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.
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.
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.