Last weekend we squared off with the Northeastern Huskies for a pair of league games. Saturday afternoon at the Whitt we fell behind early, spotting them a two goal lead before rallying for three unanswered goals and taking a 3-2 lead in the third. The Huskies were able to get the equalizer late in the third on a powerplay and then the goaltenders at both ends held firm through overtime to force a 3-3 tie.
Sunday afternoon we resumed action down in Boston. The pattern of playing strongly on the front end of a double header and then struggling on the backend, continues. Sunday’s contest was different in one sense: the score (5-1) didn’t accurately reflect the action, but we still came away with the loss.
It’s been a challenging first half as we all know. The coaching staff and players have all shared in the frustration of battling hard, playing well for stretches, but ultimately not being able to gain the upper hand. Depth or rather lack of it, continues to be the overriding issue. While we haven’t been decimated by injuries or illness over the past two months, of late we’ve been hit just hard enough to force an already small lineup to have to juggle rotations and combinations. The biggest culprit the past two weeks has been an early flu that struck and spread through a half dozen players. The loss of Hannah Armstrong for most of the first half to concussion symptoms has hurt. At this point Hannah will likely take a redshirt year since she only played in a half dozen contests and we want to be cautious with giving her time to fully rebound from her injury.
Good things however continue to develop week to week and while the results aren’t what we are accustomed to in our storied program, patience will remain the mantra of the coaching staff through the end of the year. We are firm in staying the course with fundamental skill work and encouraging our players to elevate own contributions. And I’m seeing some really good things from some of our athletes.
Pace is a crucial element in practice and one we’ve always pushed hard at UNH. I was speaking this week with a veteran NHL coach about the nuances of development within young 18-23 year old athletes; the same issues that we face are just as problematic on the men’s side. His comments were about the inability of most college aged athletes to recognize the value of practicing hard and why honing that work ethic is key if players want to really stretch the boundaries of their game.
The age old question of ‘nature’ versus ‘nuture’ is worth considering. After many decades of ‘nuturing’ the habits and expectations within the practice format, I’m of the opinion that you can ‘nuture’ the approach that individuals bring to the ice everyday, but there are limits. The ‘nature’ of your athlete will dictate their comfort zone. Highly competitive individuals with a burning desire to improve and contribute, will always outwork their counterparts who are more inclined to ‘float’. There are exceptions. I’ve witnessed players with talent who’ve never really had the need to push themselves because of their superior athletic ability growing up, suddenly run into a wall at the collegiate level and experience an awakening. It’s not the norm, but there are players who suddenly realize that if they develop good work habits they can recapture some of their former success. It also helps immensely if the team has a core leadership group that ‘drives’ the bus hard. That’s contagious and even the most laid back individuals have to pick their game up if they don’t want to be embarrassed.
Make no mistake, there is no substitute for ‘nature’. Earnest, determined, driven athletes will compete harder on a daily basis and push themselves whether being watched or not. It’s an integral part of who they are and what they believe. As I’ve commented previously, coaches only need fan the flames and tend the fire with these individuals. If you have enough fiery pieces you can really generate some heat. In the ideal scenario, you can get a bonfire most days in practice by orchestrating simple, combative situational drills and games. As coaches, that might be one of the most satisfying parts of the job. Watching your athletes really get after each other in the spirit of competition and push the envelope is inspiring to all. Even the floaters get caught up in the flames.
Reflecting back over the past two and half months I can offer that this group is improving. One of their challenges has been to catch fire on a daily basis. The lack of depth in terms of numbers and competition has made that more difficult. You can’t compete in a vacuum. You need the tenacious pushback from your teammates if you’re going to reach down and look for more from yourself. Here’s where the lack of depth really takes it’s toll in my opinion. The games represent a small fraction of the season while the practices constitute the lionshare of the year long adversity and struggle. Every team needs “FIRESTARTERS”. You know who they are because they operate in every walk of life. They’re the agitators, the pushers, the never satisfied’s.
Over several decades I’ve been a part of teams with ‘firestarters’ who drove the bus. We label them ‘difference’ makers. When the stars align, you get firestarters who are you’re best players. Steven Saviano, Jason Krog, Mark Mowers, Stevie O’Brien…on the men’s side. Kelly Paton, Kacey Bellamy, Jenn Hitchcock, Sadie Wright Ward on the women’s side.
Heading into the holday break I’m confident that we’re ‘nuturing’ some firestarters, with an eye to the future. We’re recruiting ‘firestarters’ for the coming season at the same time. The rebuilding process is a just that….a process. It takes culling, steering, shaping and nuturing. Most of all it takes patience. Onward.