Having completed a significant portion of this season, it seems like a good time to take a look at how the introduction of the coach’s challenge has been unveiling so far in the NHL. As of March 18th, there have been 226 coach’s challenges. Of those 226, 169 have been upheld while 57 have been overturned. This brings the success rate of a coach’s challenge to 25.2%. Of the 57 overturned calls, 54 were goals which were then switched to no goals. There were three “no goals” which were overturned to goals after being reviewed.
Although this may seem like a low success rate, the reality is that the coach’s challenge is serving its purpose. The point of the challenge is to not get the call overturned each time, but to make sure and validate that the goal in question is in fact legitimate. We have seen the usefulness of the coach’s challenge and how effective it can be in other sports, with the most noteworthy example being football. Tennis has the player’s challenge, but the principle is still the same – to reduce the margin of error in the sport as much as possible.
There were also concerns that the implementation of the coach’s challenge would result in a lot of goals being overturned, leading to even fewer goals in a league that is already witnessing a drop in offensive productivity each year (a drop from 6.05 goals per game to 5.2 between 2005 and now). The coach’s challenge is definitely not the biggest threat to goal scoring. A lot of other other parts of the game, such as goalie equipment sizing, goal sizes and so on, should be addressed to increase scoring in the NHL instead of the coach’s challenge. Getting rid of the coach’s challenge to allow “illegal” goals to count is by no means a solution to the drop in goals in the league.
I for one have no problem with goals being disallowed if they are illegal goals. The coach’s challenge helps ensure that there is redemption for any missed calls. Hockey is an incredibly fast game with a lot going on at all times, and often times plays can be missed by referees and linesmen. They are only human, after all. The coach’s challenge helps take human error out of the equation, which only improves the validity of the game.
The coach’s challenge, in my opinion, should definitely stick around. It’s purpose and effectiveness has been clear throughout this season, and it only helps in making the game as consistent as possible. You can’t ask for much more than that.
It comes as no surprise to anyone living in Canada that hockey reigns supreme. Throughout the cooler seasons, arenas all over the country are filled with hockey teams for tournaments and games. Those same arenas can be found with beer league games for adults almost nightly. As soon as temperatures fall below freezing and our soccer fields become skating rinks, children fill the rinks from the minute school ends to the second dinner is ready. Even during the summer months, kids set up pick-up games on dead-end roads so that they won’t be moving the nets for cars too often. Arenas stay open year round, and throughout the summer one can find both young and old hockey players preparing for next year’s seasons. With all due respect to lacrosse, hockey is without question Canada’s game.
But what about the rest of the world? Generally speaking, we know that Russia, the United States, and the Scandinavian countries have also been bitten by the hockey bug. Are there other countries that are catching on to the sport?
I had the opportunity to sit down with Frank Gonzalez, a Council Member for the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and the President of the Spanish Ice Sports Federations (FEDH). Gonzalez explained that although the IIHF hosts about 32 World Championships every year, it is not the sole purpose of the Federation.
“Our main objective is for ice hockey to develop all over the world. We are the only international federation that puts a lot of money into development. [We focus on] developing all of our countries, as we are a global organization. We have 75 nations as members, and we could have pretty close to 100 very soon.”
It may come as a surprise to some that there are 75 countries around the world that play hockey at any level. Europe has the biggest grouping of hockey-playing countries, but what other countries are playing?
“We have many countries in the Asian continent, and also South America that want to come into the organization, but we do have a criteria to accept members. They can be an associate member or a member with a right to vote. To be able to vote, you have to take part in the world championships, and to participate you have to meet the criteria.”
Gonzalez has been serving as the Spanish delegate to IIHF congresses since 1991, and has been on the IIHF council since 2003. Being part of the Federation for so long, he has an idea of which hockey regions are developing at high speeds.
“I think Asia is number one. Right now, we have many teams in Asia that are preparing to take the step to be able to compete in our Championship program. They are investing a lot of money, and China wants to get the Winter Olympics of 2020 as well, and I think that will be a strong step for Asia, especially China, to prepare for that event. Just like South Korea, who are ready to compete, but they really have to step up and build up their programs.”
As he is representing Spain, Gonzalez knows very well how well hockey is developing in Spain and surrounding European countries.
“On the European side, there are many countries that want to make that step, but cannot move forward because of financial issues. Take Spain, for example. We lack the culture and tradition, but we have many players who are leaving the country to study in Canada, the US, and European countries where hockey is the number one sport. This year we have about 10 players who will come back and join our National team, who are all the age of 20 and 21, so we will have a very young team.”
Spain has been bouncing back and forth from Division 2A and 2B while participating in World Championships, and Gonzalez has high hopes for the future of hockey in Spain.
“We started a development program in Spain in 2007. From 2007 to 2014, we have been scaling the world ranking from number 36 to 30, so we have been developing quite nicely. Last year we won Division 2B, and this year we will be competing in Division 2A Championship in Iceland. All of our other teams, including our Women’s team, are in Division 2B.”
In a country where soccer, basketball, European handball and water polo all reign supreme, promoting a different sport is an uphill battle, but Gonzalez feels that it is a challenge worth pursuing.
“I think we’re in the right process, because we have noticed a change over the last five years in players as young as 15. They have better skills, and they are getting faster and stronger. Our main goal is to get to Division 1 in the next two years. I think we need time, and we need the money. We are currently in an economic crisis, but we are still there. I would say a big jump will come in the next five years.”
Gonzalez’s son, Pol, left Barcelona to play hockey in Ontario, and is currently studying at Concordia University while playing on the Concordia Stingers Men’s Varsity hockey team. He will be one of 10 players studying abroad who will return to represent Spain in this year’s Division 2A World Championships. Frank is hoping that in the future, players will be able to continue developing their hockey skills without having to leave Spain.
“The goal is to make it so players don’t have to leave the country to develop. This will happen when we have the facilities, and that our tradition and culture changes a bit. We are still a nation in a warm climate that still cater to the soccer players and basketball players. I think it’s good. Our players get a feel for what hockey really is, especially in countries like Canada, Finland and Sweden.
“The seed is there, we just have to move slowly about it to make sure we don’t lose the teams we already have, as well as the arenas that we have. That’s the problem we have in Spain; they will be changed to a bowling alley.”
Hockey is a game that is still rapidly developing in regions all over the world. The IIHF’s goal is to make sure that countries interested in playing hockey have all the resources and assistance available to promote the game.
“The IIHF is a hockey family, and that includes the NHL, KHL and other organizations. Hockey is now a small world; wherever we go, as far as New Zealand or Malaysia, there is hockey being played that nobody has heard of. Even Mexico and Argentina are playing hockey.”
Although hockey is still developing in other countries, Gonzalez has no doubts about where hockey stands in Canada.
“Hockey is the game of Canada. For everything they do, how they love the game, how their culture is really embedded in their tradition. I think hockey will continue to grow in Canada, and that is the main objective for the IIHF. We are looking for continued grown, and the more youngsters that get into the game, the better it is for our game and for the character of the players.”
Last month, the NHL released their sustainability report, the first of its kind produced by a major sports league in North America. The report showcases NHL Green, an environmental sustainability initiative made public at the 2010 Bridgestone Winter Classic by Commissioner Gary Bettman. NHL Green was established to promote green practices across the league, and its goals include reducing the use of natural resources in business operations, to track and measure the environmental impact of the sport, and to inspire fans and partners to commit to environmental stewardship.
Although the NHL has been criticized heavily for being slow to “get with the times”, most recently with their failure to acknowledge the severity of brain injuries due to contact to the head, this is a clear example of the league being proactive. It’s not the first time; last year, the NHL became the first major sports league in North America to associate themselves with an anti-homophobic group by partnering with You Can Play, an organization focused on promoting acceptance in the often homophobic world of sports.
The NHL is breaking barriers by being proactive to real world events, rather than being reactive when it’s too late. The environment has been a hot button topic for the last decade, yet the NHL is the first league to announce any real plans for change. This isn’t a marketing ploy to make themselves look good for the environmentalists; there is research and plans for the future to back up what they preach.
Having joined forces with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Senior Scientist Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, the NHL is doing their part to change the way we go about life.
“The 2014 report is arguably the most important statement about the environment ever issued by a professional sports league,” said Hershkowitz. “The report’s focus on controlling fossil-fuel use and greenhouse gas emission is a mainstream wake-up call that climate disruption poses an existential threat to everything we hold dear, including sports and recreation.”
The report states that the league’s carbon footprint is currently 530,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. This includes league and team business activities and travel for over 182 game days and nearly two million miles of team air travel per season. By way of comparison, the annual emission from the single largest coal power plant in the United States totals 23 million metric tons.
The league hopes to use NHL Green to reduce that with measures such as sharing between clubs and venues as well as audits of individual venues to identify needs and prioritize environmentally beneficial projects. They also plan on offsetting their environmental impacts, by both reducing their emissions and by purchasing “green power” — electricity from renewable, clean energy sources.
The report also looks into the league’s water usage (over 300 million gallons per season), the amount of waste going to landfill (25.5 tons), and the average amount of air travel for each team (65,000 air miles, emitting 3,136 metric tons of CO2). All of these are numbers the league hopes to bring down significantly in the future.
Change comes slowly to professional sports. If the NHL succeeds on following through with its initiatives, it could set the example needed to bring the rest of the sports world into the 21st century. It’s long overdue.
The term ‘hockey specific training’ gets thrown around a lot in the hockey world, and parents are all too eager to sign their kids up for summer camps and weekly hockey lessons to help shape their budding child into the best player they can be. Is making kids play exclusively hockey, and spend hours on the rink per week the right method to develop an athlete?
A lot of professionals don’t think so.
It’s been made very public that National Hockey League coaches and scouts can tell when a prospect played multiple sports as a kid, and a prospect who only played hockey. Players who only play hockey while growing up tend not to develop properly as a hockey player, and although the skill is there, the athleticism and core strength is below average. On the other hand, prospects who played football, basketball or other sports while growing up develop into all-around better athletes, which in turn makes becoming an elite athlete easier.
Where is the balance between simply playing sports and focusing on hockey, and when should young athletes focus specifically on a single sport?
I spoke with Adam Nugent-Hopkins, a strength and conditioning coach for elite athletes in British Columbia. Adam has started his own company, ANH Strength Performance, and he is recognized as one of the top young sports performance coaches for hockey Canada. He studied Execise Sciences at Concordia University last year, and he played for the Varsity team, the Concordia Stingers. His brother is also Edmonton Oilers superstar center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Adam believes that parents and kids are being sucked in to the fad known as hockey specific training.
“The term hockey specific is thrown around very loosely these days for more reasons than one, but I find the biggest reason is that it’s a good market tool to sucker and lure kids and parents into spending money and taking part in the services offered.”
Adam does not deny that practicing hockey is important to developing skill, but it isn’t the only aspect which needs to be focused on.
“Being someone who does only off-ice training, I do believe that there are things we can do to transfer over to hockey specifically, but my philosophy is more about improving overall athletics.”
Hockey is a sport that requires a lot of skill, be it skating, stickhandling, checking or shooting. However, Adam truly believes that training the body and mind into one of an athlete is the building blocks for success in any sports.
“I do believe that kids need to develop hockey specific skills, but not at the rate they do today. I’ve heard of some kids being on the ice for 10-15 hours per week. That’s ridiculous, and what’s not being understood is how to train the athlete’s central nervous system, and allow for essential growth and development.”
If you need living proof, look no further than his brother Ryan, who is already leaving a mark in the National Hockey League as a super star.
“Both Ryan and I spend time away from the rinks for much of the summer, playing other sports such as basketball, track & field and the casual game of football. Ryan didn’t even play his second year of Peewee hockey. He spent time in the weight room and skated maybe once a week.”
He said parents who want their children’s dreams of becoming a hockey star to come true must realize that playing one sport is not the way to develop an athlete. Focus on becoming an elite athlete before deciding what sport to play. Just playing hockey day-in and day-out won’t turn someone into an elite athlete.
“Everyone wants their kid to play in the NHL, but there’s a lot of trends out there that just won’t be effective in the long run.”
If you want your kid to develop into the best athlete that they can, make sure they don’t play one single sport. Play summer sports in the summer, winter sports in the winter, and develop into an all-around athlete. Playing hockey year round may make them the best player on the local rink, but in the long run it will hinder their chances of developing into elite athletes.
If you haven’t read Part 1 of my experiences as a minor hockey assistant coach, you can find it HERE.
Up until this point of my young coaching career, things had gone fairly smoothly. Even if the team wasn’t winning every game, we were at least playing to win. We weren’t losing because we weren’t skating hard enough or not giving 100%, but because of breakdowns or forgivable mistakes. The kids were still having a lot of fun, which in the end is all that matters.
I was finally able to coach both goalies at the same time in practice! Given the large amount of teams in the region, the demand for ice time is incredibly high. A team is supposed to have two ice sessions per week at the Midget B level, which is often 1 game and 1 practice. If you have 2 games in one week, it’s rare you get a practice scheduled. You can of course purchase ice time, but it’s expensive. At the Midget B level, the kids are just there to have fun. They, or rather their parents, are not willing to pay huge sums of money for more practice time, in the hopes that it will somehow make their child a superstar. So we are lucky to get one practice a week, but I can only imagine what a nightmare it must be for the association to try and schedule practices for all the teams. It’s done mostly by volunteers, and it must be difficult having to schedule around games or other scheduled events. I don’t envy those administrators!
I’m very fortunate to be coaching two young goalies who want to be coached, and who want to get better. They both have different strengths and weaknesses, but both are very eager to learn. That week, we focused on repositioning after a save, emphasizing the need to be quick, aggressive, and to be square to the puck. It went really well.
I will now get to the interesting part of this story. That same weekend, we were facing a team from a town that has a certain…reputation, when it comes to the parents of minor hockey players. They are considered some of the most vocal, intense, and aggressive parents in the region. Although I had never faced a team from this town, even when I was playing, I was still very aware of their reputation.
The game started out smoothly enough. It was a fast game, and both teams were playing hard for the first goal. Obviously there was a bit of pushing and shoving here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary.
Then on of their players “snowed” our goalie, stopping just inches away from her and showering her in snow.
This led to a big scrum behind the net, with players shoving their gloves into each other’s cages and putting one another in headlocks. One of our players was ejected from the game (with another one soon after), and the player who snowed our goalie got a 2 minute penalty for unsportmanlike conduct. Personally, I thought he should have been ejected with our player, as he was just as rough (not to mention he started the whole thing).
Things could have ended there. However, the parents of the other team decided to take the hostility to an entirely unnecessary level. They started yelling at the ref, our players, our coaches, and they would not let up. The vulgarity coming out of these parent’s mouths was disgraceful. When one of our ejected players finished getting changed and returned to the stands, some parents from the other team were waiting for him. Our team had scored since then, and the parents started chirping the 15 year old, saying “Your team’s a lot better when you’re not playing, eh loser?”, and other completely unnecessary comments. One of the parents came to our side of the rink and stood there, yelling obsenities at our coaches and players for the rest of the game. As much as you try to tune it out and carry one playing the game, it’s not easy.
I’ve written previously about parents and their unnacceptable conduct when it comes to hockey (link HERE). I think parents forget that these are kids playing hockey for fun. Those are two key words in that sentence: KIDS, and FUN. Obviously it’s natural for parents to be engaged in the game, and showing passion in a positive way is always encouraged. But this was, in no way, positive. It was ruthless. I know the kids on our team didn’t have a lot of fun that game, and I’m willing to bet money that the other team didn’t have the greatest of times either. It was hostile for everyone, and you could feel the tension in the stands. It was more aggressive in the stands with the parents than it was with the kids on the ice. The kids just wanted to play hockey.
The problem is that the unruly parents get away with it. No one wants to approach a fellow parent who is acting unreasonably and tell them off like a small child, thus inviting their wrath of anger onto you. But besides having league-appointed ushers at each game to keep parents in order, there is no other way to discipline parents besides self-policing. It’s up to fellow parents and the coaches to make sure all the parents act in a civil and respectable manner. Often coaches set out clear rules for parents at a parent meeting at the beginning of the season, as our head coach did. I’m not saying this is in any way an easy task, but it’s necessary. No one benefits from verbal abuse, and the ones who really suffer are the kids. Being yelled at by an adult is extremely intimidating for kids, and there’s no excuse for doing it, ever.
We ended up losing that game. The parents on the other side were thrilled, and made it very clear how they flet about us “losers”. Their hostility was contagious for the other team, and they didn’t even line up to do the customary handshake after the game. I would bet money that if the parents had been respectful and calm all game, the teams would have shook hands after the game. It’s the parents that caused it to escalate to the extent that it did.
After a 2 week hiatus for Christmas and New Years, we were back at it the day before school started. We got a convincing 7-0 win against a very good team, so for the time being the team is flying high. As the coach that works with the goalies in practices, getting a shutout is always a good feeling!
We have no practices this week, but we do have a game on Saturday. We haven’t had a practice in over a month, due to bad weather, unfortunate scheduling, and the winter break. Who knows, maybe we’ll get a practice in next week! I’ll keep you all posted.
What happened in Pittsburgh last Saturday has left yet another black mark on the great game of hockey. Both Shawn Thornton’s attack on Brooks Orpik and James Neal’s knee to Brad Marchand’s head were dirty plays which crossed the clear lines of respect all hockey players are supposed to follow, the “unwritten code” we all so often speaks of. (In case you haven’t seen it, click HERE for a video including both incidents)
It is very easy for the anti-fighting fans of hockey to twist Saturday night’s Thornton-Oprik incident into another example of fighting not having a place in the NHL. The problem is that the incident was not a fight: it was an assault. It is unrealistic to imply that this would not have happened if fighting was banned in the NHL. You can ban fights, but you can’t ban the thirst for revenge . Thornton was on a mission to avenge the concussed Loui Eriksson after he was hit by Orpik in the opening minute of the game. One could counter-argue that if Orpik had fought Thornton when he first challenged him, the incident could have just as easily been avoided. But the reality is that Orpik had no obligation to fight, and that’s where it should have ended. Thornton’s actions of slew-footing and punching a defenseless Orpik were unnecessary and uncalled for, and it’s very likely that the NHL department of player safety throws the book at him. He crossed a moral line, and there is no room for that in hockey. However, this should not be come a hill for anti-fighting groups to plant their flag. This was more about a player crossing the line than fighting.
What is being lost in all of this, most likely due to the images of Orpik being stretched off the ice, is the incredibly vicious knee to Marchand’s head, only second’s before Thornton’s attack. Neal, who has been under fire for dirty hits a few times in recent memory (such as these two incidents in the same game), had more than enough time to get out of the way and avoid hitting Marchand. No such attempt was made, and it’s clear in the replay that he angled his leg ever so slightly towards Marchand. The more I look at the video, the harder it is for me to come up with any defense for his heinous acts. A 5-game suspension for such an act I feel is getting off easy. For Neal to have such a lack of respect for a fellow player is far more disturbing than and fight I’ve seen this year.
We hope that what happened in that game will never happen again, but this won’t be aided simply by banning fighting in the NHL. Both of these incidents relate more to a lack of respect between players, something that rules simply can’t change. In a season that has been plagued by blatant head shots and other incidents which involved an intent to injure, it is the culture of the NHL players that needs to change, not the rule book. Respect for one another is the key to improving the poisoned and tainted culture of the NHL.
Coaching hockey is something I have always been interested in, and I have been thinking about getting involved with my local hockey association for several years. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I think coaching in minor hockey is a very important and undervalued role in the development of youngsters. A good coach can teach a lot of life skills to be used on and off the ice, such as hard work, determination, loyalty, and the value of teamwork. A good coach also helps players develop their hockey skills in a fun, healthy environment.
After a few of years of thinking passively about coaching, I finally decided to be proactive and go through with it. I did all the necessary pre-requisite courses, which were “Health and Safety” and “Respect in sports”, and I signed up for a weekend coaching clinic to become a certified coach. The clinic involved both on and off ice lessons, and it was a great experience. After about six hours of coaching, I left the arena a certified coach.
The next step was to actually find a team to help coach. I don’t have any kids, and I don’t know anybody currently in minor hockey. I did what any normal person with a lot of time on their hands would do: I went through all the teams in my region to see which ones had the least amount of coaches. I was interested in coaching the older age groups, as I had already been an assistant coach for a pre-novice team two years ago. Although it is a lot of fun to teach individual skills to eager youngsters, I wanted to focus on team skills and systems, while not completely forgetting about individual skill.
I found a team that was right in my comfort zone. A Midget B team with only three coaches seemed to be a perfect fit! I went to one of their practices, and spoke with the head coach afterwards. He said they’d be happy to have me, and introduced me to the assistants, the manager and a couple of parents. Coincidentally, one of the other assistant coaches was at the same certification clinic I attended the previous weekend!
Full disclosure, the team did not need another coach. If I had never shown up, the team would not have been suffering. I feel extremely lucky to be given the chance to try coaching, and even luckier to have picked a team with such great people on the team. The one attribute I really bring to the table is that I have experience as a goalie. With very limited practice time, it’s difficult to focus on all the players consistently. It’s even more difficult for head coaches to give goalies the training they so desperately need, especially since the position is so unique and personal. It takes a lot of hours to properly develop a goalie’s personal technique, something head coaches simply don’t have the time for.
In the first practice I participated in, I was in charge of coaching the goalies. I was excited, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend a good 2 or 3 hours beforehand coming up with drills and tips to work on. Only one of the two goalies showed up, so it ended up being an intense and hard workout for the poor lone goalie. I had a blast coaching, but it was also a little strange at first. The young goalie had skill, but knew she had weaknesses. We worked together for a good half hour, focusing on the butterfly slide, quickly recovering after the initial save, being square to the puck. She was open to all my tips and tricks, and when I spoke, she listened. I’m used to being the one listening, not talking.
So far, I have been behind the bench for three games. We’ve lost one 7-6, and won the other two both with a score of 7-2. My role is kind of a rover coach: the head coach covers everything, one assistant coach focuses on the defencemen while the other focuses on the forwards. That leaves me, the fourth coach, to speak with the goalie between periods and give advice wherever I see fit. I don’t mind it, because I am still very new to the coaching scene, and I am still getting comfortable with the role. What I enjoy is when I do have something to say, the players actually listen. I’ve never held this kind of respect and authority before, so I’ll try my best to make sure it doesn’t go to my head!
The team is a very close group of kids, many of whom have been playing together for at least a few years. There are some very talented players, and most of them work hard each shift. There are a couple of players with short tempers, with one player in particular seeming to come off of the ice angry after every shift! The head coach makes a point of trying to calm the young man down. All to often anger leads to retaliation, and retaliation leads to penalties. When things aren’t going their way, the players all suddenly become seasoned dockworkers, based on their colourful vocabulary! Besides that, they are a great group of youngsters, who support each other while not putting blame on each other’s shoulders. In my opinion, they are the type of players you want to coach. Talented individuals who play hard, but listen to advice and don’t get down on each other.
The team has some weaknesses, as all teams do. What the coaching staff has been trying to focus on is the ol’ dump and change to avoid players changing on the backcheck, a big no-no in the hockey world. We’ve also been emphasizing getting a player in front of the net, taking shots and pouncing on rebounds. Many of the goals we’ve scored have been rebounds from shots. The old cliché of getting more pucks on net is valid; when you shoot on goal, good things will happen!
Another issue we’ve been focusing is the forwards supporting the defencemen in their own zone. A few times, a defenceman would get the puck and have no one to pass to. The other team pounces on the opportunity, and ends up with a semi-decent scoring chance. We want the forwards to stay back and breakout as a team, not as an individual. As for the goalies, we’ve been focusing on being square to the puck, being aggressive in the crease and recovering quickly after the initial save.
We’re currently fifth in the league, but the season is still young! I’m looking forward to contributing more and more to the development of the team’s skills, while learning from the coaches. I’m already having a blast, and I’m sure that won’t change.
I will keep you all posted as the season progresses. We have a game and a practice coming up, so we’re going to be busy!
A few weeks ago, I was offered a very unique and exciting opportunity.
As a student at Concordia University, I write for the university’s paper, The Concordian. I went to interview the men’s hockey team and their coach, Kevin Figsby, for an upcoming article I was working on. Coach Figsby was extremely accommodating, and he ended up inviting me to join the team on their away game in Trois-Rivières the following day. It was an offer I was not expecting, and I could not turn it down.
I got to the Verdun auditorium at 1:30, where the Concordia Stingers have been calling home while the university’s arena is under renovation. The team had ordered food from a local catering service, and we all enjoyed a nice meal of penne with meat sauce and garlic bread, a perfect pre-game meal. There were no tables, so we all just ate standing up. As coach Figsby walked by, he laughed and said “welcome to a road trip!”
Just to give you an example of the atmosphere and sense of humour these guys have, not five minutes had gone by after getting on the bus before the on-board entertainment had begun with “Mighty Ducks: D2”, the perfect hockey road trip movie. At one point during the movie, one of the players in the back of the bus said “EMILIOOOOO” when Coach Bombay (played by Emilio Estevez) was on screen. A bunch of players got a good laugh from the Night at the Roxbury reference, with someone even replying with “The Mighty Duckman, I swear to God!” At this point, I realized that this was going to be a fun road trip.
We arrived at the Trois-Rivières arena at about 4:45. The players all helped unload the bus, working as a team to get everything set up. The equipment manager, Stewart Wilson, has a great setup for away games, including a portable skate sharpener, a box full of extra tools, pieces of equipment etc., and even a machine to dry gloves and skates. As soon as everything is set up, the players start their pregame preparations. Some tape and re-tape sticks, some sit on the bench listening to music, and some head to see the athletic therapist, Robin Hunter. The coaches begin talking strategies right away, even though the game was not for another two hours.
It was a little surreal at the arena. The team is playing at a very high level, and preparation is important. While a few players sat on the bench (some likely visualizing, others staying focused while listening to music), the local figure skating association was finishing their lessons for the day. It makes you realize that these players are not professionals, but students. They do not have the Bell Centre free for them to prepare in peace, as you see in a show like CH24. Although the preparations are very similar, the venue and atmosphere is very different.
Just before the pre-game skate, I noticed Coach Figsby speaking with a man who was wearing a Los Angeles Kings jacket. Coach Figsby introduced me to him. His name is Denis Fugere, and he is a scout for the Kings. He was at the game to check the talent at the University level. This is his 21st season with the Kings organization, and he scouts Quebec and the Maritimes for major junior and university players.
I asked him about what it is like being a scout, and he gave me some invaluable insight. “I went and asked Kevin [Figsby] for players to look out for, so he have me three names. As for UQTR (Université de Quebec à Trois-Rivières), I am looking at one player in particular.” He mentioned that being a scout involves making judgement calls about the future. “With a player, you’re not looking for what he is going to be next year, but in 3 to 5 years. That’s not easy.” He told me that you have to look at so many different factors (family, schooling, friends, alcohol, drugs, skill, future goals, and so on) that it can be very difficult to make predictions about players. It was very interesting to speak with a scout, because it is a part of hockey so many know so little about (myself included).
Finally, the game was under way. The first thing that struck me was how good these players really are. I believe that a lot of people fail to realize many of these players have come from the Canadian Hockey League, the pool of talent the NHL dips its hand into more than any other league. A lot of these young men have played with or against future NHL stars, which says a lot about the calibre of play. If my research is correct, 4 of the current Stingers are former Memorial Cup winners, the Holy Grail of the CHL. It’s fast, hard-hitting hockey. I believe that Concordia’s assistant coach Peter Bender put it best when he referred to university hockey as hockey’s best-kept secret. This was entertaining hockey, and you could tell that both teams wanted to win.
Between periods, the players have 15 minutes to re-energize and refocus. Some hit the athletic therapist’s bench again, getting the bruised muscles and tight ligaments all loosened up. Meanwhile in the other room, the coaches go over game strategies. Much of what they say is gibberish to me, with something about F2 covering here when F3 does this. It really made me realize how little I knew about the structure of the game, especially from a coaching perspective.
Coach Figsby made a small speech between each period, successfully getting the team refocused and ready to hit the ice. Although the players joke around a lot, when it’s time to hit they ice they’re all business.
The Stingers lost in overtime, with a final score of 4-3. Although it is sometimes difficult to find positives in a losing effort, the team did play very well. Stingers forward Olivier Hinse finished the night with two goals and assist, giving him 9 points in four games. At the time, he was the overall points leader for the entire Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) men’s hockey league.
In the end, this experience showed me a lot. One thing that stuck out to me was that sports teams are a family, and everyone is treated in a way that makes them feel valued and important. Whenever there is a problem, everyone jumps up to help. Throughout the day, head coach Kevin, assistant coach Peter and equipment manager Stewart kept making sure I was good and taken care of. I mentioned many times, “I’m fine, don’t worry about me.” I always received the same answer. “We’re a family; we take care of each other.”
Another thing I learnt is that being a Student-Athlete is incredible demanding. On the way to and from the game, many of the players were reading textbooks, going over class notes, quizzing each other for upcoming midterms, and so on. A lot of the practices are during school hours, and many of the games require two days of travel. A couple of weeks before, the team was gone from Wednesday to Sunday on a three-game road trip. Coach Figsby informed me that he had spent the week writing to teachers to get rescheduled dates for midterms. The team got home at 4:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, and many students had exams at 2:00 that afternoon, eight hours later. I have trouble staying focused and prepared for midterms as a regular student. I cannot imagine having to keep a high GPA while focusing a lot of my energy and time to hockey practices, road trips, and missed classes. I have gained a lot of respect and admiration for these students, because what they do is not in any way easy.
I feel very lucky to have had a chance to see a regular game-day through the eyes of the players. The Stingers are a great group of young men, and they are very gifted at what they do. Although many of them will probably not call hockey their profession in the future, they are still getting the most out of hockey while they can. They are very skilled individuals, and I wish them luck with the rest of the season.
If you are a university student, go support your school’s sports teams. Support your fellow students as they represent your school, something that they do for no financial or academic gains. Whatever sport you enjoy to watch, go show some school spirit and cheer on your school. As for this university student, I will leave you with this. “Go Stingers Go!”
I’ve added a small gallery of pictures from the road trip. I apologize for the quality for some of the photos, it wasn’t my camera and I was fidgeting with all of the settings throughout the entire game.
These commandments shall be followed by all hockey parents, regardless of thy child’s age or skill level.
- Thou shalt encourage all players, even thy child’s opponents
- Thou shalt not use the ref’s name in vain
- Thou shalt get to games and practices on time
- Thou shalt inform thy coach when game and practices will be missed
- Thou shalt not demand more ice time for thy child
- Thou shalt not coach from thy bleachers
- Thou shalt not live thy dreams through thy child
- Thou shalt teach respect and good sportsmanship to thy child
- Thou shalt be unconditionally supportive
- Thou shalt remember that hockey is just a game
These commandments are basic rules that any hockey parent should follow, regardless of whether your child is in a competitive league or a casual one. Print these commandments out, and make them visible in your home. Have a copy pinned right above where your child keeps their hockey gear, so you see it before you leave for every practice and every game. Coaches, print these out and hand them out to parents. Great minor hockey teams and associations are created when parents and coaches are on the same page. It is important to remember that hockey is a game, and that minor hockey is there for the kids. A winning record does not necessarily equal success; seeing kids smiling and enjoying the game of hockey is the greatest victory a team can hope for.
In April of this year, it was announced that the NHL, the NHLPA and You Can Play, an organization focused on eliminating homophobia in sports, have partnered up, and are going to work together to make hockey more accepting of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
You Can Play, an organization co-founded by Patrick Burke (son of former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke), is dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports. The NHL is the first of the major sports leagues in North America to join with any anti-homophobia organization, which is a prime example of the great steps the league is making to be the most inclusive professional sports league. Many NHLers have openly voiced their support of the organization, with several groups of them taking part in promotional commercials for You Can Play. Two current NHL players, Tommy Wingels and Andy Miele, are even on the advisory board, demonstrating the commitment of the league to fight homophobia. The organization goes by the slogan “If you can play, you can play”, a mentality that the NHL is very proud to both support and follow. Commissioner Gary Bettman pointed out that the NHL’s slogan is “Hockey is for Everyone”, and feels that the partnership with You Can Play reinforces that position. You Can Play will be holding seminars at the NHL’s rookie symposium, while at the same time making their resources available to all NHL teams and players.
This news was also followed by the more recent story of basketball player Jason Collins publicly coming out, becoming the first openly gay athlete to be currently playing in any of the major sports leagues in North America. The amount of support that Collins has received from teammates, players, coaches and general managers from around the league has been tremendous, and the public has reacted in a generally positive manner. It is a very firm statement of how far the world of sports has come with regards to eradicating homophobia.
However, it is still not far enough.
What Jason Collins did by being the first openly gay athlete in a major sport took great courage. He himself stated that he did not intend to become the first openly gay athlete, it was simply the time to do it. He has done what no one else has done, and he is incredibly brave to do so. The irony is that it shouldn’t be considered heroic to be who you are. The LGBT community has made incredible steps in the last few decades to being seen as equals in society, which is exactly what they deserve.
An area that has been slower to react, however, is the world of sports. Homophobic slurs and stereotypes still reign supreme in many locker rooms and arenas, both in professional and amateur sports. For too long have many sports (hockey, football, etc.) been tagged as heterosexual sports, while others are labelled as ‘gay sports’. I cannot tell you how many times have I heard people make rude comments like “leave figure skating to the gays”, along with many other vulgar slurs being casually thrown around. Whether you are gay, straight, or anywhere in between has absolutely no impact on your skill in sports. It should also have no effect on how you are treated in the locker room.
Everyone deserves to be comfortable in their own skin, and being an athlete is no exception. At this moment in time many athletes, both professional and amateur, do not feel comfortable being openly gay. That is not their problem, but ours. They have the right to be who they are, free of judgement. They have the right to be proud of who they are, instead of being labelled, stigmatized and shamed into hiding.
What You Can Play and the NHL is doing is a great step forward to getting rid of homophobia in hockey (and other sports). Acceptance starts at a young age. If athletes are taught from a young age that sexual orientation has nothing to do with skill, drive and passion in sports, maybe we will begin to see a more accepting culture. Society in general has become increasingly accepting of the LGBT, and although there is still much work do be done, we are moving in the right direction. The world of sports is lagging behind, but organizations like You Can Play combined with the open mindedness of leagues like the NHL will help bring sports closer to the acceptance the LGBT community deserves.
I look forward to the day where a gay athlete is no longer a news story.