We’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 My concern at having a young team with half of the players in their rookie midget year has been replaced by enthusiasm driven by their enthusiasm.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.
Perennial 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.