How one youth hockey coach learned that chemistry and character are essential to a team
By Ed Palumbo
Chemistry and character. Here’s how I came to understand the concept.
Earlier this year, I was excited to start another summer as an assistant coach of an East coast-based U18 summer showcase team. This team gets together for four or five weekend tournaments every summer, but with no practices. The head coach and I scout some of these players throughout the fall/winter, while others are referred to us by former players, as well as from other programs we have good relationships with in neighboring states (we’ve even had kids from Wisconsin, Florida and Maine play on the team!).
One of the challenges with gathering this kind of team, with no time to hold any sort of practice session (or feasibility for that matter due to the distance), is a lack of team chemistry and character. The first tournament each year is always scheduled on or right before Memorial Day weekend, and is always the trickiest for the coaching staff. Some players returning from the previous summer (or two) will gel immediately, but with the new players we sometimes have trouble remembering their names by the end of that weekend!
In past years, we have once fielded a team that lost almost every game of the 4 or 5 tournaments; but we also fielded a team that lost the first game of the first tournament, tied the second game of the tournament, and then went on a winning streak that lasted the remainder of our tournament games that summer.
My biggest takeaway from that summer? The team that went on that winning run was comprised mostly of the same team from the previous summer that lost almost every game.
Chemistry and character and one year of the right development can be a wonderful thing.
With this past summer’s tournament season, we mostly had a new group, with only about five or six of the 18 skaters and one of the two goalies that played for us the previous summer. New faces. Lots of new faces.
As a coach, it’s hard to head straight into a game without knowing the names of the kids you’re coaching. Jersey numbers, funny-colored gloves, even hair styles can distinguish a few at first. Rolling lines that were loosely based on last year’s returning players and what little we knew about the new players, it’s easy to get a bit flustered.
Game One: A comeback victory against another showcase team that had only 10 skaters.
Game Two: A loss to a depleted winter team that featured nine skaters.
Game Three: The head coach could not get out of work, leaving me alone on the bench. We lost a tight battle against a team that had 15 or 16 skaters, and were eliminated based on points. And we had 18 skaters and two goalies the whole weekend.
I was not disappointed in losing, especially given our lack of time together as a team. We even played well and were competitive in those games. As someone who coaches only in the summer and spends his winters as a scout, I’m really just happy to be involved. What did disappoint me is what happened after the game…
As I made my way off the ice, I saw the kids were waiting for the locker-room key to come from one of the parents. As I walked up to the group of 15- to 18-year-olds, all of a sudden I heard one kid say to another, “What do you mean, coach? We don’t have a coach.”
That hurt. Not because I’m a sensitive person, but because I realized at that crucial moment how the opinion of one kid could influence the attitude of the others and affect the chemistry of the team. Four tournaments were left this summer, so I decided to set things straight.
In the locker room, I had to demand that the kids stop removing their equipment and listen up. I told them I didn’t mind if they had a problem with me or the other coaches, but I wanted them to act professional and talk to me in person. I said something along the lines of, “You can talk to me face to face. I can take criticism. I know I’m not the most qualified coach, but I do this for the love of the game [I don’t get paid either]. My hope is that you all become better hockey players and more so, better people, by playing on this team in this environment. Hockey is a game built around respect, so if you have a problem, talk to me and we can work something out. I’ve been through some s*** in my life, so I can take anything you throw at me with a grain of salt. And I will respect you for doing so.”
I felt good after giving that speech. I kept thinking, I got through to them. I even think some of them respect me now. I’m a grown man and the opinion of a teenager isn’t going to send me home crying to my mother.
So what happened next? Someone ran home to his mother.
That night, the coaches and I received the following email:
Just writing to let you know that I will make my last payment to you but [my son] will not be able to play in any future tournaments. We feel that putting him on the 4th line tonight after watching his play this weekend was not warranted. It conveyed a message that he was in the bottom tier of players. We cannot continue staying in hotels and travelling for this to happen. If he wasn’t playing well, then we could understand. He came out of that game frustrated and confused. Also, it seems you have more than enough players for the tournament season.
I was livid. I ALMOST wanted to email her back, “OK. You can take that attitude and…” but that’s not me. And I definitely remembered her kid; he was pretty talented. I managed to calm down and then typed the following:
I want to let you know that we don’t generally like to designate lines 1-4 on our summer teams. Given our lackluster offensive display in the morning game, and knowing that the team we played tonight had a full bench as opposed to the 9-10 players our previous two opponents played, I felt we needed to spread the talent around on each line to make sure the lines could compete. I put [your son] on that line, because I felt he is a good enough player to help his new line mates perform better. [Your son] is a talented hockey player, but I could tell he was visibly frustrated and his play today showed. On the bench, after he received a roughing penalty, I told him in a respectful way that he has to use his large frame to hit/body check, not his hands. Someone his height [6’3″ or 6’4″] who hits with his gloves up will get called for penalties more often than not, because it always appears to a referee to be an intentional head shot. I told him to use his size to his advantage. He did not want to listen to me, because he was too frustrated.
[I didn’t know why at the time, but then again, I was alone on the bench and had 17 other kids to worry about in a game we were losing.]
I am honestly disappointed this is your decision. The four lines we roll all get fairly equal amounts of ice time, so I hope that is not the problem. We don’t send out certain players for the power play, we just continue to roll the lines. Penalty kills, however [and we took a fair amount of penalties that weekend], mean one less forward goes out on the ice, so I try to get that forward who misses the previous shift on the PK involved in the next, which only means some players may be waiting a little longer before their next shift. Still, the ice time is fairly equal. In the last five minutes of a game, we will make some personnel adjustments if we need a goal based on who we believe gives us the best chance to get that goal, but that was already discussed with the players and parents before the tournament began.
With all of this said, if your son wants to play at a higher level, he has to understand there will be times when he will have to play a role on a team, because not everyone on a roster will be relied on for scoring, and your son may not always be the top player on every team. This is hardly even the situation here, as it was the first weekend of our summer tournaments, and we needed to figure out where players fit. I meant nothing negative by those decisions.
I am sorry to hear this, and I wish [your son] the best.
The mother then responded to my email (at almost 1:00 am):
Thank you for your email. Your explanation makes sense, and I apologize for overreacting. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.
Her son has not been invited back to play on this team by our head coach (not that I think he wants to come back), but I honestly do wish him the best. Hopefully this will be a learning experience that pushes him to think of his team first.
As a scout, I wouldn’t want to waste my time analyzing a player just to find out the player has the wrong attitude for the next level. It’s not always about skill. As a coach, I wouldn’t want this kind of personality to affect the rest of the locker room. Maybe you can relate. Maybe I could have done something different. I’m willing to listen.
Chemistry and character.
Ed Palumbo has been scouting with the North American Tier II Hockey League for five years. He is also the founder of Prospective Hockey Central, a mobile app that connects players and parents with scouts, coaches, and teams.