Team Setting, Team culture, Team Personality -- it matters.
So, personally, I was long done with my own hockey career before anything got even remotely serious so my reminiscent memories of the locker room dynamic are more from a track and field perspective.
Some may argue that that's not really a "team" sport -- to which I'd fully agree -- but we were all in the same locker room and rode the same bus so there are definitely some correlations that can be made.
As a freshman in high school, I remember it being very intimidating walking into that locker room full of seniors at the start.
Sure, most of them just completely ignored my presence but there would always be that one or two guys that would target some meek underclassman randomly, ignite a mob mentality of the weak minded, and then just give that poor kid the business...for no reason at all.
One kid was a target for weeks on end. It was...uncomfortable.
I was never on the receiving end of any pranks -- or hazing -- as I was always pretty good at blending into the wall when needed.
Hidden talent, I guess.
As the track season wore on, there were only a few of us 9th graders that were really contributing to the success of the team and, in hindsight, my own talent in competition likely saved me from a lot of teenage anguish.
I take that back -- it did save me.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't keenly aware that they never targeted me because I was good.
Like, there were these two upperclassman named Joe Gillis and Kevin Phelan that I'll never forget.
They were popular.
They were athletic.
They were good looking.
The type of guys that wouldn't even give me the time of day in the hallway and, really, I can't blame them.
That's just how high school was.
But...at a track meet -- they knew my name.
And they pronounced it correctly too?!
And besides my parents, without question, they were certainly two of my biggest cheerleaders.
I remember both of them darting back and fourth across the infield to push me on both straightaways -- something almost no one ever did -- to ensure that we, or I, would win a track meet.
One of my events was the 3200-meter which, at the time, was the final event at most track meets and the results of that single race would ultimately decide the final outcome in close meets.
Their stamp of approval, for me, was a big, big, BIG deal -- on and off the track.
I was a valuable part of the team. And those guys made me feel that way...like I'd been accepted to the team within the team.
If I'd been a middle of the pack distance runner -- the other upperclassmen (and the environment they'd created and perpetuated) would have run me off of the team. No doubt in my mind.
In the end, our track team won the State Championship in 1991 when I was a freshman.
I'm not proud of the fact that I never stepped in back then to stop the hazing I saw some classmates endure for fear I'd turn into a target myself but I do remember telling myself that when I was an upperclassman, I'd never once act like a monster to the younger kids. And I didn't.
Stuck my neck out on a couple occasions when I felt I had the clout to step in and make a difference. Calabrese -- you're welcome. The shiner I earned from that locker room "altercation" gave me some serious, though greatly exaggerated, street cred the next day at school!
And, as far as I know, you stuck it out for another 3 years of high school cross country! Win/win for both of us!
Selfishly, perhaps, I still like to think that that's part of the reason we won the State Championship again in 1994 when I was a senior was because we had an unheralded wealth of depth contributing to our success. Grade nines, fully included.
Gillis and Phelan probably think just the same of the 1991 Championship.
Fast forward 30 years and I see the same type of things lurking around the locker rooms that my son's are in ... often perpetuated by folks that I can only imagine were the type of teammate that thought it'd be funny to tape someone to the football uprights or atomic balm someone against their will.
Irks me to no end...
Like, I don't even find tying someones laces into a hundred knots funny. It's not.
Sure, call me Captain No-Fun but I know that, from my own past experiences, I perform at my best when I'm comfortable and focused. And certainly not when I have to deal with a totally unexpected situation (like frantically untying knots until my fingers bleed) just before a game.
In hockey -- don't mess with anyone else's stick, skates, helmet, or gloves.
The shin guard tape on the skate blade trick isn't funny. Ever.
The age old sports nonsense about earning your stripes, paying your dues, or whatever are old fashioned and out-dated.
And they never lead to success.
If you follow major junior hockey at all, you've heard or read the stories about the teams that are perennial dumpster fires and, not surprisingly, every single one of them has single thing in common.
Their locker rooms are out of control -- 1980's style bullying and hazing run rampant -- and their management turns a blind eye...or, possibly, even approves and/or encourages.
The good news is that, well, all of those teams are cellar dwellers in the standings.
A crappy disfunctional environment never leads to success.
Times are changing. Slower than they should, and it's different at every program, but things are changing.
Competitive hockey, where my kids play and what major junior hockey is, has tryouts. That's a fact.
Every kid in the locker room made that team.
Every kid deserves their spot.
They're on the team -- someone decided that and that's out of your control -- but, ideally, every kid should be treated like they're equally part of the team.
From day one.
It's seldom like that, though.
Look, cliques form. Especially at that middle school age. There are cool kids and not so cool kids. I totally get that.
And, even outside of that, it's just a weird awkward time of life where some kids are practically adults while others are still pumped about the tooth fairy possibly making an appearance but they're all in the same room together cause they're all pretty good at hockey.
So, yeah, off the ice...it is a bit of an uphill battle.
This past offseason, we left a pretty dysfuntional situation with my oldest son.
The "room" had been progressively getting worse for a couple seasons and it had gotten to the point where it was effecting my son's play so we decided to go out and tryout elsewhere.
Fact is -- he didn't even want to play anymore because his surroundings at the rink had become such a toxic and uncomfortable environment.
I was never in the room -- my kids have gotten themselves ready since they were 8 years old -- so I can't pinpoint what the root cause was or when things really started to go off the rails.
I mean, I have a few hunches -- lack of responsible supervision is near the top -- but that's neither here nor there. Changing a team culture that has been taking root for years is no small task no matter how you slice it.
But, now, I had him walking towards a complete unknown -- with zero self-confidence in his level of play and not really believing anything would be different besides the logo on his jersey.
He'd grown accustomed to his previous environment.
So, yeah, he attends tryouts with a number of teams and gets the call back at all of them. On ice, even at his lowest point, he still appeared pretty decent.
As any parent, I will always attempt to advocate for and lead my kids towards what is in their best interests and where I believe they'll excel and find the most success.
I wasn't looking to toss him into another dumpster fire.
One team stood out -- and it wasn't their overall talent level, distinctly.
It was their environment.
The parents, at first.
So welcoming. Truth be told, we'd been on the doorstep of joining this team in years past for the exact same reason. They wanted my son -- and our family -- on their roster and made it very obvious.
I just never saw the true value of what they could offer.
Or, more accurately, I just hadn't fully realized how rotten the other experience was starting to evolve into or how much it was crushing my son's confidence. I'll say it over and over -- confidence is the most valuable asset a youth hockey player can have.
The greatest wrist shot or an amazing dangler is completely nullified if they lack confidence.
What am I saying? Take the hockey piece right out.
Confidence is one of the most valuable assets in life. Period.
So, we sign on to this new team and after the first real team practice, that I watched like a hawk, I asked my son why he kinda kept stepping back and hiding when foursomes were put together for drills, wasn't answering the coach's questions that I knew he knew the answers to, or why he wasn't calling for the puck when he was wide open.
Had he inherited my incredible wallflower ability? Or was he afraid? Was his confidence permanently shot?
Oh no. Maybe that's it, I thought?
It's time to quit hockey and find something else.
Crazy -- it'd been his "identity" for years and over a short 3-month span, he wanted out entirely.
It is truly every parent's worst nightmare when they see their own child...broken.
Thankfully, his innocent response to my query was just that he didn't want to be put in "that" group that had the higher skilled kids that all knew each other and we're laughing at their own inside jokes.
Totally get it -- he felt like an outsider.
Everyone can relate to being the new guy.
The social side is hard. Even as an adult.
Two Instagram followers later, followed by a dozen or so more, and one more on-ice practice eliminated all of it.
Kids were liking his posts, sending him DMs, and casually calling him Duncan Donuts (which he'd previously hated being called because the tone in the past had been meant to mock).
Sleep overs, extra off-ice workouts, pick-up basketball games, marathon Fortnite sessions, you name it.
He was welcomed into the "in" group and we hadn't even played a game yet.
And for this team's vibe, the "in" group feels like it's all 15 players.
Blinding flash of the obvious moment for me -- the parents on this team were the indicator that I'd overlooked.
That's been huge for him -- the social anxiety part of the game is gone and he can go out there and do what he's capable of on the ice...confidently.
He feels like he belongs, he's getting effective feedback from the coaches, he's having fun, and his play reflects that.
Individually, he's scored more goals in summer league over the past month than he had over the past 3 seasons. Confidence is difference-maker.
Multiply that by 15 for every kid on the roster...and your team isn't a dumpster fire. It's a power house.
Totally different culture -- everyone is a part of this thing -- from the top to the bottom. That bottom guy will always play better when they too feel like they're the most important part of the team. That was me in grade 9.
Team setting, team culture, team personality -- it matters.
I just look back on the previous few seasons where the scales started to tip in the wrong direction and I wasn't aware enough of it. I mean, I was aware...I just didn't think it would effect the team aspect, or my own kid, as much as it did.
Like, a great example of the scales tipping is where three or four seasons ago, if there was a kid on the team that hadn't scored yet by January or whatever, everyone would go out of their way to get that kid a goal.
Coach, players, everyone.
Like, I'm not looking for a Disney movie kinda team where everyone wins and holds hands and sings and stuff. I'm looking for a team where the culture embodies and focuses on the individual player's improvement, all of them, year-over-year, and that makes the overall team better.
That doesn't rest solely on the coach. It's the program, it's the parents, it's the players. Same deal, it's everyone.
But, with a handful of new players, some different minded parents coming in, some new longtime-friendship-shattering cliques forming, and an inept, outdated, and often absent coach...before my eyes, it was suddenly no longer a "let's get Billy a goal" type of team.
Instead it was a cast of characters, NOT a team, constantly playing the "let me try to get 6 goals for myself so my dad can brag about it" style of play.
Before long, half of the team was of that mindset...and the win/loss record rivalled those of the major junior teams I mentioned earlier.
One end of the bench was high-fiving each other while some bozo is out there debuting an over-the-top goal celebration while we were trailing by 5 goals. It was unreal. You don't celebrate a goal when you're down by 5 late in the third?!
And these were peewees?! Who does that?
Talented players, terrible team. Team culture to blame for the lack of collective success.
My own indicator, again, in hindsight, should have been when my son would come out of the locker room fiery hot, fighting back tears of frustration, after a loss. It was never the mounting losses that bothered him -- it was the fact that no one in the locker room seemed to care. Well, unless they scored 6 goals. Those guys were grinning. For all the wrong reasons.
It was "blinders-on" me-me-me hockey. Zero support. No one had anyone else's back. There was no team aspect at all. Off the ice, it was worse.
Like, the player/coach relationship and even the teammate-specific relationships have a huge impact on every player's development. All of those relationships but, without fail, the coach/player relationship especially, should focus on empowering the players to thrive as a group.
Inconsistent messaging or constant criticism without correction or any tangible instruction from the coach combined with a fractured team -- parents and players -- with widely ranging expectations (realistic or otherwise) on top of it all just never works.
I guess the message here is that individual success and team success go hand-in-hand. That's like stating the obvious but I'm certain I'm not the only one that's been caught overlooking what should be obvious.
That 1980's high school movie kind of team doesn't fly anymore. There' can't be an "in" group and and "out" group in a team setting. Save that nonsense for the middle and high school hallways.
That's right -- I wasn't sitting at Kevin Phelan's lunch table in high school...but on the track team, we were teammates. Real teammates.
And I don't want to brag but Joe Gillis even acknowledged my existence in the hallway with uncanny regularity.
That was a big deal for a nerdy grade 9 kid. Without a doubt, made my high school days a lot easier than they would have been otherwise. True story.
And that's just it.
Be a good person. Be a good teammate. Make an impact.
The secret to success in competitive team sports isn't raising the roof, it's raising the floor.
Every team is only as good as their weakest player. So many forget that.
The right mindset and a positive vibe makes everyone better.
Like, it's hard to explain that I'm not really a "team" guy, as a parent. Selfishly, I just want my own kid to get better. That's how I measure the success of a season but my kid only gets better when the kids around him get better too. That's the team part.
Treat people the right way. Make them feel comfortable. Make new people feel welcome. Get everyone on the same page. Push each other to get better.
When you have 15 individuals firing on all cylinders and working as a unit -- that's a team.
Make all 15 of those kids matter, individually, and all 15 will rise to the occasion.
It creates an atmosphere were everyone can be the best that they can be.
One bad apple -- regardless of talent -- is an anchor to the entire team.
And, trust me, a entire bushel of bad apples can sneak up on you quick. Been there.
It truly goes both ways, though -- a group of similarly minded people with common goals really do come together and take off.
Team setting, team culture, team personality -- it matters.
Surround yourself with good people -- teammates, parents, and coaches.
We'll see what the season brings, it's still too early to tell, but I don't see it stumbling out the gate like it has for the past couple of years.
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