ST. CLOUD, Minn. — I was a coach of two youth hockey teams that my sons were on during the 2019-20 season in the St. Cloud Youth Hockey Association. I was the head coach for a peewee (12-and-under) 'B2' team and an assistant coach for a squirt (10-and-under) 'C' team.
Because of the levels that my teams played at, the farthest they could advance to was the district playoffs. This was my sixth season as a youth hockey coach and it had some big challenges, but it also provided some great achievements.
This was my third season as a travel team coach and my first trying to help coach two travel teams. For those of you who don't know, most travel teams are on the ice for 4-5 days per week and the season began in October. For the peewees, our playoffs ended on Feb. 23. Four the squirts, our last playoff game was March 8.
Yes, that's a lot of time to be on the ice with kids and dealing with a wide range of parents. As a coach, you get to the dog days of February and it can be challenging.
For the most part in youth hockey, the wins and losses don't matter. Yes, I'm competitive and, yes, it is more fun to win.
The goal, though, should be to try to help the players learn more about the game, help them improve and, perhaps most importantly, how to be a good teammate.
One of the most rewarding things that I heard after our peewee season ended from some parents was that they thought our team showed great improvement since the beginning of the season. Believe me, there are days as a first-year head coach when I was wondering if my practice plans were getting us there ... and that included our last practice of the season.
Our team had played pretty well for the last three regular season games and then won a couple of one-goal games in the playoffs to advance to the last weekend of the season. Our last practice was on a Wednesday and it began at 7:45 p.m. Not sure about other kids, but we typically try to have our sons be in bed by 8:15-8:30 p.m.
Let's just say it is not the ideal practice time. We went through some skating drills at the beginning and then did a couple of drills that ... left the coaching staff less than pleased. I had to stop the practice and point out that we were about to play a team that had kept us without a goal in two regular season games and that if we played like we were practicing, we were going to get pummeled.
So we play the game on the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice and — not joking here — we win, 4-3. The next day, the same team came back and beat us, 7-1, so we ended up taking second place in the tournament. Great accomplishment.
The squirt team that I was an assistant coach for had to win a play-in game to get to the double elimination tournament. So we played a team that had beaten us twice and we were playing at their arena ... and we won, 6-2. The team lost its next game, but rallied in the third period of an elimination game later in the day to stay alive in the tournament.
I drove back from working at the Let's Play Hockey Expo the next morning and went straight to the arena. Again, a team that had beaten our team twice was our opponent. We were down 4-2 in the third period, scored with about four minutes left and then, with our goalie pulled, scored with 3.6 seconds left to send the game into overtime.
After a scoreless three-minute overtime, we went to a shootout. In the shootout, our kids hit three posts and finally lost in the ninth round. Again, a great accomplishment.
Game talks about life
While I will hold onto those moments and details, I think back to what else I will remember about these seasons. There's a lot of things — good and bad — but I think of a few of the themes of some pregame and postgame talks I had with my peewee team.
We had gotten pounded (8-0) in a game to end a tournament in January. We had a few issues on the bench toward the end of the game of kids taking out their frustrations on teammates and one player questioning why we needed to stay optimistic in the last three minutes of that loss. I was not pleased, but I pulled myself together enough to chat (somewhat loudly at times) with them after the game.
What I told them was that there are times in life when you get your butt kicked. It happens and it's going to happen to them at various points throughout the rest of their lives. But how they deal with it is the most important thing. Being negative or getting on teammates is not the best way to get through it. The best way is to stay as positive as you can and pick a teammate up during a rough time.
Before the peewees played got that big playoff win, I told them that the most important things that we needed to do was to be relentless with our effort, move on as quickly as they can after something goes wrong and be determined to win until the end of the game.
Today, I was supposed to be getting ready for one of the biggest college hockey weekends of the year: The NCHC Frozen Faceoff. It's a lot of work, but it's a terrific tournament with great hockey and some of my favorite people in the sport all together in one place. It got canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. I have to admit that the last few days, I've been in a bit of a fog with all of the uncertainty of everything.
But my own words to my peewee team from throughout the year are coming back to me. Try to stay positive, pick up the spirits of a family member or a friend, be relentless and determined to win.