Hockey and the Military

I recently wrote an essay on how football prepared me for life in the Army. Continuing on the theme of how sports prepares us for life in the real world, I offer the following on what playing the sport of hockey for the better part of 35 years (I’m 38 years old) did to make me a better Soldier in the United States military.

The system, not the individual

In hockey, no single player is greater than the collective system. In a team sport such as basketball, where the best player can be on the court for most of the game, the teams with the best players in the game tend to rise to the top (e.g. the 2016 Cavaliers and Warriors). In hockey, the best forward may be on the ice for about a third of the game, the best defenseman for a little less than half. The best teams play a system that highlights the strengths of its players. Indeed, team systems triumph over individual talent.

1–2–2 Center Low

The U.S. Army is filled with thousands of smart, talented, and motivated people. And every single one of these people, from the newest private to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is replaceable. Where hockey has systems such as the 1–2–2 and the neutral zone trap, the military has a wide range of “systems,” ranging from doctrine to weapons platforms. Any one person can step into a position they have been trained for and adapt to the specific skills required for the position. Whether a soldier is a squad leader or joint planner on the first day of the job, there is doctrine to read and fall in on.

Within the concept of systems, hockey and the military have one further similarity. The ability to leverage creativity and innovation within a system. From a hockey perspective, a team can divert from the system to take advantage of a turnover by an opponent, or lucky bounce of the puck. From the military aspect, doctrine is a guide to tactics and operations, not gospel. Leaders at all levels have the capability to diverge from doctrine when the situation demands it.

Chemistry Matters

In hockey, a combination of the system and talent will only go so far. How players on the same line interact on the ice is paramount to success. Described as chemistry, some players develop a deep rapport with their teammates and rapidly develop an instinct to know where their teammates are on the ice.

From tactical level units such as an infantry squad and a tank platoon, to Operational Planning Teams (OPTs) solving strategic problems, chemistry is vital. At the tactical level, a high level of chemistry can enhance a unit’s ability to execute basic battle drills, A tank crew must develop trust with each other as they operate a 70-ton machine designed to kill people. Moreover, chemistry between units enables actions ranging from combined arms maneuver to joint and coalition warfare.

Think fast act fast

Hockey is the fastest sport on the planet. Hockey players must make decisions on what they will do with the puck before they even receive a pass. Further, the time to execute a pass, a shot, or to make a skilled move with the puck is less than one second.

At the tactical level of warfare, decisions on the use of force, or when and how to engage a target occur in a manner of seconds. This is true for the soldier standing guard at a checkpoint, or for a tank commander identifying a target, to counter-battery fire. Having situational awareness, an understanding of the environment, and trust in the ability of teammates allows for rapid decision making, be it on the ice or in the desert.

Be thick skinned

Sidney Crosby, arguably the greatest player in the NHL today is consistency called out as a crybaby, and told how much he “sucks” by fans of an opposing team. Hockey players at every level endure the chirping of players from an opposing team, ranging descriptions of how they can barely ice skate to their ability to satisfy their wives. Often, the intent of riling up an opposing player is to get them out of their comfort zone, to get them to lose control of their emotions, and in the end to take an unnecessary penalty at an inopportune time. The best players can tune out the insults and focus on their game.

The ability to control emotions is essential for anyone in the military. Emotional control can range from enduring an “ass chewing” from an angry boss, to remaining calm and collected under fire, and all the stressful events in-between. Soldiers in leadership positions

A wide range of talent

I currently play in the “A” level men’s league at my local rink. This says more about the number of hockey players in Southern Virginia than is does about my talent. The totality of players within our league and they would fall into multiple leagues at other rinks around the nation. If I were to play in a men’s league near Boston per say, I do not think there is any chance my age and talent would put me into any league with an “A” associated with it. With the sheer number of skaters around the nation, you learn quickly that there are many levels of talent, and eventually you reach your zenith. With the exception of the NHL, no matter what level of hockey you play, there are others who can make you look like you have never stepped on the ice before.

Much like hockey, within every job or MOS in the military there are multiple layers of talent. If you think of yourself as the most fit infantryman, or most intellectual strategist, chances are there is someone who can out-run or out-think you.

Technology matters, but it’s not everything

Cool in the NHL, not cool if you pay to play in a league

Every team, at nearly every level has a skater who owns the most high tech equipment. This can include $1000 skates sharpened after each game, $300 sticks, and a high tech visor. While this equipment may improve a skater’s confidence, and to an extent may marginally improve performance, the equipment does not make the skater. Talent does.

Military forces across the globe consistently pursue the latest in equipment. Indeed, the American way of warfare often relies on the latest in technology. The second and now third offsets rely on the United States holding distinct advantages over foreign adversaries in the development and fielding of technology. Examples include precision guided munitions, stealth aircraft, and long range fires. However, talent, still matters. As witnessed in Vietnam, and more recently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, technology is not a guarantee of victory. Other factors such as training, education, and leadership still hold sway in combat.

Conclusion

Hockey, and more generally sports holds many of life’s lessons. Skills I have learned on the ice translate to the skills and knowledge I have found useful over the course of my twenty years in uniform.

Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the DoD, or the U.S. Government.