In pro hockey, I never once returned to training camp with the team I was with the season before. Not because I wasn’t welcome, I was just trying to make the right choices to give me the best chance to move up. Still, that left me as “the new guy” every season after college.
When you walk into tryouts, it’s awfully nice to know some people. I had a second year in Vernon during my junior days, and spent four at the same University, and coming back to your old buddies with your own inside jokes is huge for your confidence.
Otherwise, you’re just the kid sitting in his stall, acting like you need every available second to tend to your gear.
As with most teams and workplaces, a hockey dressing room can be a cliquey place. There’s something confidence damaging about seeing the returning guys joke around, some already under contract, while you have to be the guy to man up and take someone’s job. It happens, but for a sensitive person the intimidation factor can be huge, as you’re quite clearly an outsider trying to infiltrate their world.
And this is where leaders – true leaders – can make a team better.
During my stint at Islanders camp, I got to see this first hand. At that point, I know I’m not making the team. You can go online and check out who’s under contract, who are the high draft picks…they just wanted to get a better look at me, and expose me to some top level play.
The problem is, other guys know you’re not making the team either, so they don’t see the point in getting to know you (and I don’t blame them). But some guys, – these leaders – will put in the effort. They’re “character” guys, and I think do great things for their teams (though, the Isles were un-saveable at that point.)
Bill Guerin walked around the dressing room and shook every new guy’s hand, sat with most of us, and got to know our names. Mike Sillinger did the same (actually, so did Bruno Gervais). Those guys don’t have to do that. They’re on the team, they’re millionaires, but they just happen to be good people. They’re confident in themselves now, but they remember what their first camp was like.
They allowed me to feel more comfortable on the ice, to have someone to joke around with here and there, and feel like I was more a part of the organization.
It didn’t matter for me, but for some prospects who can overachieve and legitimately crack the roster, those things go a long way. It allows them to know that guys are taking them seriously, and that feeling may allow them to put more pressure on the guys higher up the depth chart. Everyone improves when everyone’s included.
Today, the Islanders still have some really good people on their team, but the leadership is going to have to come from the younger guys now. Tavares, Okposo, Moulson, Grabner and the rest have to accept that it’s their team, they have long term deals, and it’s on them to get things off on the right foot this season, and get the youngest players going.
Nobody plays better when they’re uncomfortable, which is just another reason having a good dressing room is important.
Training camps are around the corner, and the dressing room drama will fire right back up. Here’s to hoping your favourite team has a few Bill Guerin’s on the roster.