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Keeping Minor Hockey in Perspective

I haven't coached competitive minor hockey for four or five years now, but I'm still at an age where many of the adults I socialize with are knee deep in it, as parents and/or coaches. So when they report to me all these tales of drama that continue at all levels of boys and girls hockey, it's not particularly surprising. But it's maybe a little disappointing that some of these issues seem as prevalent as ever.

With playoffs and spring hockey season upon us, I thought it was worth re-posting a terrific speech by former University of Minnesota mens' hockey coach Don Lucia. He puts it all in perspective. In kids' hockey, yes, winning is fun. But only briefly. It's nowhere near the most important thing.

Now the Commissioner of the CCHA, Lucia retired from coaching in 2018 following a 31-year career where he amassed a record of 736-403-102 (.634). He is the eighth all-time winningest men's ice hockey coach in NCAA history and ranks sixth among Division I men's coaches.

So clearly, he's living proof you don't have to sacrifice sanity for excellence.

But his speech is almost 20 years old now. And the message isn't getting through because problem coaches and parents don't think they're the problem. They hear a speech like this or attend a Hockey Canada Speak Out! course and they think, "Yeah, those people need to do better!"

No, Chachi. YOU'RE those people.

Along the same lines, here's a great open letter to hockey coaches. It comes from Jay Bylsma, father of former Penguins head coach Dany Bylsma.

So You’re Going to Coach My Grandchild? A message to coaches from Jay M. Bylsma

I’m so grateful that you’ve volunteered to be the coach of my grandson Bryan's hockey team. I don’t really care if you know much about hockey, or whether you have a winning record. I don’t know or care if you’ve ever coached a kid that made it the NHL, or Division I college hockey, or even high school. But I know that every one of the kids you coach will have a life to lead after hockey. You will coach far more doctors and lawyers than professional hockey players.

So I’m more interested in what kind of a role model you are and your ability to teach Bryan life lessons than whether you can teach him the left wing lock or backwards crossovers.

Let me explain why I don’t care if you have a winning record. Think back over all the games you played in organized sports as a kid - any and all the sports. Can you remember any of the scores of any of those games or even if you won or lost? If you’re like me, you can’t remember many - if even one.

But I can remember every coach I ever had.

Mr. Sterkenberg, Mr. Naerebout, Mr. VanderMey, and others. I can even picture them in my mind. Images of good men who taught me (whether they knew it or not) sportsmanship, integrity, to play by the rules, and to have fun. They made a lasting impression on me, just as you will have a lasting impression on my little Bryan.

What kind of a lasting impression will you have? For example, if you pick your team based on talent and ability, you will show Bryan that talent and ability are the criteria that a person needs to be successful.

If you pick your team based on the associations you have – that is, your GM’s kid gets to play, your brother-in-law’s kid is on the power play – each regardless of ability – you will show Bryan that you get ahead in life by who you know. Accomplishment and achievement don’t count for as much as connections.

If you tell the kids, “Everyone plays equally, everyone plays equally” and then only some kids get on the power play and play in the third period, you influence kids about the meaning of honesty and deception.

If you say disparaging remarks about the other team, the other coach, or the officials, you demean the game and and you teach Bryan that it’s okay - perhaps even manly - to be disrespectful and pejorative.

If you need to put ringers on your team to be competitive in an out-of-town tournament, you are influencing your players about your standard of honesty and the importance of winning at the cost of your integrity.

Sadly, some coaches have taken the fun out of the game for the children by exerting too much pressure, being too critical, being demeaning, and being too vocal in an inappropriate way. Their life lessons are less than wholesome and sometimes destructive.

If my grandson is a good player, I hope you won’t aggrandize him or overuse him, but instead, help him be a team player. If he’s a poor player, I hope you won’t demean him but give him his fair share of ice time and help him become a better player.

I hope you will remember he’s just a child and your career as a coach isn’t riding on his back. I hope you will remember that a word of encouragement after a mistake is worth more than a pile of praise after a success.

Jay M. Bylsma

Many of you already fully understand and live all this. And you should be applauded for that. But it would be great if all the grown ups could bring that attitude to the rink every night.

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Mar 21, 2023

well expressed Steve...Don is a great role model both as a parent and coach and it isn't a coincidnece that many lessons in both sport and life are one in the same. Unfortunately many decent parents are absolutely horrible models as coaches. Are those very coaches perhaps modelling something or someone they were exposed to as minor athletes? The best coaches i ever had reinforced many of the same moral lessons i learned as a child growing up. Kids will remember that far longer then wins and losses.

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