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Closing the Bench Door
I'm retiring from coaching Mites ice hockey after a decade on the bench
After 10 years of coaching Mites (under-8) ice hockey, including about 500 players, two dozen tournaments, and a lot of artificial cartilage pumped into my right knee, I’m closing the bench door for the last time. Those knees, weekends with my family, and the overall health and strength of youth hockey in New Jersey brought me to this point. Since I first began to contemplate cleaning out my coach’s bag, I’ve seen small hints that it’s time.
The first players I coached are now in high school; two were nominated for player of the month honors; two won high school championships; a few have shown up in the town paper with photo credit worthy goals. Some of the youngest players I had in Sunday morning learn to play have grown into dedicated, strong of skills and heart hockey players. Our girls program now fields a team at every age level and while I still get some blank looks when I mention Patty Kazmaier, we are truly in the era when hockey is for everyone.
Through a decade of carrying a horribly scarred white board and constantly frozen dry erase markers I’m quite a bit richer for the lessons I’ve learned from this sport and its athletes.
I”m surprised at the number of players who remember me – I get taps on the glass when they’re on the bench, a few casual greetings passing in the rink (when I frequently have to recalibrate for height difference from their 1st grade years), and the occasional report of a big goal. One of my first players ran down the locker room row to tell me about his first goal of the season – a full year after I coached him. I’ve seen the smiles on players’ faces when they score that first goal, and I want to tell them it’s as wonderful as kissing someone you love, but at this age kissing is gross. They beam more brightly than the goal lamp, and I made sure they got the puck with their name on it to commemorate the event.
I still carry a small rubber Princeton puck in my bag as my first goal souvenir, 40 years later, as I never kept the puck despite remembering every single detail of the goal (right face off circle, pass from Tom, a slow wrist shot). I want the players to remember that their focus and team work will pay off, not just in hockey but in college and jobs and relationships. Those pucks generate more long term value than medals or trophies.
I’ve watched NJ ice hockey become as diverse and wonderful as our state, and at the same time I’ve had to deal with racism, sexism and vulgar language – from first graders – that tested my ability to create safe spaces for young athletes. I learned more about inclusion and being an ally on the ice with a player who was “called a bad name” than I have in years of corporate training.
My first cohort of players included our head coach’s son. I’ve since coached two full lines of players who are the sons, daughters, nephews, and grandchildren of NHL players, and I always emphasized that the players had their own personalities and interests, despite their “hockey names” on the jerseys. To a person, those NHL players (as well as some D1 college ones) never once raised a question, countered coaching direction or offered advice. The trust they showed in me, with their kids playing a sport so loved by their families, was remarkable. I had to exercise more restraint in not fan-boying over their presence.
One of my favorite brushes with Original Six hockey fame came in a game a week before Christmas, when I shared the bench with Grant Mulvey and three of his grandchildren. I love obscure sports trivia and “Coach Grandpa” is a holiday basket of statistics: he held the record as the youngest player to score a goal in the NHL for nearly 40 years; he scored 5 goals in a game to set the Blackhawks record; he played his last 12 games with the budding NJ Devils franchise. He has more hockey experience in his hockey gloves than I’ve collected in a generation, and he was generous with his time and encouragement. At the end of each shift, he offered only one comment: “Did you have fun? How will you have more fun?” It was the greatest coaching clinic measured in the true currency of youth hockey: smiles and laughs.
The Advanced Development Model (ADM) for youth hockey, promoted by USA Hockey and incorporating half ice play, small nets, relaxed rules and more play was a key ingredient in my coaching tenure. It let us break the game down and teach small skills, without worrying about position, strategy or exhausting kids skating up and down a professional sized rink. My focus was on team work, basic skills, weekly improvement and sportsmanship. I hope those skills translate to the classroom, the board room and the beer league locker room.
When our son started playing hockey 25 years ago, I was thoroughly lost as a parent: I put goalie pads on the wrong legs and was full of bad advice gleaned from beer-fueled grandstand coaches yelling at Devils home games. The New Jersey Devils Youth Hockey club broke the game down for me as well: from helping the beginners to the ethos of tryouts I was taken in, shown, kidded, cheered, encouraged, and I experienced joy, heartbreak, and bonding.
I will miss the parents cheering for each of their kids’ accomplishments, until I do it again (ideally) as a grandparent. I will miss seeing a new player master long strides, puck control, or an amazing defensive effort that elicits cheers from both sides of the stands.
I will miss long car rides on winter mornings so crisp and cold that you swear the air shines, and you realize it’s just reflecting your mood for the day. When you go into a rink in the cold, dark morning and come out into the sunlight, it’s a great reminder that you just got to play a game.
The alarm is set for hockey o’clock one last time but I will continue look for former player names in the local hockey news, in college updates, and maybe in the NHL draft. They will be on my player roster as long as they remember to tap the glass when they see me.
There are probably a dozen books about hockey (and coaching) that shaped my views of player development, coaching style, and the beauty of a game that is effectively crashing into your friends on a frozen pond, holding a stick while you have knives strapped to your boots.
Everything the late, wonderful Jack Falla wrote. Everything. He will make you a Bruins fan and explain how hockey is the dominant religion of the 617 area code.
“The Boys Of Winter” by Wayne Coffey is the best book about the 1980 Men’s Olympic Hockey team and the Miracle on Ice. I quote it, and Jim Craig’s intro, frequently (and yes, I’m wiping away tears I had withheld so far thinking about my experiences in Lake Placid)
“Orr: My Story” by Bobby Orr captures every aspect of loving the game and those experiences in the presence of NHL players that I treasured. His Stanley Cup winning goal, cast in bronze outside of Boston’s TD Garden, gets at most a few sentences.
“Ice Time” is Jay Atkinson’s story of coaching his high school alma mater and introducing his son to the game. I gave it out frequently as a gift.
“Let Them Lead” by John Bacon is a different sort of “worst to first” coaching book, and one whose lessons have carried over to my professional life from the bench.
Ken Baker was a college classmate of Kathryn Bertine (whose books feature prominently in my lists). “They Don’t Play Hockey In Heaven” captures the work ethic of a minor league player and the value of a hockey dream in a superb story.
“Crossroads” is told by Kaleb Dahlgren, a survivor of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash that killed about half of his teammates and left him facing a long physical recovery. If you want to understand what hockey means to Canada, read it with the passion of the young adult author.