My junior hockey coach (Mike Vandekamp), whom I’ve written a lot about on this site and others, was unlike any other coach I ever had before or after our time together. He was, shall we say, a bit unorthodox. But, in my two years with him we went to the BCHL finals and lost in six, then swept every single series the following year to win the BCHL title. You can be as unorthodox as you like if you win, apparently.
Once your roster is solidified, a coach can only do a few things to ensure he gets the most out of his team: mainly, he can be sure they’re in shape, he can be sure they understand the systems, and he can make sure they buy in.
We were going to be the best conditioned team in the League, like it or not. I was firmly entrenched in the “not” group at first – bag skating is usually used as a threat or a punishment on most teams, and we hadn’t done anything wrong, so…why, Mike, why? It was just the way it was, so, take it or leave it, Desperate-18-Year-Old-Clinging-To-Hopes-Of-A-Career-In-Hockey.
The hard work is great for your body, but it’s even more amazing for your mind (something about the process makes me think this is what people who join the Army must experience). Knowing you’re in great shape, knowing you’ve got more in the tank than the team you’re playing is to confidence what gas is to a fire. Have you ever actually studied properly for a test in school? I didn’t often (sorry Mom), but my god did it make life easier when I did. Being prepared is sweet.
So what it was, ultimately, was a simple trick with Mike: One Foot Farther. While the rest of the teams in the league are stopping on lines (or before them) when doing drills, we will not be. We will stop a foot past every line, and by the end of the season, we’ll have skated miles further than everyone else. (Which ignores the fact that we would have anyway, but this was a nice daily reminder.)
It was a corny annoyance at first, but we got used to it, and by the end of the year, you have skated that much farther. We did this with every single drill – the lines were like yellow traffic signals letting us know it’s almost time to stop.
And when you’re in that great shape, working hard feels great. For most of us slobs, me in particular these days, working out makes us feel pretty bleh after. But our team reached a point where guys weren’t pouting during conditioning skates, they were spraying snow at each other, smashing guys into the glass, and just generally getting it done because “it’s what our team does – we don’t cut corners.”
So in close games, late in the third period, if you felt tired, you knew the other team was spent. It was the ultimate timeout motivator – “we’ve worked harder than them, you know we have more left.”
And we did, every time. And we won.
You have that extra burst of energy to avoid a hit, and to stand up instead of falling down, so players got hurt less thanks to the extra skating in practice. That full roster means you don’t have to over-extend other players (injuries lead to more injuries). Late in playoffs, your body isn’t as broken down as others.
NHLers don’t have the luxury to get in that kind of shape – they play way too many games, travel way too much, and are often far older.
But if I were a coach of a junior or college hockey team, you can guarantee I’d do the same damn things.
It’s no fun at first, but in the end you figure out that skating that one extra foot will take you a whole lot farther.