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Cornered Coach: Lessons Learned

One of the first things you learn when you pick up a coach's whistle is the hockey season never really ends.

Even though my 8-year-old band of house league Penguins have been eliminated from the playoffs, my 6-year-old lad is in the middle of his championship series in the Tyke division. Competitive ball hockey is also huge in our neighborhood and, providing Old Man Winter finally takes a hike, the season starts in a few weeks and, yes, I'm heading behind the bench again.

Despite the never-ending schedule, however, there's still a little time to reflect on some lessons learned during "The March of the Penguins"; my first season coaching minor hockey in about 30 years.

1. Good Housekeeping: In house league hockey, you're a general manager just as much as a coach. Being organized goes a long way with busy parents who might be responsible for trucking two or three kids to various rinks, along with all their other recreational and school activities. Touching base with weekly information, schedule changes, practice times, etc. is crucial in helping hockey moms and dads keep from going completely crazy during a long season.

2. The Social Network: One of the reasons I got into coaching this year was to enhance the experience for my own 8-year-old son who was coming off a couple of dicey experiences with past coaches. Believe it or not, he and the rest of his teammates didn't even know the names of their coaches because they hadn't even taken the elementary step of actually introducing themselves to the kids. I also detested the awkwardness of not knowing the names of my little guy's teammates or their parents. It's tough to put names to so many new faces. So seeking a "Cheers" environment "where everybody knows your name", I came up with a plan that seemed to work. At the start of the season, I had all the players and parents introduce themselves in the dressing room. I then took it a step further by printing up an official "Penguins program" listing the kids, their favorite NHL player, and the names of their parents. Before too long, everyone was on at least a first-name basis and the parents could actually cheer for other youngsters on the team besides their own.

3. A Few Good Men: A head coach is only as successful as his assistants. I was fortunate to have a trio of great guys to work with this year, making my job a lot easier. Two of my guys were masters at changing lines and my third assistant, Greg Schell, just happened to be the Youth Development coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs and one of the most respected minor hockey coaches in the country. It was a no-brainer to let Greg run most of our practices, which gave me an opportunity to do other things such as work one-on-one with our first-year goalie. A few times, in fact, I didn't even slap my skates on. Instead, I roamed around the stands chatting with our Penguin parents to get their take on things and to find out how their lads were enjoying the season. Another example of the personal touch that can take your team a long way.

4. Boys will be Boys: Each team in our Novice house league carries two or three kids who also play on the "Select" squad. These guys are the cream of the crop, with some of them on the verge of making the jump to Triple A hockey in the GTHL. It's amazing what these little guys can do on the ice, and they sometimes seem to be mini-NHL'ers. Then, of course, one of your future Sidney Crosby's shows up for practice wearing his "Lego Movie" pajamas, and you get a massive wake-up call. Sure, they're talented kids, but they're still just a bunch of kids who want to have a good time when they come to the rink.

5. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: Minor hockey often gets a bad rap—too costly, crazy parents, over-competitive coaches, and so on—but there's no question the good far outweighs the bad. There's nothing better, for instance, than an experience I had on the weekend. As I mentioned, our Novice season has been over for a few weeks but I was still at the rink watching my younger son's Tyke playoffs. In the middle of the action, three of my Penguins ran up to me with big smiles on their faces to say hello to "Coach Mike" and exchange high fives. Priceless! Of course, not everything is sunshine and roses in the land of minor hockey. One thing that bothered me? Coaches and parents who get on referees. That was something I was guilty of during my first stint as a coach 30 years ago. I'm happy to report, however, that in that area at least, I seem to have matured. Like the majority of house leagues, most of our refs this season were teenage kids taking their first strides as officials. Did they make mistakes? Sure. But no more mistakes than the players and, yes, the coaches. I was at one minor hockey game as a fan this year and saw a coach leave the bench after tearing a strip off a young referee. In the lobby, I happened to hear the coach explain his behaviour to some of his buddies: "I had to get off the bench before I said something I really regretted." But if you have to leave the bench because you're about to lose it on a teenage official, you probably shouldn't be on the bench in the first place.

So, there you go. A few lessons to file away from a great season coaching the Penguins.

And now, a chance to put them to work in a few weeks with my ball hockey Sharks!


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