A Canadian Manifesto
Everything I ever needed to know about sports I learned from my grandfather.
When I was 12-years-old, my grandparents attended every hockey game that season. They lived more than half an hour away, and would drive to watch us practice. They loved the run-down old hockey rinks. They loved the smell of rusting shower drains, teenage angst and team spirit. They loved the comradery of the parents, and the union of families around a common goal. They loved that I loved it, and I really did.
I was never the best hockey player on the team - in fact, for a long time I might have been the worst - but my grandfather would watch me play and always give me tips. He taught me to shield the puck and drive to the net. He taught me how to take a proper slap-shot. He taught me when not to take a slap shot. He taught me the power and surprise that a good wrist shot can hold. He taught me how to stick handle, and always look for the open man.
But the most important lessons he taught me had nothing to do with hockey.
Always Shake Hands
Before every game we shook hands with the other team. He taught me to always look them straight in the eye, give a firm hand shake, wish them good luck, and mean it. As much as we brought emotion into the game, it was important to remember we were all just kids, and win or lose, we were still just a group of friends playing a game we loved.
After every game I shook the coaches’ hands. He taught me that the coaches never got paid for their time, and they were as invested in the games as we were. Saying thank you, and appreciating their time was all they ever wanted to receive from us players, and the least we could do was give it to them. I think every coach I ever had was shocked the first time I did it, but it was a tradition I continue to this day.
Most importantly, he taught me to always thank the referees. This was always the hardest for me. I never held it against my opponents for wanting to win, even if it meant a cheap shot from behind, or a slew-foot in front of the net. To be honest, I usually deserved those. The things that drove me crazy were the bad calls - or non-calls - that took a game from two teams playing their hearts out, to a referee wanting to flex their muscles. But they put up with more abuse than anyone, and are just trying to do their best. The least I could do was shake their hands and thank them at the end of the game.
I always tried to remember that my grandfather was a referee for years, and imagine him in their shoes. I’m sure he blew calls sometime too - nobody’s perfect.
You Can’t Win Them All, But You Can Be Kind
Scoring a goal is hard. That’s why, when you do, it’s such a big deal.
Scoring a goal in a 1–0 game is particularly hard. More so in the third period in a playoff final.
But for every time I have had a glorious, celebratory moment where everything went right, I’ve had at least two that went wrong.
And for every game that you walk all over the other team and beat them by 5 or more, there’s half a dozen where you get shmucked.
And most importantly, for every game you felt the refs cheated you out, remembering that they weren’t the ones who put the puck in the back of your net. Just as much as a ref can make it an uphill battle, you can dig deep and beat them. For every game you feel the ref is against you, there are two where you get the benefit of the doubt.
It’s important to remember in those moments of highlights, that you too were on the other side.
I never got flack from my grandfather for any game that we lost, as long as I gave it 110%. The games I dogged it he would ride me, but justifiably so. But one game we blew out the other team, something unruly like 10–1. I had a hat trick, and surely let the other team know. I think I drew about 4 penalties for being a bit of a smart ass as well. He lit me up on the car ride home. I’ve never heard him so cross. I had played an excellent game and did all the little things right except one: be kind.
Jeff Bezos talked about how it is easier to talented than to be kind. In moments of glory, it is even harder, but no less important. You will go much further in life by being kind than you ever will being smart or talented. Best to remember that, no matter what the score is.
Be Gritty, Be Tough, Be Smart
When I was about 10 years old my grandfather taught me what I thought was the best move on the planet.
I happened to hit a growth spurt much sooner than the rest of the kids my age, and that gave me some ungodly long legs. Thankfully, I was playing pretty high-level soccer at the time, so my coordination never really diminished. This combined for a huge edge in speed for a few years. I used to out-skate people to the puck who had a 3 stride head-start. I beat out more icings that year than anyone else in the league. I also scored a ton of breakaway goals.
I was always strong at the open-ice game, but when I got into an opponents end, particularly one-on-one, I tended to falter. I had no stick-handling ability, and generally just chose the shot. Sometimes it worked, often it didn’t.
Then my grandfather told me to just go around the guy, and cut hard to the net. I had never really thought about it, but putting your body-weight into someone when you have the puck isn’t a penalty. Running them over surely is, but leaning on someone is totally fine. I learned to shield the puck with my body and blow by people, and scored about a dozen goals that year this way. No one really knew what to do. Eventually I would just get out-muscled, but for a few golden years this worked wonderfully.
My love of being physical, though not drawing penalties, eventually shaped the way I learned to play. I would out-skate opponents on open ice, and then out-muscle them in the corner. This generally made up for my lack of hands, and got me far more used to holding onto the puck. Eventually, teams would double-team me, and I learned to pass eloquently, and with intention.
Very quickly my mantra became: Be Gritty, Be Tough, Be Smart.
Being gritty meant being willing to go into the tough areas of the ice - the corner, in front of the net, playing hard defense and forcing opponents to make decisions. I learned to play just as hard in the tough areas as in the open ice.
Being tough meant not quitting when someone pulled a cheap shot. I was bigger than most, so elbows, sticks, slashes, and my fair share of punches to the head were taken. If I retaliated, I surely got the door. Being tough meant not taking people’s crap, and hitting them back where it hurt most: in the back of the net. Nothing rattles a defenseman more than cutting hard to the net and scoring after taking 10 whacks to the ankles.
And most importantly, being smart, which meant knowing when to channel your emotions, and when to calm them down. Being a smart player meant learning to use your opponents faults against them. After about a dozen whacks to the legs, you have two options: hit the guy back, or change your strategy. Changing strategy just meant going after the other defenseman. Sometimes, you just have to change it up.
Win As A Team, Lose As A Team
I had a coach during one of the best years of my short hockey career who only ever had two rules:
- No throwing ice - he had a kid miss out on an entire season because someone hit him in the eye and he couldn’t play.
- No riding a teammate for anything - doesn’t matter if he puts one in your own net in OT of the tournament finals, he’s a teammate and a friend
It is hard to take the puck all the way up the ice, beat every player, and score on your own. Some players might be able to do it, some might even be able to do it with some regularity. But it is far harder to teach 15 kids to put their egos aside and play as a team. That’s the true challenge of any coach, parent, mentor or captain. When you’re 12 and have some decent skill, you think you can do it all on your own all the time. Sometimes you might even be right, but in the dying minutes of a tight game, that attitude isn’t going to save you.
My grandfather always taught me to look first before shooting - there might be someone in a better position than you. Sometimes you need to be mindful enough to make the pass. Sometimes you need to just let it fly on your own. But the trick to being a deadly player is to keep your opponent guessing.
You have to win as a team, and lose as a team. You can’t do this on your own. When you’re down one with 1:30 remaining in the last game of a tournament, it isn’t going to be your clutch goal-scorer that gets you through. When you’re up one and grinding it out in the corner with second remaining against the toughest team in the league, it isn’t a star goalie that will save you. And when you’re in the dressing room after a 12–1 embarrassment, and you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, it isn’t a new pair of skates or a high-priced stick that is going to get you back on track.
It’s your team. Win as one, and lose as one.
Play Both Ends of the Ice
One season I made the top 10 goal-scorers list. I did all the little things right - back-checked hard, ground it out in the corners, set screens in front of the net, made smart passes, changed lines when the team needed it - whatever it took. Then suddenly I decided I wanted to be a top scorer. My game fell off the rails, and I started playing lousy. I made simply mistakes often, and my team suffered.
Trying to be one-man-show, hot-shot goal scorer didn’t really suit me.
In fact, I rarely ever got the puck.
Constantly looking for that breakaway pass where I could pull a sweet move that everyone would be talking about in the hallways at school on Monday led to barely ever seeing it.
It was my grandfather, from his watchful perch in the corner of the rink, who noticed first. He walked around to the bench and called me over. He told me to knock off the showboating, and go get the puck if I wanted to score.
That made some sense to me.
If no one is going to give me the puck, maybe I had best go get it for myself.
I scored a hat-trick in the third period of that game.
More impressive though, I stole the puck about 8 times.
Learning to back-check hard, clog up the middle of the ice, help the defense, and force the other team to make mistakes, wound up with me controlling the game rather than chasing it.
Being a two-way player means you do not just what is best for you, but what is best for the team. Sometimes, people just need some help, and that means you’ve gotta dig deep and push out that extra 10%.
You win when everyone commits and does their job. You win consistently when everyone does their job, and supports one another.
You win when you play both ends of the ice.
In what was the pinnacle year of my hockey career, I was the captain of the top team in the league, we had won the regular season, and it was the winter holidays. Holidays meant tournaments, and tournaments meant a trip with your friends and family. We went to London, Ontario.
We had been accepted into the invitational tournament, and played off against some of the top teams in our age group from leagues around the GTA and surrounding area.
We had a pretty stacked team, and felt we could do pretty well in the tournament, but as it goes with these things, you never really know.
But more than I have ever felt in hockey, we were a team that was hungry for it. We wanted this one, and we came prepared. New skates, lucky skate laces, special hockey tape, team bracelets for luck, and a fighting spirit to protect one another.
The first game, my first shift, I absolutely leveled a kid. Kind of accidentally (he more ran into me than me into him), but I dropped my shoulder at the last minute. He flew, I skated to the penalty box, we scored 2 goals short-handed, I had one on a breakaway when I left the box, and we won the game handedly.
The second game, we switched up some of the lines to try some new combinations, and won even bigger than our previous game. We never lost focus, but instead worked at perfecting our systems knowing that the hardest teams were yet to come.
The third game we played the home team, the favourite, and one that was undoubtedly stacked. There was not a single weak player in their entire line-up, and some guys more than twice my size. I was the biggest player on our team, and was dwarfed in comparison. We scored two quick goals, and they came roaring back. With a questionable hack at the goalie after the buzzer had gone, the ref ruled it a goal and the game ended 2–2.
In the quarter- and semi-finals, we played local teams and swept them without difficulty. We had the momentum, all pistons were going, and we were playing the best hockey of the year so far.
Up to this point, one might say we dominated the tournament. We had a goal difference of about 20 points in 5 games, had 3 players at the top of the scoring leaders, and were set to take center stage in the finals. We had momentum, we had the belief, and we could almost taste it.
The final game was against the team we tied in the round-robin, and they seemed to have brought some friends. We were out-worked, out-classed, and out-played the entire game. Our goalie stood on his head, stopped more than 40 shots, and we lost 5–0. I think maybe 3 guys on the team had shots the whole game, and we never really tested their goalie. We got smoked, and not gently.
It was a rough way to end the tournament, but a stark lesson.
Sometimes, you’re going to be the champions, and you get the spoils that come with that. Sometimes, you’re going to come in last.
Sometimes you are going to get so close to victory, and have it ripped from your hands.
When we shook the other team’s hands at the end of the game, we acknowledge that they bettered us that day. They dominated. And when they shook our hands back, the told us we were a worthy adversary, and they had just hit their stride at the right moment. We earned their respect, and they ours.
They dominated, humbly.
A hard lesson to learn is how to hold your head high when you lose. A far harder lesson is to learn to be humble when you win.
Doing a huge celebration might make the highlight reel for 2 days, but accepting that sometimes you just get lucky is what turns you into a legend.
That year, after the tournament, we went back to our own league and won the championship. I scored the game-winning goal, and won the player of the game. But throughout the entire season, the highlight for me was the day I was voted captain by my teammates. More than the shiny MVP trophy, more than my name on a cup, more than a team photo or the glory that came on Monday when I gloated to all my friends at school - being part of a team that respected, fought for, and worked for one another was the best prize of all.
So when you play, in hockey, business or life, always aim to dominate. And when you do, do so humbly.
So if I’ve learned anything from my grandfather, about sports and about life, it is:
Always shake hands; with opponents, with coaches, and with referees.
Always be kind no matter the outcome.
Be gritty, be tough, and be smart.
Win as a team, lose as a team
Always play both ends of the ice.
And Dominate, Humbly.
We are Canadian, after all.
“True love is waking up at 5am on a Sunday to watch a 6am hockey practice.”
Hat tip: Aliza Rana, Papa