year has been replaced by enthusiasm driven by their enthusiasm. Last year I was lucky to have two girls ready to go on the ice when the Zamboni was done making its rounds, while so far the entire squad has been standing by expectantly as the big doors close signalling their permission to begin their skate. In seasons prior, it was not uncommon to be asked at least four times during a practice when it would be over. Through four practices thus far, the topic has only been raised once.

Further fuel for my fire is the positive work ethic I’ve noted from the team early on. As with players starting any new season, there are certainly signs of rust and a need for hockey conditioning. No matter what you do in the off-season, it’s just not the same as skating full-speed up, down and around the rink a few times. Hell, at my age, taking a couple weeks off from men’s rec hockey damn near kills me upon my return. As these girls get older and find other things to occupy their time in the Summer, it no doubt gets a little tougher for them as well. Of course, the Devil for her part is coming back from a broken leg, which is another physical and mental challenge altogether. To her credit, she’s sucking it up through some reported pain (though a precautionary trip to the fracture clinic has been scheduled in two weeks time for her piece of mind). In fact, the Devil and all of her mates have been giving full and honest efforts from start to finish of each practice much to my satisfaction.

Of course, this is not to say there aren’t still plenty of challenges ahead. One such conundrum is our lack of six natural defencemen. When I chose the team I did not have the luxury of a large stable of capable defence candidates to choose from, so I decided to go with the 15 best skaters and worry about who would play where later. Later is nearly here. My staff and I will need to decide on which forward is best suited to fill the vacancy, as I do want to go with the traditional 9 forward and six defender configuration. Part of this equation is adding a player to the backside, while not subtracting too much from the front. Fortunately, we will have a few practices (including 4 in the first five days concluding tonight), exhibition games and an early bird tournament to start to figure it out. As with any other season I’ve been part of…nothing is ever set in stone, there are always a couple of player projects. Always room for players and the team as a whole to improve.

Keys to Hockey SuccessPerennial challenge number two; just make sure everyone gets along, which can be a task in and of itself when you’re talking about 17 teen-aged girls. Again, in early days and from what I can tell, the group is already getting along. I’m sure there will be a few who take extra time to get into the fold, but all seem willing. I was pleased to see and hear several agree with my annual rundown of “Keys To Success” emblazoned on a bright yellow bristol board, which has come to be something of a calling card for me. I told them I like signs because they provide good, quick reminders of what we want to do as a team and why. This particular sign will be posted in our dressing room for the next couple of weeks to help reinforce the tone. Maybe some girls think it’s all a little contrived and hokey, but if I can get the key messages across to a few then mission accomplished.

So with a group of players at least buying in and willing to work, the third, but certainly not final, challenge, is teaching, nay encouraging, them to play as a team. This is not the first rodeo for any of them and for some there is really not much left to be taught. Rather, the task is more about reminding and stressing consistent execution of individual and team tactics. Help them focus as I often say, “Shift by shift.”

We won’t know exactly what we have until we measure ourselves against a few competitors, which is what the next few weeks are all about. However, after just a few days with the new proteges, I am more anxious to draw comparisons and gauge potential than I was at the end of my tryout process or even a couple of week ago. Bring it all on and let’s just see what we really got. I’ll do what I can to convince the lot of them, we’ve got what it takes to be successful.


And Just Like That…..Another Hockey Season Ends

The Sharks put up a heroic effort and battled hard down the stretch with a skeleton crew in an attempt to advance to our Provincial Championships. After the last game of our first round league playoff series we were reduced to 12 skaters, 1 goalie and no coach as I was resigned to catch the first game of our double round-robin competition from up in the stands.

Hockey Lady

The first two games would pit us against the number one team in our regular league, though they apparently had some challenges of their own icing only 13 skaters and likewise a lone goalie. Game one was a tight affair which saw the two teams battle to a 1-1 tie through two periods. I didn’t particularly enjoy my banished viewpoint, but did what I could to urge the team on as a mere spectator. I was pleased to have one of my players say all she could hear during the match was me yelling down at them; though I’m not sure whether that was a good or bad thing. In this particular game I shouted our embattled keepers name quite a few times as she turned in several saves to the spectacular variety – a much-needed boost for our undermanned bunch. The game remained close through the final frame and ended knotted at 1, which was something of a victory for we, the underdogs.

Game two was only two days later and we again took to the ice down three players and an injured goaltender. It would take another big effort from those players who remained to give us a chance to stick with our competitor. This time I would regain my spot back behind the bench where I could feel a little more in control; though I may or may not have been. This match would again be closely fought, with our side being the first to find the back of the net. Meanwhile, the front of their net was something of a battlefield as their goalie (previously known to be somewhat erratic) made like a lumberjack with our players’ legs being her trees. I implored the referee to pay attention, but my exhortations were met with disdain as he suggested he would keep an eye on my players as well. With this game also deadlock at ones, my pleading finally paid off as the ref whistled down one of her whacks with less than two minutes left. Those last couple of minutes saw us get out chances to pull out a win with the puck narrowly skipping past the post on at least two occasions. While the W would have served us better, we were pleased with back-to-back pushes against the tough competition.

We’d have to wait a week to finish the back half of our double dip qualifier, during which time our task would be set for us.  Our first foe would mount two victories against our next by a combined difference of 4 goals meaning we would have to also secure two of our own with a five-goal differential in order to advance. A relatively tall order for a short-handed squad for which scoring during the season had been at a premium, which also happened to be missing 3 of its top 4 scorers to aforementioned injuries or suspensions.

The game three direction to our 12 skaters was simple, “Shoot the puck early and often.”  The message was heeded and our girls jumped out to a quick 1-0 lead, which ballooned to 2, then 3, then four before the final buzzer rung. In our end, few if any shots found their way to our net. Almost surprisingly, the four goal deficit we were up against was erased in just one game. That being said, moving on would require another dominant effort; one which would be complicated by the loss of yet two more skaters to a pre-planned trip to the tropics and yet one more injury (a dislocated shoulder suffered, but not succumbed to, by one tough young player in the second period).

The last match of the double round robin would pit our 10 skaters and a goalie against the same from the other side. We all knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I felt a little more comfortable than I had the game prior on the strength and quality of the win there. I quipped to my assistant coach that the Hockey Gods were really gonna make us earn this one. And so they did as we fell behind early on a good shot fired from just inside the face off circle to the right of our keeper, which found its way under the crossbar. We’d even the score before the end of the 2nd period, however would fall behind again 2-1 heading into the third and possibly final frame….of the season. Before our girls headed back onto the ice I asked them to give it their all for three of their teammates in particular who were on the verge of the end of their minor hockey careers…and a memory of the Boy’s last game flashed through my mind’s eye.

Our depleted troops were sucking serious wind, but were still game and giving everything they had to try to even the score. Unfortunately, time and again their shots were blocked or simply did not find their target. Our net was emptied in a last ditch effort with less than two minutes left on the clock and subsequently….in the season. Their keeper continued to turn our advances away until the buzzer sounded causing 10 skaters, 2 goalies, 4 unwilling non-participants, 4 bench staff and a bunch of disappointed parents/fans to simultaneously lower their heads in some disbelief. We only needed a one-goal victory to reach our provincial championship tourney aspirations; just a little more than our exhausted group could muster…and certainly not for a lack of guts or hard work. Kudos to our foils who took and fulfilled their no doubt coveted role as spoiler.

Post game was somewhat uncomfortable as no one, including yours truly, could quite come to grips with the loss and the suddenness of THE END.

We do still have a bunch of practice ice left, half of which is scheduled during March Break, so attendance by a bunch of teenage girls is expected to be thin at best (I can already report having only 5 and 4 skaters in the first two post-season sessions which have both turned into a lot of shooting practice). I’ve been asked if we can schedule a couple of exhibition games, but I’m not sure we have enough healthy or willing players to ice a proper squad.

And so, we will play out the next couple weeks, take a month’s break, then head right back into tryouts for next season – the final of the Devil’s career. Of course, the Devil herself may actually forego her final tryouts if the two bits of her fibula do not find their way back together in time. Guess she can consider herself lucky as the coach of her desired team is not “likely” to cut her sight unseen. Then again, ya never know, I hear he can be heartless.

Devil skating off

When she still had two good limbs…


Image courtesy

Embarking on the Second Hockey Season – Cue Motivation

Amassing a regular season record of 5-9-8 and a league leading 248 minutes in penalties, the Sharks enter the league playoffs as the 7th seed. Only the top 8 of 10 teams in the division were eligible to play in the next round, so we were pleased to simply earn the spot to begin with. The 7th place finish means we draw the 2nd place squad, against which, as it turns out, we have a quite favourable record of 1-1-1 including a win in our most recent contest just a couple of weeks ago. I’ve told our players I think part of their motivation comes from being haters of my beloved Winnipeg Jets as our competitors wear similarly designed jerseys. I’m all good with using whatever we need, including a little sporting irony.

Adding to the playoff challenge is a second, provincial playdown, series which starts next weekend. This will be a four game, double round robin format against the 1st and 6th place teams in our loop, which are also our closest geographic rivals with plenty of familiar faces to stir our players’ emotions. Some players from both teams even go to school together; an odd juxtaposition created by the lack of territorial restrictions in girls’ competitive hockey in our province. Players I’ve released are on one of these other teams and vice versa. Lots of motivation on all three benches to use and worry about.

roadtrippingLast weekend, we left the country for a little pre-playoff, team building tourney and some cross-border shopping (which may have been the highlight for some of our teen-aged competitors). The team fared well against some admittedly weaker competition winning the first two matches 7-1 and 5-0 respectively. However, we were still faced with a must win in game three against the apparent strongest team in the eight team tourney as only two clubs would advance to a single championship game, knowing one other team had a perfect record as well. A close 2-1 defeat in our third and unfortunately final game meant no fourth or chance to take home a tourney win. But the entire weekend experience was a success on a whole from a team building perspective and served to show the girls their goal scoring potential when they play as a team.

Taking the Ice for a Tourney

Pre-Game Prep

In a few hours, we hit the ice in the first tilt of a best 2 out of 3 series, with game two coming less than 24 hours later. Getting off to a quick start in such a short format is a must. To me, the difference-maker will be motivation and hard work; something our team’s success has hinged on in pretty much every game we’ve played this year. The girls have shown their ability to skate and play with every team we’ve faced to this point. And so, my/our challenge as a coaching staff will be to bring the best out of our players; to get them all on the same page and firing on all cylinders to lean on a couple of oft-used, but oh so appropriate clichés. I think I’ll lean on my previous playoff habit of creating a motivational sign to give our players something to focus on. The pre-game messages will be short and to the point.

Team Work, Hard Work, Work

If you’ve any last minute advice, I’m all ears.


Team Building and Priorities Down the Stretch

The Devil’s and my team is at a bit of a crossroads heading into the final third of our regular season. The team has played really well, really not so well and has been consistently inconsistent as our 3-6-6 record and 7th place standing in a 10-team league clearly indicate. A contributing factor has been a rash of injuries and absences at nearly every position, though we all know neither can be used as an excuse. Every midget-aged squad has to deal with the bumps, bruises and competing teenage priorities like work and school;  though being touch and go to have even one healthy goalie for a few of our games and having only eight out of 17 players showing up for practice is pushing it. All the while, this group has been getting along marvelously and certainly appear to be having a lot of fun; some I’m sure would say too much fun at the expense of focus and discipline. As usual, my guess is those off the ice are more concerned about wins and losses than those on it. Those on the ice surely know winning is fun too, but most aren’t going to let it dominate their experience. These young ladies enjoy playing and simply being together; regardless the result. Their raucous pre-game warm up rituals are proof positive. We’ve even seen them dancing between periods in the closest of games. Good to be loose, but not at the expense of focus some would say. A definite conundrum for coaches who, at least to some degree, must equate winning with success – or do they? Altruistically, we should all try to de-emphasize winning, but golly it gets tougher to do when you’re headlong into a competitive hockey season with “competitive” being the operative word.

keep calm and play hockey

The team’s inconsistency was no more apparent than in our last game before a Christmas holiday break against the league leaders; who we’d yet to beat in three previous tries with one tie. Perhaps visions of sugarplums were already dancing in their heads as  tThe first two periods saw us clearly outmatched by our counterparts who were a visibly more organized crew. Our side had no answer to four goals, two of which were scored as our players virtually stood still in our defensive zone. I pleaded for a better effort during the break between the second and third periods. I reminded our players how well they’ve played at times against this particular team and other strong opponents. I tried to appeal to their deeper sense of pride; their desire to fight back. My simple, final request was to win the third period. I was somewhat heartened to see them respond with renewed vigour and a 1-0 “victory” in the final frame.

Post game I tried to deliver a similar message for them to carry into the next couple of practices and the new year.  They’ve set a precedent of inspired play from time-to-time or, seemingly, when they really want to. This team can play with anyone when they put in the work and are all rowing in the same direction. I told them the onus will be on them to “really want to” from here on in if they hope to finish in the top 8 and thereby qualify for the league playoffs. It would be a real shame if they didn’t based on the promise they’ve shown. Time for the coach to earn his worth and figure out a way to motivate this group to reach their potential before it’s too late. The challenge has been issued. Let’s hope we’re all up for it.

And so, over the next eight games my focus will be on getting back to basics. Getting the girls to work hard one shift at a time, having fun and winning in that order; with the former hopefully feeding the latter. We’ve done a pretty good job thus far of building and nurturing a p0sitive team culture. The infirmary is finally starting to clear out a little (he says with fingers firmly crossed).  Now it’s time for the team to band together and build momentum down the stretch, cuz that’s what good teams do. I have every confidence this is a good team. In the end, I’ll be pleased if the effort to win is there; regardless the final tally. Probably not content, but pleased.

As always, I’m open to suggestions from any other learned hockey dads, moms, coaches, sports psychologists, priests….


Keep Calm and Play Hockey image courtesy (yeah, I’ll try anything to appease them)

Riding the Ebbs and Flows of a Hockey Season

Ebbs and Flows of Hockey quote

One can easily argue the most wonderful and frustrating thing about sports is its unpredictability. This unpredictability is what lends addictive drama to each an every game. In this province, a popular sports lottery campaign is predicated on the notion “Anything can happen, anyone can win!” and more often than not this is the case no matter the sport. In football we hear the phrase “On any given Sunday” and in all sports we’re oft reminded, “That’s why you still have to play the games”, even when the outcome seems certain. Hockey from my experience and no matter the level  is not immune, and perhaps is even more susceptible, to chance. Maybe it’s because the game is played on ice thereby adding another level of complexity to each play. Or maybe the oft-mentioned, and in some cases fanatically revered  Hockey Gods have something to do with it.  Seasons, games, periods and even shifts in hockey rarely, if ever, go exactly to plan. I need only hearken back to a little girls’ hockey team that could from two years ago, who made it to the championship round of their division after finishing dead last during the regular season.

Now here I will contend, speaking from personal experience, that midget girls’ hockey (the operative words being midget (i.e. aged 15-18 year old) and girls’ (i.e. the female side of the species) takes this confounding unpredictability to a whole nother level for the coach. While I’m no expert, I am fairly certain the combination of ice, competition and teenage female hormones is a potentially explosive one. Exasperating as it might be from time to time, this is probably also part of the reason I deep down enjoy the challenge of coaching at this level. Case in point in my current team’s last two week stretch of six regular season games, which they completed with a 2-2-2 record. Having the perfectly split record illustrates part of my thesis, however, the nature and circumstances surrounding these games hammers the point home.

The first of our six games came only two days after the semi-final exit from our home tournament against the other team who found themselves in the final against our semi-final foes. One of my assistant coaches and I wondered before the game started who might have a hockey hangover from having played 4 and 5 games over the previous weekend. We would unfortunately get a resounding answer from our squad as they barely skated to an 8-2 thumping against a team they’d tied 1-1 in two previous contests. My post-game comments to a very quiet room were short and to the point; we call knew they could do better.

To make matters worse we ended the game with an increasingly tenuous goaltending situation on our hands. For the past month and a half we were in an unenviable position of having a single goaltender, borrowing backups from other teams where we could, while the other nursed an injured knee. As chance would have it, our “healthy” keeper sprained her ACL at the end of the second period  (putting her season on hold for at least a month); forcing the backup to face a third-period onslaught and potentially leaving us no backstop for our next game four games later. Our injured keeper was actually scheduled to come back in time for the next game, but with only one practice on her rehabilitated knee. Not to mention two additional games would follow over the following two days – three games in three days for a netminder coming back from a knee injury (did I mention this wasn’t the first time she’d injured the same knee).

Game two would pit us against a team just ahead of us in the standings and one we’d already lost to in our first tourney of the year. Oh and our goalie was just coming back off of injury, in case I haven’t already mentioned.   In keeping with my theme, in the pre-game I pointed out to the team on the same night as our blowout loss two teams in the NHL were likewise blown out as were three teams on the wrong side of 9-6,  9-4 and 9-3 scores in major junior hockey. Damned Hockey Gods were obviously in a mood on that particular night. I chalked up our own debacle to “Shit Happens”, paraphrased the quote noted off the top and told the girls I had supreme confidence in their ability to compete with anyone and to bounce back – to go with the flow if you will. And bounce back they did securing a 3-1 victory on the strength of a much better team effort and a stellar goaltending performance, which had yours truly wincing with every kick save hoping it would not be the last.

We’d ride the wave of this win into a match against the league’s second-place squad; or so we hoped. Indeed the girls did carry good momentum into this next contest, battling hard through a scoreless first period against a tough opponent. Unfortunately, the same compete level was not carried through to the second period as a few lacklustre shifts resulted in goals against. Before we knew it the period was over and our side was down 4-0. It honestly didn’t feel like a  4-0 game, but this was the score, our keeper was frustrated and I decided to have her watch the final frame from the bench in favour of our borrowed backup. The game would end with the same score as good pressure in the last 15 minutes did not result in any goals for the good guys. This game would have been a whole lot different with a few bounces…yeah, I’m talking to you again, Hockey Gods.

losing is essential to winning

The last game of three in a row would provide another test against a team just ahead of us in the standings. I told our side there had an opportunity to change the order of things as we had played fewer games than most of our rivals; particularly those above us. We would dominate the play for the first two periods of the game, but like our opponents, would not find the back of the net. Our keeper, now playing her third game in a row, looking no worse for wear, continued to her solid play between the pipes. In the third period, still knotted at zeros, one of our players took off on a breakaway and according to the fans in the stands sent a wrist shot into the net which bounced immediately back out. Neither the referee, nor I to be honest, saw the phantom goal. In fact, when she returned to the bench I told the player to make sure she followed her shot in the future to collect any errant rebounds. I found out later she also saw the puck go in, but didn’t celebrate or protest enough to draw the officials’ attention – a lesson learned for another day. The Hockey Gods struck again and we were left with a draw.

ability motivation and attitude

Fast forward six days, following a mid-week practice where we would try to address some weaknesses noted over the past couple of weeks, to our next date with the league’s last place team. To me, at this or any point, Last Place Team = Danger so I made sure to make no mention of this to any player. I also knew in a recent game between 1st Place and this same Last Place the former was only able to eke out a 2-1 victory (That’s why you still have to play the games!). And play we did, dominating the first two periods. Yet again we only took a 2-1 tie into the 3rd; far too close for comfort. The girls’ domination continued in the third as I don’t think the other side even managed to get a shot on our keeper, but the score remained the same. We likewise eked out a win in what could have just as easily been a five goal differential.

The sixth and final game of our set would pit us against the 2nd Last Place team in the division and one with which several of our players are particularly familiar being from the same town as many of the opposing players. This fact would naturally provide both motivation and heightened emotion to the affair; like we need more emotion in our games. And just as we’d experienced in at least 24 of the previous 26 games, we were in a battle from start to finish. Much like the previous game, we controlled a lot of the play and had several chances to score…chances foiled by the opposing goalie. Before the start of the final period in a 1-1 game, my exhortation to the five players taking the opening face-off was to simply go and grab the lead. Instead, they proceeded to give up a goal, quite the opposite of what I’d instructed, and we were forced to come from behind to secure a draw and another single point in the standings.

To reiterate, the line after six games read 2-2-2 or metaphorically flow-ebb-flow. More positively that’s two flows to one ebb.  Up and down we went and will no doubt continue to go as we strive for more highs than lows in the second half. Regardless, if the opening quote is true, and I believe it to be, a well structured, managed and cohesive team will navigate its way through the uneven tide. To their credit, this group has already shown an ability to bounce back from adversity. I wasn’t lying in game two last week when I said I have confidence in their ability to compete with anyone. Now it’s up to yours truly to properly motivate the crew, to not unduly anger the Hockey Gods and to navigate the ship safely to shore.  Cuz in this as in so many other leagues, anything can happen and anyone can win.


Quote images courtesy

Hard Hockey Lessons Hopefully Learned

The Sharks competed in our home tournament this past weekend. As usual, the games we played were not without drama or ample learning opportunities, which I believe are a big part of what tournaments are really all about; beyond the fame, glory and medal ceremonies, of course. One of the things the coaching staff and I  have really wanted to work on with the girls of late is penalties as they’ve bitten us in the collective seat of our hockey pants on a few occasions this season. Tough to score or win if you’re playing shorthanded. And yes, penalties are part of the game. We just want to avoid the “dumb” penalties usually borne of frustration – roughing or retaliatory penalties taken in the heat of battle. To this end, a couple of weeks ago, I let the team know we would be taking steps to help ensure these types of lapses in judgment were kept to a minimum. I am not a coach who likes to “bench” players, however, I determined this would be the best way of getting the message across. I may be repeating myself, but one of the first times this new team “rule” was instituted, it happened to be one of the assistant’s coach’s daughters who was the subject, after she drew a 4 minute head shot call; during which we surrendered a game-tying goal. We were fortunate to come back and win that particular game, thereby limiting the sting of the reprimand; a measure, which has been used a couple more times in recent games and would be necessary this weekend.

This particular seven-team tournament happened to feature four teams from our league so there was a pretty good chance we’d come up against one of them, although we wouldn’t face any unless we advanced beyond the round robin. The tourney scheduler did a good job of setting our first three games up against squads from other leagues. Another goal of entering tournaments is to play against varied competition, but you generally don’t get much choice when it’s your own event.

Snoopy Hockey Penalty

The juxtaposition of penalties and drama struck early in the first game on one of the oddest occurrences I’ve ever witnessed in a game. During a mutual line change one of our defencemen and an opposing player collided only a few feet from our adjoining benches. Both players fell to the ice, but ours got back to her feet quickly while the opponent struggled to leave the surface on her hands and knees in obvious discomfort; that being said she was noted to return to the game no long thereafter. All the while, the game continued for another two minutes without a whistle being blown. When the play finally was stopped the head referee and one of the linesmen came together to have a prolonged conversation. Eventually, they skated over and summoned me down from the bench to have a ice-side tête-à-tête. The head ref proceeded to tell me he had missed what the linesman felt was a major tripping infraction; the operative word being MAJOR, which thereby enabled the linesman to call a penalty – a major penalty, which in turn meant ejection from the game for our bewildered player and a five minute powerplay for the other team, during which the first goal of the game was naturally scored against us. Not only had I never heard of a linesman calling a penalty 2+ minutes after it occurred, I had never heard of a GM73 Major Tripping penalty. To make matters worse, I would find out post-game the infraction also carried with it a 2-game suspension. We heard from the other linesman post-game that no official really saw what happened, but only the post collision result.  The only, albeit important, positive from this first game was an eventual 3-2 win.

So we would enter game two (and then game three for that matter) down a member of our defence corps. We were confident knowing our second opponent had lost their first game 6-0 to one of our close competitors, but we also knew all too well nothing is to be taken for granted. As the two teams took to the ice, I noted one of my fave referees (he says trying not to sound tooooo sarcastic) would be handling the head officiating duties. I wanted to be sure I properly denoted my suspended player’s info on the game sheet so I asked her to review it for me. She immediately asked what happened in the last game and I described the unusual circumstance as objectively as I could. She patted me on the shoulder, gave me a quick wink and said, “Let’s try to not let that happen again.”  I returned the wink, but dreaded what could potentially ensue. The game started and we carried a three-goal lead into the final period. With the other side having given up 9 goals to none, over the last five periods, they understandably started to get a bit frustrated and it showed in their play. Their aggressive play was unfortunately matched by our own. One of our defencemen in particular retaliated to being struck with a right jab of her own; earning her a two-minute penalty…one of those we’ve been trying to limit. Consequently, when the offender returned to the bench I suggested she have an additional rest.  “She hit me first,” signaled her mild protest and frustration. To which I quickly countered with, “Yeah, but we all know they always catch the retaliator.” To her defence (pun fully intended as always), even most NHLers have a difficult time grasping this incontrovertible truth and perhaps in this we are seeing learned behaviour. She hung her head and served her extra team-inflicted mini-suspension…lesson hopefully learned. The game ended with the Sharks registering their highest goal total to date (5) and none against.

Game three was a semi must-win or at least a must-tie despite our unblemished record through the first two matches. We knew we would be in for a tougher match, but would hopefully ride the wave of our last and eye the prize of a semi-final berth. A short time into this game it became apparent our referee du jour was very familiar with his whistle and willing to use it as both teams were tagged with early penalties. As such, I gave a quick warning to those on our side to be mindful of their actions. They were for the most part until a few minutes into the final frame, at which point we were deadlocked in a 0-0 contest. An over-aggressive play in the corner ended with one of our defenders being banished for the obligatory 2 minute span; thereby putting the game and our opportunity to advance is some jeopardy. Again, luckily, we were able to kill the 2 minutes with no damage done, but again I felt it necessary to allot an extra brief punishment to try to get the point across to the offender’s teammates. Having secured/survived a 0-0 tied score, the Sharks were headed to the medal round against their nearest and “dearest” rivals.

Our semi-final opponent was familiar, but a bit surprising, as the first place team in our league entered the tourney round in 4th place, though in a tight 7-team tourney anything can and usually will happen. Once more, we realized we were in for a fight to secure a place in the Championship game. Pre-game I had fashioned a new motivational “Survivor Hockey” sign instructing our charges to Outsmart, Outwork and Outlast the other side. And indeed they did, dominating the first half of the game on the ice and the scoreboard with a 1-0 lead. The lead would evaporate before the end of the second period, making the third a race to the finish. We implored the players to keep battling shift by shift. However, a few shifts in our skating gave way to the other team’s pressure and they notched a go-ahead marker. As frustration and/or panic set in, we took the first and only, but certainly ill-timed and unwarranted penalty of the game. Shorthanded, we gave up a third nail in our proverbial coffin when again the girls’ efforts lagged momentarily and the puck found the back of our net. For a third consecutive game, I found myself patting a player on the shoulder as she begrudgingly served a second sentence. Two hard lessons learned over the span of a single period.

So the tournament didn’t go quite as we hoped, however, it was not without value for showing the team what is required to win hockey games. Keep up your efforts, especially against the tougher opponents, and keep your emotions in check against the rougher ones….always. We’ve told them these are the things they are able to control, though both are easier said than done in hockey as in life. We’ll see how things progress from here with the hope the benching subsides because as Snoopy adeptly points out, we are all really “…such a nice guy(s).”


“Peanuts” image courtesy of

Ws and Other Fun Stuff Found at a Hockey Tourney

I don’t want to take any undue credit, but I’m happy to report the Sharks winless streak ended right after my last post about chasing an elusive first W.  Based on the way the girls had been practicing and for that matter playing to this point, a win was bound to come. But until you get the first one, particularly when it’s been a while, you’re never quite sure when it will.

Happy Hockey Team
This past weekend we travelled an hour and a half down the road to compete in our second tourney of the year. Applefest 2013 guaranteed us four round robin games, with the top four out of seven teams going on to play semi-final and hopefully championship final games. A little quick online research helped us get a sense of our competition and revealed what looked to be three strong opponents in games 1, 3 and 4 and one presumably lesser foe in game 2.

So we knew we had a challenge right out of the gate. Pre-game I tried to position the entire tournament as an opportunity to set a new winning precedent for the rest of the year.  The squad had proved to this point they could “skate” with any team, but had yet to translate their effort into wins. I told them in order to win they would need to do a couple of things – play like a team, which meant passing the puck more and committing to a forecheck we’d been working on over the last few weeks in order to create more scoring opportunities. To their credit, they did both and entered the 3rd period with a less than comfortable 1-0 lead. They would extend this to a 2-0 gap  just 20 seconds into the final frame. The other side would manage to put one past our keeper a couple of minutes later to raise our combined blood pressure. Moments later a shot from the point would sail towards our net and then be deflected over the right shoulder of our defenceless goalie. Luckily, the hockey gods and an observant head referee noted the deflection came from a high stick. Our 2-1 lead was preserved and maintained until the final buzzer rang. The proverbial monkey was off our back. The previously elusive W was behind us. With a weaker side (who we watched lose their first match 6-1 to the home team), scheduled for game two later that evening, things were certainly looking up for the Sharks.

The game two pre-game speech was relatively simple. Take your effort from game one and bring it up a notch. This should be plenty to advance the tournament record to 2-0. Of course, things are never as simple as we’d like or often expect them to be. Instead, the team we watched lose 6-1 earlier in the day brought their game up a notch and our side inexplicably dialled their back a few. While the play and scoring chances skewed slightly in the Sharks favour, the 1-0 score on the clock when the game ended did not. With a 1-1 record, the team had now put itself in a bit more of a precarious situation as much stronger foes were on tap the next day.

The next day started would start unusually early for a Midget team with the first puck scheduled to hit the ice at 8am. My fellow hockey parents and I thought we were done with waking up at 5:30am for hockey several years ago. To make matters worse, our fourth and final game would start 13 hours later at 9pm. However, this was simply another challenge we would have to deal with if we wanted to advance to the semi-finals on Day 3. Challenge one would be getting past the team we thought would be our stiffest competition. Though it was a bit of a fib, I told our charges we were in a must-win situation. I wanted them to bring everything they had in order to give them their best chance to win. And I believe it worked as we watched a night and day transformation of the team was saw drop a 1-0 decision a mere 12 hours ago.

Even with this improved effort our side entered the third period down 2-1 on the scoresheet, but still had a positive result in their sites. Unfortunately, the hockey gods had other plans. A little over 5 minutes into the 15 minute 3rd period, a puck shot harmlessly behind our net and just above the boards, caught a stanchion and ricocheted directly out in front to a fortunately positioned opponent, who in turn quickly buried the errant rubber disk into the mesh behind our goaler. Our sides effort had not diminished, but their spirits after falling behind 2 goals with only 10 minutes left to play certainly did. Having taken a must-win attitude myself as the game wore on, I decided to pull our goaltender with just over 1 minute left in the game so see if an extra attacker could pull us within a goal. This tactic unfortunately resulted in an empty net goal against making the score 4-1. Insult to injury came with only 7 seconds left on the clock as our now decidedly dejected troops allowed an unchallenged shot from in close, which rang off a post for a 5th goal. Post-game my consolation speech revolved around the fact that we gave our opponents all they could handle for two periods. I honestly told the girls the 5-1 final was not an accurate measure of the game they had played. That being said, I could now definitively tell them game four was a MUST-WIN. Adding to our early morning drama was the realization that our netminder had re-injured her knee at some point during the contest. She was in considerable pain as a couple of fathers escorted her out of the arena – a scene no one wants to watch. See y’all in 11 hours to fight for our tourney lives against the host team.

I was concerned by the time the final round robin game rolled around our players would be less than fresh having sat around at a hotel or in a local mall trying to kill 11 hours. A 9pm game for girls (and coaches for that matter) who woke up a 5:30 was far from ideal. Yet, I implored our side, reminding them of how well they played earlier in the day. I reiterated the MUST-WIN message and let them know not all hope was lost. In fact, because we knew the scores of those who were battling for the last playoff spot, we also knew we were actually in a win-and-get-in scenario. Our opponents on the other hand, were pretty much already advancing on the strength of their results in their first three games. Before the opening face off I get one more chance to talk to the players on the ice. As I tried to deliver this serious invocation someone actually asked the question “Who farted?” and tone of this game was somewhat set. Despite the gravity of the situation, I was encouraged to see our players relatively unfazed. The first two periods were fought tooth and nail deadlocking our squads in a scoreless tie. With the Zamboni preparing a fresh sheet of ice four our final push to the playoff round, we retreated to our dressing room where we encountered a surprisingly upbeat, loose and I dare say confident group of players. Even better I noted 17 girls who were having a lot of fun. I and the coaching staff hoped this bode well for the final frame. The third period continued to be a tight affair with each side exchanging its share of chances. Then with just under 4:30 left the good guys struck paydirt first as a rebound was banged home from in close. The stands erupted behind us and I may have given the trainer aka Hockey Momma a double high five or two. Our jubilation was short-lived as other side fought back to square the score at ones only two minutes later. With a tie not really being an option if we wanted to advance, I would need to pull our goalie for a second straight game, hoping against hope for a better result. And the better result (the desperately desired result) occurred with only 46 seconds left on the clock as another garbage goal was notched in our favour, thereby cueing renewed jubilation. The final 46 seemed much longer, but expired and signalled what we thought was a berth in the next day’s festivities.

As it turned out, we would have to wait nearly another full hour to hear the verdict we were waiting for. The girls did indeed earn a berth in the semi-finals and a rematch with the team they lost 5-1 to in their 8am match. An opportunity to get to the championship game by exacting some measure of revenge and proving the earlier lopsided score was unfounded. Though we all knew this would be a difficult proposition at best.

I kept the pre-game banter short and simple again. Through a dozen games now, I believe the players have come to recognize what they need to do in order to compete and give themselves the best chance to win. Skate, commit to an aggressive forecheck, unselfishly pass the puck and crash the net (or get into the kitchen as one assistant has become fond of saying) looking for rebounds and dirty goals. To their credit and as they’d done in the two previous games, the girls came out skating and battling. Unfortunately, one such battle resulted in a 4 minute penalty about 5 minutes in. The opponents were able to capitalize on their man advantage and took a 1-0 lead into the second period. Over the next 15 minutes, the Sharks would register several good scoring chances, all of which were turned away by an able goaltender. Before the second period ended the bad guys would find the back of our net again. During the intermission, I reminded the girls they had scored two goals in the 3rd period of the previous game and they could do so again. However, a relentless opponent scoring 2 minutes into the 3rd was a likely death knell to our hopes of reaching the final stage of the tourney. We tried to buoy the team’s spirits and implored them to not give up. And while they did not, their team game effectively went away as desperation kicked in. One final goal would be scored (not by us I’m afraid) ending our tournament on a somewhat sour note. Perhaps a small consolation lies in having worn down our semi-final foes who went on to lose the championship game to the host team who we defeated to reach the semis. Again proving hockey is an unpredictable game (like we need more evidence).

At the risk of sounding cliched, this tourney was a great learning experience for the team. I admitted to them the team we lost to twice is, at this early point in the season, a better team. However, I hope they also realize the level at which they were and are able to compete. Overall on the weekend, they played more good than bad hockey – did more positive than negative things. Furthermore, they secured two previously unattained Ws.  We can and should use this realization as inspiration to get more Ws. Of course, it partially rests on me and us to ensure “can and should” becomes “will and do”; all the while striving for the same level of fun I saw on and off the ice in Game 3. I’m open to any and all suggestions on that front.


Chasing an Elusive First W

A little over a month into the Devil’s hockey season and our new team has yet to notch a victory through nine games. Our record stands at 0-5-4 with six of the nine games being settled by one goal or less. In the regular season, into which we have only waded two games deep, the squad has skated to a 2-1 loss and a 1-1 tie; both of which they could have/should have won save for a bounce here or there. Regardless the record on the league website shouts 0-1-1.


The girls have played some very good hockey and have deserved a better fate in most of these early games, which could obviously have gone either way based on the close margins I’ve mentioned. In a few, we’ve entered the third period either tied or with the lead and were unable to seal the deal; a situation I am all too familiar with from my first head coaching stint two years ago. That team, I shudder to recall, only picked up three victories in the regular season primarily due to a lack of finish. The third period was their nemesis. At one point, I considered lobbying to have the second and third periods combined into one in order to avoid a final frame letdown. Two years later, I’m hoping to not have to invoke this plea again.

Lots of people believe wins and losses are just stats, while others considered them the be all and end all with understandably no better point of reference to measure the success of a team. However, I have to concur with the former when it comes to this team or teams like them. I have to reckon back to how success is defined in our coaching certification courses; not by wins, but by the overall improvement of the team and individuals on the team over time. My own measure of success has always also included making sure the players have a positive experience (not that wins can’t go a long way in ensuring such an experience).  To that end, I am most encouraged by this group’s attitude and spirit so far. Again, it is early and perhaps the current winless streak has not yet sunk in with them (as much as it has with me, the coaching staff and I’m sure the odd parent watching from the stands), but they are a pretty loose and positive bunch. Prior to the last game, our trainer aka Hockey Momma had me peer into the dressing room to watch them perform a pre-game huddle, shoulder-to-shoulder with beats blasting from an amplified iPod. On the bench, the mood has been relatively positive as well with players encouraging each other to soldier on. They too may realize how well they have competed thus far and recognize they will be rewarded for their efforts in due course. Something I likely need to remind myself here again.

That being said, here I am at 5:30am (five hours prior to game one of a guaranteed four-game and hopefully six-game tournament), having already been up for well over an hour, deliberating how I can get the girls to commit to our 2-1-2 forecheck and rehearsing my pre-game pep talk. Because while a bit of me wants to placate the fans in the stands, a bigger part sees the promise of a group of players who have shown the potential to be a really good TEAM who can capture a bunch of those elusive Ws when all of the stars align.

So wish us/them luck. I sincerely hope by the end of the season, if not much sooner, I will look back at this as the mere early season ramblings of another uptight coach. In the meantime, I’m headed back to the drawing board.


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