It’s been several weeks and many miles since we’ve spoken. It would be easy to assume that with our team struggling to secure wins over the past couple of weeks that perhaps I’d lost my voice. After all it’s far easier to share updates on the heels of victory than it is to dissect defeat.
Loss no doubt played a role, but in truth it was the loss of my father in law that left me without a voice for the past several weeks. There is something about losing someone close to your heart that changes your landscape. Men are known cave dwellers. My wife regularly asks me when I seem distracted, whether I’m “in my cave”. After years of watching each other deal with a range of issues, we both realize that men and women handle adversity very differently. She prefers to talk through her feelings; I tend to retire to my cave. Depending on your gender, you probably relate to one of these places quite well.
It’s been an insanely busy few weeks. The trip to Wisconsin was an important one for us. Despite suffering a pair of losses to a very solid Badger squad, we saw many encouraging signs. The first month and a half has been a feeling out process for both coaches and players. With so many new faces, injuries and roster changes, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you follow the college hockey scene closely, you understand that there are a lot of moving parts in a rebuilding process. Youth is a terrific asset. Young teams can bring a lot of energy and emotion to the table. That energy has been a big addition to our program and we seen it on the ice in both practice and the games. With youth however comes inconsistency. That’s simply part of the equation. Inconsistency is what every team attempts to avoid; but it’s in your DNA. There is no escape. So the challenge becomes pushing through the plateau, regaining the confidence that fades with mistakes, letting go of the results and paying attention to the details, day in, day out.
There is a flip side to the struggles of youth. What happens when a veteran player, a proven performer, hits a downdraft? If you’ve play anything long enough and hard enough, then you’ve shared this part of the journey as well. There is a critical difference however. Veteran players tend to be hardest on themselves. They know it’s in there because they’ve already proven it. So why isn’t it happening? Speaking from experience, this can be a lot more frustrating for the athlete, especially if they’ve set the bar high for themselves. But athletic careers are never straight line; even the most talented players experience droughts.
Over the past three weeks I’ve watched our team battle both sides of this equation. Young players hitting walls and losing confidence; older players struggling to make the contribution they’ve grown accustomed to. If you want to truly understand what’s taking place beneath the surface of a team in transition you can add one more big piece to the equation: role definition. The beginning of any season is often referred to the ‘storming’ phase because your athletes are vying to carve out roles. It’s a time when things can get combustible. Emotions are running high and everyone in that locker room is trying to figure out one thing: where do I fit? Behind the eyes of your athletes there is a little bit of everything: fear, anxiety, frustration, disappointment, jealousy, excitement, nervousness, anger and joy.
It’s a combustible mix. The best analogy for a coaching staff might be that of riding a horse. Every ridden a spirited stallion? Years ago I visited my younger brother Kelly who was living and working in the Cariboo region of British Columbia where he worked for a large paper company. This is cowboy country personified. The gold rush struck here in the second half of the 19th century and an influx of adventurers, roughnecks and cowboys settled here. My brother suggested we saddle up and hit the pine covered hills. Problem was I’d never ridden a horse. I have no proof that my brother conspired to pay me back for whatever tricks I’d played on him during our youth. All I know is that as I saddled up and casually asked the rancher what my horses name was. A bad feeling came over me when he replied: lightning.
I’ve never ridden one of those bar room broncos. You know the ones in the movies that depict a guy smiling and joyfully spinning around in circles as the music blares in the background and people hoist drinks cheering him on. No I don’t really need to because ‘lightning’ turned out to be a 2000 pound ‘live’ version that was hell bent on galloping up pine covered slopes regardless of who was strapped onto his back. I don’t believe I sat down for a week.
So while I can pretend to be a jockey because of my height challenged status, I can’t feign horsemanship as a resume builder. But the analogy applies regardless. Coaches have to harness the energy, fears, spirit and passion in that locker room. It’s a challenge to strike the right balance and not look like I did aboard good ol ‘lightning’.
Fortunately, Jamie, Steph and I have ‘ridden’ more than a few teams. Despite some setbacks the past two weeks, this group is settling into a rhythm that works for them. We still have a long way to go, but the signs are there and the results this past weekend are encouraging. After dropping close games to SLU and Dartmouth it would be easy to have doubts about how far this group can go this year. I don’t share those. We see too many good signs in spite of those defeats.
One weekend can change a lot. The win over BU and tie at PC were inspiring. The girls stepped up and responded to adversity in both contests. The schedule this first month has been challenging to say the least. That challenge has been a blessing in disguise. We’ve had no choice but to grow up in a hurry. That is the state of women’s college hockey in 2012. There are no “easy games”. There are a number of encourging signs right now heading into the final weeks of the first half.
1. Improved play from our veterans: the core of last years team is beginning to play their best hockey of the year. Outstanding play by juniors Nicole Gifford, Jess Hitchcock and Arielle O’Neill of late have really solidified our front lines.
2. Special teams: both our man up and man down play has come together over the last two weeks. The short handed play by blue liners Kailey Chappell, Alexis Crossley, Megan Armstrong and Kristine Horn has been excellent. Sophomore Hannah Armstrong, freshman Sara Carlson and the junior law firm of Gifford,O’Neill & Hitchcock have really backboned our man down play up front. This past weekend versus BU and PC these groups were +1 shutting out both teams on power play while scoring short handed. Meanwhile we went 2-9 on the man up over the weekend. Those are numbers that will lead to success over the long haul.
3. Goaltending: All four goaltenders have started this season, which isn’t common in college hockey. But all four have really grown this first month. Goalie coach Stu Frye has done a remarkable job working with our goaltending core and they are responding with solid outings. Jennifer Gilligan got her first start and win versus BU last Friday and Sunday down at Providence Marie Eve Jean was equally sharp earning the tie. Our play in net is much more consistent this season and that bodes well looking ahead.
4. Team Play: no surprise that our forward and defense pairings have been shuffling week to week which can be a challenge. But overall, team play is beginning to sort itself out and the girls are beginning to establish some chemistry and ability to read off one another. That is one key, positive sign that we’ve been looking to establish this first month.
5. Chemistry: possibly the most elusive but sought after facet of team sports. I see a number of indications that this group is playing for each other. They genuinely enjoy each other but more importantly I see them ‘pushing’ themselves harder and in the process helping everyone get better.
6. Role Definition: it’s a long, long season and certainly there remains much to be done. However players are beginning to carve out roles and take pride in doing so. That buy in is so vital if a team really wants to accomplish something at the end of the year.
Before signing off I want to personally thank the many families that continue to support our efforts both on and off the ice. I will provide an update on some of the ‘extra’ things we are doing to invest in our player development. Many of you have generously contributed to our mission and I can’t tell you how much the coaching staff appreciates your help. I will update you shortly about our latest development.