Fort St. John's own Mike Vandekamp

Today I read a post by Philip Wolf of The Daily News called “Old ways not always best.”

It’s a story on the Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL, and my old coach Mike Vandekamp’s rather “old school” style of running a hockey club.

Vandy is in his first year as head coach there. He’s been coaching since 23 when he ran the Merritt Centennials in the same league, before eventually moving onto the Vernon Vipers (where our time overlapped), the Prince George Cougars of the WHL, and the Grande Prarie Storm of the AJHL.

The story is that he may or may not have made his team run around Nanaimo’s Beben Park field after losing a game badly in Victoria. As in, after they arrived back at the rink on the bus to unload gear, it was punishment time. (If I know Mike, I’d bet there were zero words allowed on the bus.)

He won’t say if it’s true or not, the team won’t say either, so the author’s angle is ”I don’t know if he made them do it or not, but if he did, that’s really wrong.”

It’s a pretty reasonable piece, in which Wolf explains:

I understand the need to instill discipline in your players, to weed out the ones who won’t work hard and keep the ones who buy into the program.

But some old-school stuff just seems rather daft in this day and age. Remember when asking for a drink of water during a game was seen as a sign of weakness?

Fun fact: you weren’t allowed water at a Vernon Vipers practice until the allocated water breaks.

More from Wolf:

And if there are youngsters, some potentially with school the next day, forced to do anything other than head home to bed after a midweek game and a bus ride back from Victoria, that would be reprehensible.

So here’s my thoughts on “old school” coaching methods (and incidentally, Vandy’s style): I think they’re stupid, but I’m totally fine with them.

My years in Vernon were nothing short of fantastic. Playing for Mike is like being in the military, in a good way. You get used to your routine until you come to require it. You were proud of being militantly disciplined, stewing on your anger and saving it for the next shift while watching your frustrated opponents slam bench gates like clowns.

“Never let ‘em see you sweat.”

Our team was an efficient killing machine and man, did we win. Hell, we swept the BCHL playoffs 16-0.

Do I think Vandy made those kids run? Come on. Of course he did.

But so what? Did he drown one of them or something?

We ran the arena stairs in our gear (some in dress shoes, not planning on a workout) after tying an opponent at home the game before Christmas break. We wore our gear on the bus from the rink in Langley to our hotel. I could type 20 more “we did” sentences here, but I’ll spare you.

As we did those things, we hated Vandy together (which was uniting in itself), but….only during those workouts. I loved playing for Snapdekamp, and most of those kids will too. You can find a lot of people out there who enjoyed playing for authoritarian coaches.

Mike taught me the meaning of hard work, and while some of the punishments like the one in question here were over the top, whatever. I got in better shape, we won, I got seen, and eventually earned a scholarship. No way that happens without Mike and his “methods.”

If you’re coaching a major junior team, you can’t run a team that way. You’re beholden to NHL teams and agents and all those other headaches. Up and coming superstars wouldn’t stand for it, they’d demand trades, it just wouldn’t fly.

But if you’re running a junior A team, you absolutely can, and many do. Mike just happens to be one of them.

And I’ll tell you what – look out for his team this year and every other year. You’ve got to play the games anyway, Mike just reminds you it’s easier to win.

So what say you? Is this sort of thing across the line, or are you cool with it?

Comments (7)

  1. Well, I don’t think kids in junior hockey need to be protected from tough workouts. These kids are big boys and can make their own decisions if they want to participate or not. It’s not like these kids came in asking “Hey guys, this coach, he’s a nice guy, right?” They knew what they were getting.

    That said, I would not work well under such a coach. Personal feeling, I guess. I also suppose that is part of the reason why I didn’t go to far in hockey.

  2. Should Herb Brooks not have bag skate the sh!t out of team USA until they accepted the team dynamic?

    Should Coach Taylor not have made the Dillon Panthers run up and down a hill after a game in the mud until the team was united under the “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” mantra (best epsiode of one of the greatest shows, btw)?

    The military employs this tactic because it works, it breaks down the individual and builds the team. It filters out the weak. There isn’t a moment I don’t look back and think these type of situations didn’t benefit me long term.

    If you don’t like this intensity, you don’t play at this level.

    My guess is Wolf got picked last in many sports, unless it was chess.

  3. Man, does Vandy break you down too. I kept a journal that first year, wrote in it almost every day – it’s hilarious to read now. Broke me down, built me up, and by the time I was done in Vernon, I knew how hard you had to work to win.

  4. It all depends on the results. There are coaches like this in all sports and some of them are able to use this system successfully while others just end up alienating their players.

    I think the most important thing for a system like this to work is a coach who knows how to use it. It’s one thing to yell at kids blindly, its another to motivate them through the use of stress. Unfortunately there are a lot of coaches who just do the former.

  5. My high school track coach was like this, but he was never mean. He just demanded a good work ethic from us. It was something that a lot of my teamates didn’t do well under, mostly because as girls, they were used to be coddled. But I liked it, and I’ve always worked best for bosses that are tough but fair. If a coach is firm, but not cruel (and that’s a fine line that a lot of people have a hard time distinguishing), I think they are effective. My daughters have both played volleyball for coaches like this, and while they chafed under it during the season, they both expressed appreciation for the discipline after the season was over.

  6. Whatever methods a coach uses to garner the respect of players, short of drowning the kids like Bourne said, I’m OK with it. But I don’t think all coaches can use this style and earn respect in the room. I’ve seen it fail at the Jr A level, too.

  7. I have coached for over 30 years at the Professional, Major Junior, Canadian University and Junior A levels. I was fortunate to be with Mike during his run in Grande Prairie. People talk about Mike being a disciplinarian and his “military style” of coaching. Well, I was also in the military for 25 years before I retired and I would say his style is more “organized” than “military.” Organized means that he and his coaching staff are prepared everyday and his players know exactly what to expect when they enter the rink each day. Junior players may not like discipline at home, but they like it when they come to the rink. Mike ensures everything is “black and white” and there are no grey areas. In my world that’s called “professionalism” and that is why he is so successful.

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