The Dream Season

Last September, I put my love on ice.

I’ve been coaching kids for 21 years. For the last several, I’ve been lucky enough to coach my own kids in their various sports. I was never an athlete myself, but my career in coaching has given me education, experience and insight to contribute when I’m needed.

So when — as often happens — my son’s hockey team was left without enough coaches, I accepted. There was no late-night phone call from a GM; no written invitation. Just a question from my son’s hockey coach at my their first practice of the year:

“You got your skates with you?”

Keith is a REAL hockey coach. He knows drills for skating and passing and shooting. When the local league split their roster into “recreational” and “rep” teams, we were lucky to have Keith stay on the “recreational” side. But no man stands behind a bench alone, and he knew me to be a willing door-opener. I know first aid, and my son’s on the team. For this year, that was qualification enough.

I skated with the kids. We had no goalie. We had two who had never played before — a rarity in Northern Ontario, despite their young age. We didn’t have enough jerseys or socks, and we had only one practice booked before our first game.

I knew I couldn’t solve all these problems, but I could solve a few. Team sponsorship — new jerseys and socks — was the easy part. I wanted to go further: the families that formed this team felt “dumped” by the league, and I wanted the kids to feel as if they were all first-round draft picks. I wanted them to have everything the pros have: warmup suits, hats, shirts and fans. I wanted every kid to know they were needed. And with the bare minimum number required to form a team, they certainly were.

Before our first game, we told the kids:

“This season will be a win if you love hockey more at the end than you do today.”

Without a trained goalie, or even three full lines of skaters, we knew it could be a rough one.

And those early games WERE rough. Without enough kids sharing a single birth year, we had to draw from two separate age groups. That meant playing our season against older, bigger kids with more experience and speed. We started the season with lopsided losses. We had one reliable scorer, a remarkably brave new goalie, and a core of four defensemen who knew their jobs. It was enough to give us a few bright spots in every game.

From that first game, I recognized my role: to take what two decades’ worth of 70-hour weeks had taught me and clarify it for these kids. I wasn’t going to teach anyone how to play better hockey; Keith would do that. My job was to focus the message down to what each kid could do that day to be better. It was to celebrate wins, and to reinforce the right attitudes and behaviors.

If you want to feel grateful, praise others. And if you want to feel as if you’re winning, lift others onto your shoulders. My role as reinforcer and all-around “good cop” made me many friends, but it also made me feel fantastic all season.

A parent watching from across the ice can only see us moving around behind the bench; they couldn’t hear our words. From fifty feet away, Keith and I looked excited — but it wasn’t always clear whether we were eager or irate. Other coaches look the same way: passion can be mistaken for frustration, or even anger. After one game, in which the parents sat a few feet behind the bench, a mom became our fan:

“Every parent should hear what you’re actually saying to these kids. From over there, it looks like you’re yelling at them. But from here, you sound like cheerleaders.”

I thought every coaching staff was probably the same. Stories circulated about coaches yelling at kids; swearing at them in the dressing room; telling the kids they were disappointed in them. For all the reasons I just shared, I didn’t really believe the stories could be true. After all, who tells an eight-year-old, “I’m disappointed in you”? Who uses language on the bench they wouldn’t use in a third-grade classroom?

Many. The sad answer is “many coaches do”.

As the season rolled on, our team got better. We won a tournament. We nicknamed our lines to empower them. I pulled kids aside and talked about leadership — and they listened. They actually repeated my message to their parents on the way home. I shared bright spots after every weekend. Keith applauded the team after every game. There were many epiphanies for me; for the players; and for the families.

One shining moment came while at a tournament. We traveled almost four hours to get there. The kids were excited to stay in a hotel; swim in a pool; eat pizza with their friends. Parents drove from one side of the host city to the other for games, and the kids rewarded them with hard play. But after one long day, we played to a 4–4 draw with a team we should have beaten.

In this tournament, only the top teams would play on Sunday. And our tie game created a stalemate in the standings: we’d have to play the same team again, an hour later, in a rink across town, to decide who moved on.

The kids were tired. Parents didn’t relish an 8pm game after a long day of driving and sitting on cold benches. But we didn’t have a choice. I recognized this as an opportunity: years owning businesses meant I often had to work out alone, or on an empty stomach, or late at night…or, sometimes, all of the above. Training in less-than-perfect conditions had given me something to contribute.

One parent detoured to pick up Gatorade and granola bars for the team. My oldest daughter helped me rig up a speaker to my phone. While the other team’s coaches tried to whip their kids into a frenzy, we started a party.

We had karaoke. We had a limerick contest. Kids who had sat — soaked in their own sweat, fighting sleep — for the car ride across town suddenly came alive. They did a pose-down:

“Stand like the guy on top of a trophy. Stand like a girl who’s just won the Stanley cup.”

We took pretend selfies, posing as if we’d just won the tournament. We sang our way onto the ice.

And we blew the doors off: 8–1. There was no moment where I thought, “This could go either way.” We were untouchable.

It was an “aha!” moment for us; for the players; for the parents. Moms and dads started showing up to games with snacks for the kids. Families invited other families for dinner. Hotel rooms were swarmed with kids, then emptied, as the party moved from room to room. We won the tournament, and started to gain momentum.

That momentum carried us: we started winning local games. Parents from other teams began to send me messages: why do your kids have so much energy? How do you get them so motivated? Why can’t the parents on our team get along like yours do?

Other teams grew and got better, but our pace was now unmatchable. I began to see the role of the coach when off the ice: to unify and project. The “team” is NOT made up of a dozen kids in matching shirts. The “team” includes parents, siblings and caregivers. We get to see the kids for three hours every week. If a parent doesn’t reinforce the coach’s message, every lesson will be lost on the car ride home. If a little brother doesn’t feel welcome in the dressing room, he’ll cry and complain about another trip to the rink. When grandparents line up to bump fists with the team, the players glow in their pride, and feed off it. When grandpa is in the stands, a young kid RUNS onto the ice. When older sisters make big posters and ring bells for their little brother — well.

We were winning games against older kids. We traveled to more tournaments. I was grateful to contribute where I could — financially, optimistically or otherwise. Keith taught the kids (and sometimes we’d try to teach the referees, who were usually teenagers learning how to exert authority over adults.)

Our momentum carried us through a short dark patch: an out-of-town tournament matched us against a rough team. Their style of play was very aggressive, and the referees quickly lost control of the game. It was frustrating, and quickly became dangerous: one of our star defensemen went down after a vicious hack to the ankle. Temperatures between the benches, already high, reached a boiling point: as I walked onto the ice to retrieve my injured player, I realized there was no victory possible for the kids. Coaches on the other bench had already offered to fight us. I was about to carry a crying eight-year-old into the dressing room and assess his injury. Even a win would feel lousy. I started asking myself, “Why are we finishing this game?”

A few minutes later, with my athlete taped and hurt but out of danger, I stepped back onto the ice. The game was delayed while I shuffled back to our bench, and I knew it. Referees wouldn’t meet my eye, confirming what I already thought: they’re just trying to survive here. The game is out of control. I asked Keith if he wanted to fold, but the kids wanted to finish the game. They did. We headed home, and stopped at every donut shop on the way.

Twenty four hours later, we played our last league game of the season. Our kids were unfazed by the horrible experience on the road. We routed a team that had beaten us easily at the start of the year. We had cake in the dressing room. Keith told the kids he’d choose them over any other team he’d ever coached. The greatest give you can give to a preadolescent kid is “I pick YOU.” I was too choked up to say anything else.

Then, showing a momentum that exceeded even the game itself, our kids all signed up for lacrosse. Most had never touched a lacrosse stick before; some had never even heard of the game. They weren’t signing up to learn a new game, or stay in shape: they signed up for the TEAM. So many kids from our hockey team signed up for lacrosse — another sport I can’t teach — that we had to form our own team.

The league needed a sponsor to buy new jerseys. I was overjoyed. I hosted a “fun night” at my gym. A real lacrosse coach showed up, and I offered him a bribe to coach my hockey kids. He accepted, cementing my role as “door-opener” for the same kids all summer. Our first practice is tomorrow night. Our kids will wear their hockey equipment and tennis shoes. They’ll get new jerseys. They’ll play against kids who have been playing for years. We’ll start the season with a bunch of losses. But our goal is simple: love the game more at the end than at the beginning.

THIS is my goal in sport. This is my goal in business. And this, for you reading ahead, is my goal in life: love it more when it’s over than I did when it started.

We all cite teamwork, fair play and sportsmanship as the reason we enroll our kids in sport. I hope every kid learns those lessons. I hope those lessons are reinforced on the car ride home. I hope the kids become better at, fans of and models for every sport they play.

But I also hope coaches become better at coaching; that they love coaching more at the end than they did at the beginning; that they inspire others to volunteer. A coach isn’t an instructor; they’re the tiny fulcrum on which the whole team pivots. A coach who learns how can leverage sport to change lives. Good coaches and bad coaches — we ALL have our hand on the lever. Let’s make sure we’re pressing in the right direction.