Friday, December 21, 2012

Say Yes - How parents mold athletes into legends.

The Pursuit of Happyness
Chris Gardner Jr. (after scoring a basket): “Hey Dad, I’m going pro! I’m going pro!”

Chris Sr. (looking at his son): “I don’t know, you know. You’ll probably be about as good as I was. That’s kind of the way it works, and I was below average. You’ll excel at a lot of things, just not this, so I don’t want you out here shooting this ball around all day and night all right?”

Chris Jr. (looking dejected and throwing the basketball away angrily): “Alright.”

Chris Sr.: “Hey. Don’t ever let somebody tell you, you can’t do something. Not even me, ok? You got a dream, you gotta protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they want to tell you that you can’t do it. You want something, you go get it. Period”
This beautiful scene between the on-screen (and real life) father and five year old son, in Will Smith’s The Pursuit of Happyness brilliantly captures the role of a parent in a child’s life. Thinking back to all of the hockey parents I meet every year at Hayley Wickenheiser’s hockey festival, all the sports parents I meet in every day life, and even to my own parents, I realize that this scene is one that is played out for real in homes all across the world on a daily basis. At least I hope it is. I think about the parents of my heroes: Hayley Wickenheiser's parents, Christine Sinclair's parents, and Serena Williams' parents, just to name a few. They could have said no to their children pursuing such ambitious goals. They could have said no knowing that women's sports are not nearly as lucrative as men's sports, and that their daughters were looking at a potential future of financial insecurity and obscurity. They could have said no because a career as a pro female athlete usually means instability and relatively no glamour. They could have said no for all these reasons and their reasons would not have been wrong. They could have said no and our world would be without these incredible role models. But instead they said yes.

After over 25 years of research, the Women's Sports Foundation published an article detailing why by age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at almost double the rate of boys. The article identified six key factors that influence this high rate of drop outs:
  1. Lack of access - There are 1.3 million fewer opportunities for girls to play sports in high school than boys.
  2. Lack of transportation - It is harder for girls to find safe training sites and the location of such places can make it hard for busy families to participate.
  3. Social stigma - There is still a fear of being socially isolated because of preconceived notions about girls in sports.
  4. Quality of experience - Lack of equal competition as players get older. Players are sometimes required to play with and against boys, which most are unwilling to do. 
  5. Lack of role models - The females that our society hold in high esteem aren't always consistent with the mold of athletes. There is peer pressure on teenage girls to look and act a certain way. Often, being an athlete can interfere with this image that they are expected to portray. Lack of proper self esteem can lead to them deciding to quit their sport rather than go against the expectations that society has placed upon them.
  6. Cost - Schools are being forced to slash their athletic department budgets. Female programs are usually the first to get shortchanged, meaning that participants end up having to pay more money out of their own pockets to keep programs running. 
Despite all of these challenges, studies show that "girls active during adolescence and young adulthood are 20% less likely to get breast cancer in later life." The studies also revealed that more than 3/4 of career women feel that sports increases their self image. All the factors listed above can be mitigated by parental involvement and support. For young children, the support is in the form of financial assistance, transportation, and general encouragement. As kids get older and begin to play at a higher level, parents are needed to be sounding boards and supporters after setbacks or discouraging days. Teenagers face tremendous pressures to perform academically and athletically. They encounter peer pressure, tough coaches, challenging team mates and opponents, and general bumps along the long road to adulthood. Parents are what keep them grounded and confident. And once they hit adulthood, as Wickenheiser, Sinclair, and Williams have, their parents are still there to be their biggest fans. My mom and dad have the pleasure unfortunate task of being the parents of a goaltender. Every goal surrendered is dissected, every loss is vented about, every pressure filled moment leaves them breathless and stressed out, and my mom ends every day by asking me the same question: "why do you do this? And more importantly, why do I do this with you?" 

There are so many parents out there who make sacrifices for their kids to play sports. I hope they continue to provide encouragement and support to their children, no matter how old they get. We don't know where the next Hayley Wickenheiser, the next Christine Sinclair, and the next Serena Williams is right now. But no one wants to be the parent that says NO and forces their child to turn their back on the sport they love. There is a future in sport for everyone who pursues it. Your children can be difference makers on a local scale and maybe even on a global scale. Say "yes", be their rock, and watch where their passion takes them.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Hola from the Wickenheiser Festival

The Mexico Women's National Ice Hockey Team at Wick Fest

You know how most kids had a place growing up that they considered to be a second home? Either it was their grandparents’ place, their friend’s place, or, in the case of most Canadian kids, the ice rink. When I was about eight years old a new multi-purpose sports facility opened up just minutes away from my house. Eight ice rinks, a gym, physiotherapy clinic, dance studio, restaurant, and seminar rooms all under one roof. Appropriately named Burnaby 8-Rinks, the arena became a place where I spent every spare minute of my day, training to be a….figure skater. Yes, I said figure skater. 8-Rinks is the home of the BC chapter of Skate Canada– the governing body of figure skating in the country. At the time it was first opened, they were pushing hard to recruit anyone and everyone to go into figure skating. When a rather decorated former figure skater who shall remain nameless approached my parents, let’s just say I was being outfitted with a bright pink spandex skating dress before I knew what was going on. Days consisted of me spending countless hours in a sport that I knew wasn’t mine, working towards a goal I didn’t even want to achieve, and all the while dreaming of joining the boys who were playing hockey on adjoining rinks. But I was told that girls don’t play hockey and, judging by the hockey teams on the ice every day, this was true because there wasn’t a single girl on any of the teams. Girls and hockey did not mix.

Fast forward roughly 15 years to the weekend of November 15th, 2012 and 6 out of the 8 rinks at 8-Rinks were occupied by female hockey teams from Canada, the US, and one very special team from Mexico. Each locker room had a sign with a team logo and a message on it: “No boys allowed.” Girls were warming up by jogging around the facility while chanting, cheering, hooting, and hollering. On the ice they were putting on impressive efforts with their skills and speed. Off the ice they had taken over the entire building. And somewhere in all the mayhem was the world’s greatest female hockey player – the reason for all this excitement and domination of 8-Rinks – Hayley Wickenheiser.

For the third year in a row, 8-Rinks and the City of Burnaby has had the honour of hosting the Wickenheiser International Women’s Hockey Festival, known to most as Wick Fest. Wick Fest consists of on-ice hockey tournaments for all the different levels of minor hockey, as well as on and off ice skills workshops, leadership and training seminars, team building exercises, and one on one time between the players and Hayley Wickenheiser. It is truly a weekend of comprehensive exposure to the game for all its participants and it is a weekend where the girls rule the roost. One of the best things for me about being involved in Wick Fest is the ability to witness how the players operate. These girls aren’t THAT much younger than I am and yet it is obvious that they are growing up with a different school of thought in their minds. Their generation knows with 100% confidence that they belong in hockey. They’re loud and talented and energetic. They’re hockey players and they’re proud of it. In previous years, my role at Wick Fest has been pretty minimal. I’ve volunteered my time for a few hours during the weekend and have been assigned to tasks that did well in breaking me in to how the festival works. This year however, due to either a shortage of volunteers or perhaps just my own eagerness to be more involved, I was given more hours and more jobs to do. For the first time since I mercifully quit figure skating at age 12, 8-Rinks became my second home, at least for the weekend. Being more involved this year allowed me to meet more people and truly understand better the vision that Hayley has for the festival and the sport. Several times during the weekend I popped in to a locker room to deliver pre-game snacks only to find Hayley hanging out in the room talking to the players. How's that for a pre-game pep talk eh! From impromptu autograph sessions, to an hour of great country music tunes courtesy of Dean Brody, to a beauty corner where two kind volunteers were applying henna tattoos for the players, Wick Fest truly had it all. There was a great energy around the event - an energy that was apparent in its volunteers. I worked hard, yes, but so many others worked harder and longer than I did. Many volunteers were also parents who popped in to lend a hand in between their kids' games. Many others started their shifts at 5am and were still going strong at 7pm. And many others went home with their hands dyed blue or red or whatever colour the Gatorade coolers they were scrubbing out happened to be. The volunteers worked with a mantra - perhaps the same mantra as the festival's namesake - keep your head down and work hard. Not for the cameras or the gratitude but because you care.

One of the highlights of this year's festival was the participation of the Mexican Women's National Team.When most of us think of Mexico we think of sunshine, beaches, all-inclusive resorts, and possibly Salma Hayek. Ice hockey is not synonymous with Mexico and yet here they were - the Mexican National Team clad in long green jackets and colourful sombreros announced their arrival at Wick Fest. As volunteers we didn't formally discuss it but there was an unwritten, unspoken rule we all adopted for the weekend - make Team Mexico (and all the other teams) feel as welcome as possible. It was incredible that they had accepted Hayley's invitation and taken the effort to travel across the continent to be here. The least we could do was encourage them and let them know how inspiring they were. And they were a heck of a team too. In speaking to one of their coaches I learned that this was the first year that Mexico had a women's only league. In the past all the players have played on co-ed teams and they all came from an inline hockey background. Both these concepts were incredibly evident in their play. They were aggressive and not afraid to use their physicality to defend, and they were all terrific skaters. Their goalie was positionally sound and had exceptional rebound control and they played with a ton of confidence. Being involved in Wick Fest is humbling in many ways and one of the great things I get to witness every year is the coming together of the greater hockey family. In this year's case, a parent of a hockey player from one of the Vancouver teams noticed that Team Mexico didn't have enough pucks to practice and warm up with. They only had about 10 pucks whereas all the other teams had buckets full of them. He mentioned to me that he had been collecting pucks for years and had a crate full of them in his garage. He brought them in for Mexico to use and take home with them. Team Mexico, in return, were humble and had a great spirit to them. They quickly made friends with players on other teams and could be heard yelling "HOLA!" as they passed fellow competitors around the arena. They were gracious and allowed me to take a picture with them, and were more than willing to chat and answer the million questions all of us Canadians had for them. Their upbringing may be different, their culture may be different, and even their exposure to the sport of hockey may be different from ours. But their passion? It is identical.

Wick Fest is a weekend of doing good things all around. There is the obvious goal of growing the game of women's hockey, cultivating friendships, establishing leaderhip, and creating lasting memories, but there are other more global goals being pursued there too. There are silent auctions and 50-50 draws where 100% of the money raised goes to Kids Sport and Right To Play. This year the Fortius Foundation, which is in the process of constructing an elite sports medicine and development facility adjacent to 8-Rinks, stepped up and donated to the two charities as well. In addition, Fortius along with Tourism Burnaby announced a long-term partnership with events such as Wick Fest as well as other sporting ventures in the city such as the Esso Cup.

These showings of support from both individuals who donate their time and from companies and organizations who donate their funds is proof that Hayley is not alone in her vision. We all share in it and we support it and we want to be a part of it. There is no ego or hierarchy to this legend of our sport. She is as humble and as authentically Canadian as they come. Access to her is unlimited. She is always around and always makes herself available to chat with the girls who look up to her. She works hard, is disciplined, and is a tremendous leader. She has set the bar high. But that is part of the honour of getting to work with her - knowing that you have to work to those same standards. My pink spandex figure skating outfit has long since been stashed in the (very back of the) basement but I couldn't help thinking back to it during the weekend of Wick Fest. Thanks to Hayley and her team mates, we've come a long way since those days. It's a source of comfort to me knowing that girls are now free to chose their preferred sport rather than be forced into it. It is a sign of progress. Till next year's girl's only invasion of 8-Rinks I bid farewell to Wick Fest 2012 and all its participants and volunteers with a salute of my red Gatorade-dyed hand.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Turkish Delight: Positive hopes for women's hockey in Turkey

Turkey vs Canada at the 25th Winter Universidae in 2011

 Happy hockey season everyone! Here’s wishing all of you a safe and successful season that is filled with big wins, great team mates, and only limited stenches from smelly equipment. Every new season brings with it new opportunities to grow the sport both here in North America and worldwide and to promote it so that it reaches places that are farther and wider than ever before. At first I thought that the concept of growing women’s hockey internationally was pretty simple – get some equipment and some willing volunteers, send them to various countries to introduce and promote the sport, and work with the participants who show the most skill and enthusiasm to form a team or perhaps even a league. My recent family vacation to Turkey was amazing and educational in many ways, none more so than the way it changed my perspective on what it means to be a woman in sport.

Let me start by saying that Turkey is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been to. The people, the places, the weather, the lifestyle, and the food (pigging out for 3 weeks right before the start of hockey season wasn’t my finest decision!) are all second to none. The city of Istanbul alone is home to over 13 million people. And judging by the traffic and concentration of pedestrians, I think all 13 million plus are out enjoying life every night! The mosques are breathtaking, the museums are historic, and there is nothing more humbling and calming than listening to the Azan (Muslim call of prayer) while swimming in the Mediterranean.

Prior to leaving for Turkey I did some digging on the caliber of women’s hockey that was being played there. I was surprised to discover that Turkey has a national women’s ice hockey team that is currently ranked 35th by the IIHF. Their players play on teams at Turkish Universities or on club teams based in the northern part of the country. They finished the 2011 Women’s World Hockey Champhionships in 4th place in Division V – ahead of Ireland, and behind Poland, Spain, and Bulgaria. Though they have never qualified for the Olympics and have never played any higher than Div.V at the Worlds, the city of Erzurum did host the 25th Winter Universidae in 2011, and they did submit a women’s hockey team for the competition. The team was unable to score a goal throughout the tournament and they were defeated by large margins (15-0 to USA and 32-0 to Finland) but they were still supported strongly by the home fans.

“I am proud to play for Turkey,” said 22-year old forward Çağla Baktıroğlu. “We are learning a lot. We won’t be number one but we will improve. When you play with a good team you become better.”

Baktıroğlu’s team mate Çağla Sevgili went on to make an astute observation that plagues many of the lower-tiered nations in women’s hockey. “The US has 45,000 players,” she says. “In contrast, Turkey has 150. They pick the best among them, while we have limited options.” To an outsider the Turkish national team’s prospects may look bleak. And they did to me too until I went to Turkey, saw their culture first hand, and realized A) How far their women have come in society, B) How empowered they are, and C) What an accomplishment it is for them to have a women’s hockey team in the first place.

Over the years, much has been publicized in the media about the role of women in Muslim countries but, at the risk of being wrongfully influenced by possible biases, I chose to approach Turkey with an open mind. There were some surprises both ways. One thing that stuck out right away to me was the respect that the women had for themselves. There was about a 50-50 split of women who wore a headscarf and women who did not. Even those who did not, however, were still dressed respectfully. They were well-covered and did not showcase their bodies in an overt way, they spoke well, were trendy, educated, and independent-minded. Certain aspects about their culture certainly made me realize and appreciate the challenges their hockey players must encounter as they attempt to pursue and grow their sport. A shopping trip to a large Adidas store in the heart of Istanbul, for example, revealed that they don’t sell too many styles of shorts. They prefer for the women to work out in long pants. The majority of posters of professional athletes endorsing different clothing brands featured males only. There were no notable female athletes such as Serena Williams or Abby Wambach featured on any of the Nike ads. Though more and more girls are pursuing educations and careers there is still a large emphasis on getting married young and starting families. The traditional life path of women leaves little time for pursuing a career as an athlete. In general, there isn’t a culture for ice hockey in Turkey. As we all know, being an ice hockey player requires a certain aggressiveness and vocality that isn’t exactly part of the blueprint of Turkish women.

Witnessing this is when I realized that for current members of the national team, growing the sport is not simply about coaching and exposure. They literally have to shift an entire set of cultural practices that have been in place for centuries. It will take time. Improving a team’s passing, shooting, and skating are simple enough to do. Opening them up to a new way of thinking and getting them to discover and embrace this passion that they never knew they had might be harder. It will happen, as it always does, through the trailblazing done by their own current players. Çağla Sevgili of the national team is a student at Turkey’s Kocaeli University and is a great ambassador for the sport. She makes sure to recommend skating to everyone she meets and describes it as being “free despite the fact that you skate within a limited area.” Sending a Canadian or American to Turkey is not the answer to growing the game. The face of the sport must be a local. Anyone else will be seen as an outsider who doesn’t recognize the values and traditions of Turkey. It must be the local girls and women, through their modern ways of thinking and their vibrant and youthful personalities, who must appeal to those around them and inspire them to give hockey a try. Similar stories exist in soccer. It was the Canadian women’s national team’s coach John Herdman from England who changed the program and led it to its historic bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics. But the face of the team and the one who inspires young girls to lace up the cleats is a local – Christine Sinclair. Same goes for the US team. Pia Sundhage of Sweden was the mastermind coach behind their gold medal. But Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, and Alex Morgan are the heroes in the eyes of young girls.

Congratulations are in order to all members of the Turkish women’s national hockey team for getting this far already. Passion is like a flame. It just needs to catch fire and, before we know it, it’ll spread beyond anything we ever imagined. And nothing can torch that fire. In return for their amazing hospitality, I give to the people of Turkey my best wishes for continued growth in all areas, and I truly hope that some day soon, the red and white of Canada will join forces with the red and white of Turkey to produce a prosperous women’s hockey program that will change lives, inspire growth, and create history.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Layers of Leadership

When Roberto Luongo gave up his captaincy of the Vancouver Canucks, one phrase he used ad nauseum to explain his decision was "you can always lead without a letter." Basically what he was saying was that while there is only room for one captain and four assistant captains on a hockey team, it doesn't mean that they are the only 5 players who are allowed to be leaders.

Think of a hockey team's composition as being similar to that of the Planet Earth - there is the core, which is responsible for controlling some of the most critical functions of the unit. Then there is the mantle, which uses what the core is generating to carry out its own functions and which works to create valleys and mountains for the next layer to use. And finally there is the crust, which uses what the core and the mantle have created to make the earth liveable and sustainable. The same functions occur on a hockey team. The formally named captain and assistant captains who wear the letters on their jerseys are the core. They are responsible for laying the foundation for the team by setting the standards and helping everyone play up to those standards. They make the tough decisions on behalf of the team, all the while keeping in mind that they must act in the best interest of the team. The core is assisted by the hockey team's version of the mantle - veteran players who, despite not being given a formal leadership role, are still very much a part of the fabric of the team. The core leans on these veteran players to provide support and build on what the core is preaching. And finally, there is the crust - the rookies and younger players of the team. They may feel like they are far away from the core but in reality they are a critical component in ensuring that the core's vision of the team pans out. And despite not being as strong as the core or mantle players, the crust players are still free to forge their own blueprint on the team.

Every player on a hockey team serves a function both on and off the ice. Nowhere in any hockey rule book is it written that rookies are not allowed to lead or that veterans are not allowed to learn from the rookies. Veterans bring a sense of stability to the group. They have been around different situations before and so they have the benefit of being able to draw upon those experiences to help guide themselves and the team through the ups and downs of a season. Rookies bring a sense of optimism to the group. For us rec-hockey players, we rely on the rookies to inject some energy into the room when we are all dozing off while waiting for our late-night-I-should-be-in-bed-right-now games to start. One of the greatest strengths of the rookies is that they don't over-analyze the game. They play it as they see it.

Women's hockey brings with it a very intimate style of leadership. Women have a special bond with each other and it means that we develop a fierce loyalty to each other. This loyalty is what fuels our desire to block shots and take hits for one another. Women are also very maternal and comforting and, in my experiences of playing hockey throughout the years, this emotion is reflected well in how women lead a team. Most teams have a few players who are quite a bit older than everyone else. They get offended if you refer to them as "team mommies" but in actuality that is exactly what they are and the title is not meant to be a jab at their age. It is more a reflection of the comfort and kindness they show to the team. Most teams also contain quite a few middle-aged (in sports that usually means age 25-35) players who are less maternal and more tough-love. They're a bit more cocky and they push the team hard every night but they are equally as supportive as the team mommies. The only difference is, they are less willing to share band aids and energy drinks with you and they don't apologize after they drop f-bombs.

One of my favourite sports quotes of all time is: "Good players inspire themselves. Great players inspire others." Before the start of each season and each game we must ask ourselves: what layer of the team are we, what can we do to bring leadership to the group, and what can we do to inspire those around us to play harder? And after every game we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves: did I do enough? If the answer is yes, we are not only building towards winning championships and trophies and medals, we are also building towards a legacy of wisdom and leadership that the next generation of players will carry with them going forward, ensuring that our legacies as players live on into the future.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

NHL's loss, Women's Hockey's gain? Capitalizing on the NHL's blunders

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing some incredible hockey - fast, physical, agile, and skillful, with intense rivalries, upsets, and edge-of-your-seat overtime heroics. NHL playoffs you ask? Sadly the answer to that is no. Since my beloved Vancouver Canucks barely even made an appearance in the playoffs (*moment of silence *) I have found the NHL’s post season quite difficult to watch. Between the diving and embellishing to try and draw penalties (yes I know my Canucks are guilty of that), the line brawls breaking out at every whistle, and the potentially career-ending head hits being delivered on a daily basis I was starting to wonder where the pure, skillful hockey had gone. Luckily I didn’t have to wait long for my answer. 

Women’s hockey doesn’t get a whole lot of air time. Particularly in Vancouver where we don’t have a CWHL team and our CIS team the UBC Thunderbirds aren’t exactly stellar (they finished the season with a 1-21-2 record), if we want to watch high-level women’s hockey we have only limited opportunities to satisfy our interest. Luckily this season SSN Canada live streamed every game of the Clarkson Cup tournament and TSN showed most of Team Canada’s games at the 2012 Women’s World Hockey Championships. Of course TSN did not show the gold medal game live. Those of us without TSN2 were forced to follow along on USA Hockey’s live blog for updates from the gold medal game. 

How I found out who won Gold at the Women’s World Championships
Thanks USA Hockey for the live blog!
 It was a good thing women’s hockey got the exposure it did this year because I found myself thoroughly enjoying the action and appreciating the brand of hockey that was being played. In my opinion, the NHL was at its finest when it was being led by people who loved the game for what it was. When it wasn’t about multi-million dollar contracts, TV deals, and marketing the game to people in places who don’t understand it anyways. The game was the finest when it was about homegrown heroes; superstars who came from humble beginnings and were cultivated in their own backyards. Women’s hockey is right now where the NHL used to be back in the 70’s and 80’s. There is no hype and fanfare surrounding the players but there is passion – passion for the sport and for the cause – and the players are playing for the right reasons. Because body checking is illegal in women’s hockey the players defend against opponents the right way – with their speed, positioning, and defensive awareness. Players are being able to make beautiful plays with the puck. Goals are no longer the result of a fluky bounce - they are works of art. The players are skating faster, shooting harder, and making stronger plays. And almost every team in the CWHL and on the National Teams has a goaltender that is capable of putting the team on her back and leading them to victories.  There is a genuine understanding and appreciation that is evident when the ladies play. They are appreciative to be there, to have support, and to be playing the sport they love at a high level. They don’t complain about the fans or the media pressures being too demanding mainly because they don’t have those pressures. These ladies have real pressures such as how to keep their league running on a season to season basis, how to incorporate their careers, families, and educations into a very busy hockey schedule, and how to ensure that their sport continues to grow worldwide. And there is an underlying respect between the players. There are bitter rivalries, sure, but they never spill over into line brawls, cross checks, deliberate collisions, and blindsided hits that result in one player being carted off the ice on a stretcher. Scores are settled the right way – on the ice, during plays, between the whistles.

The NHL is losing respect from its loyal fan base every time Brendan Shanahan has to suit up and record another suspension video. There were years past where the couch in front of the TV would be my perch for hours at a time while I watched game after game after game of the Stanley Cup playoffs. This year I’ve watched maybe 3 games of the first round because the antics of the league and its players is so demoralizing. And I can’t be the only one. But yet I watched every Clarkson Cup game and every Team Canada game. There is a great opportunity looming for women’s hockey. If the sport and its players continue to develop the way they have so far, and if the national teams can continue to bridge the skill gaps between the nations, even the sport’s toughest critics will have no choice but to tune in and recognize that this is the way hockey was meant to be played. This mission could be given a further boosted if there is an NHL lockout next season. Major networks like Rogers Sportsnet , TSN, and CBC will have large time slots available with no NHL games to broadcast. What a perfect opportunity for the CWHL, CIS, and NCAA to showcase their skills to fans in Canada and/or the US. It could be the one thing the sport has been looking for to give it a real boost.

Honest hockey is still out there folks, we just have to embrace it. The NHL’s loss could be women’s hockey’s gain. One thing is for sure: we are approaching a pivotal time for the sport of women’s hockey. One more Raffi Torres knockout hit in the NHL and it might just send fans flocking in our direction as they crave to watch hockey in its purest form, and the way it was always meant to be played.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

No Fear: Fighting through playoff nerves and emotions

It’s that time of year again folks: the time of year where you check the NHL standings ten times a day to see if your team is above or below the top 8 in the conference (or, in the case of Leafs fans, how far below the top 8 they are). Yup, it’s almost playoff time everyone. Hope your nerves are ready for it! And if you happen to be a player as well, your league is likely getting ready for their playoffs too which means that in addition to being a nervous wreck of a fan you also get to be a nervous wreck of a player. 

This brings about an interesting topic of conversation. Are championships won with skill, toughness, speed, or mental strength? The best answer is probably all of the above and that is probably the correct answer too. Up until recently though, I’ve never thought too much about the mental strength component of it. Now I believe that it is the most underrated component – the X factor – in determining who will win championships.

Women are emotional as it is. That’s why I am so proud of our gender for breaking through into the world of sports. Because in addition to conquering the physical challenges of being an athlete, we also have to deal with that wonderful thing called emotions. It is so hard to stay even keeled when things are going bad out there. And for me as a goalie it is so frustrating to have to pull myself together after surrendering a goal. In my case there is a constant temptation to smash my stick against the net. Sometimes I’ve involuntarily given in to that temptation and one time it resulted in my favourite stick ending up in pieces (may she RIP). Every play of every shift of every game brings with it new challenges. Things can change in an instant out there. And there are no do-overs in the playoffs. And yet, while a million thoughts and emotions run through our heads, we have to maintain a poker face. Not show any signs of weakness. Brush off a bad play and get right back on the horse. We have to stay loose, keep our minds clear of distractions, and not become paralyzed by the fear or the nerves. 

There is no 100% fool proof way to handle yourself under pressure. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie or a ten-year veteran: the mental aspect of sports is always a work in progress. It is human nature to get nervous and it is natural that when we are passionate about something, we want to succeed at is as much as possible. But in spite of that there are a few things that I try and remember to help me deal with the pressure:

1)      Heroes are human – it is natural that we want to be the hero of the hour for our team. But don’t forget that every hero is also human and every human makes mistakes. Don’t approach games by saying “I’m going to have to be the hero here. If I’m not heroic my team will lose.” You are one member of a larger team. Everyone will make some great plays and everyone will have a few gaffes or miscues. What’s important is that you back each other up and that you battle as one whole unit and not as a group of individuals. The concept of heroes is a figment of the press and media. It makes for better TV drama (i.e. better ratings) and it gives those almost redundant newspaper columnists something to write about.  Behind every MVP is a story of the team mates that enabled that player to be the best he or she could be. Don’t be fooled into thinking that they got that title alone.

2)      The calm swagger – When Hockey Night in Canada shows the players walking into the arena for their game the players are all looking dapper and well….sexy. But they also have a bit of a swagger and a look of confidence to them. Most of our parents have taught us to be modest and not cocky. But in sports sometimes you need a bit of a chip on your shoulder. You have to approach games with an attitude that says “I’m good, my team is good, and we will win this game.” Every doubt you have about yourself or your team is a chink in the armour and it is something that an opponent can easily exploit.

3)      Don’t let others tell you what your job is - at the end of the day you know yourself better than anyone else knows you. Only you know your own capabilities and only you know your mental state. People will try to tell you to play a certain way, they’ll try to give you tips, and they’ll try to tell you what they expect of you. It’s ok to nod politely and pretend you’re listening to them but you are the only one who can set a standard for yourself. Examine what plays, moves, tendencies, and attitudes got you to where you are today. Why are you a successful hockey player? Identify what the best traits of your game are and then stick to them. You playing your style of hockey is always better that you trying to play someone else’s style. Just make sure that your style incorporates your whole team and that it allows for the best possible performance you can have.

4)      No fear – since we were young we’ve been told that for every action there is a consequence. We’ve been told to fear the consequences of a bad decision. In sports fear is paralyzing. Mistakes happen, bad plays happen, and bad breaks happen. You can’t play in fear of them happening. Play in the moment, leave everything out on the ice, and don’t worry about what’ll happen if you make a mistake. Chances are that if you play loose and you are having fun you’ll make less mistakes anyways. Stay focused and stay in the moment but stay loose and take time to enjoy the process. Before you know it hockey season will be over and we’ll be healing our blisters and bruises and saying how much we miss hockey season and our team mates. So while we still have them around us, let’s take advantage and enjoy our time with them.

Like I said, being nervous and emotional, and getting caught up in the moment are part of human nature. We can’t fault ourselves for doing it but we can try to prevent those emotions from taking over our game and our skill. Focus on the team and on the goal. Have no fear, just freedom.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Common Jersey - the future of women's hockey development

Canada's Jennifer Botterill and USA's Angela Ruggiero have joined forces in retirement
 All around us there are examples of unlikely partnerships - partnerships that when we hear about them or see them in action we say “hmm that’s unexpected.” For example, the former Democratic adversaries Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who now run (or at least attempt to run) a nation together. Or the team of Rohan Bopanna, a tennis player from India, and Aisam-Ul-Haq Qureshi from Pakistan who formed a successful doubles partnership and who, despite detractors at both ends, used their fame to promote teamwork rather than violence and hatred amongst their two nations. Similarly, during the peak of the Cold War, Russia and the USA decided to unite their respective space programs to build the first ever space station Mir (meaning “Peace” in Russian). There is that old saying: “common goals lead to unlikely partnerships.” In the case of women’s hockey there is perhaps no better quote to describe the process of what it will take to grow the sport internationally.

Borje Salming was part of the first wave of European hockey players to make the move over to North America to play in the NHL. The move was a historic one because it paved the way for more and more players from outside of Canada and the United States to bring their talents to the NHL and it changed the face of the league and hockey in general forever. It took time for the masses to warm to the idea of Europeans playing in the NHL (and if your name is Don Cherry you have still not warmed up to the idea). Salming made his NHL debut in the early 1970’s but it wasn’t until 1994 that Sergei Fedorov became the first European born and trained player to win the NHL Hart Trophy as league M.V.P.  Since then, 7 out of 16 Hart Trophy winners have been European. Several teams are now captained by European players and, in general, Europeans have taken great strides in terms of establishing themselves as talented and capable NHL players. The 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan were the first Games that allowed NHL players to participate and represent their respective countries. Between the 3 medal winning nations (Czech Republic, Russia, and Finland) in men’s hockey that year, there were 22 players who played for club teams in Europe and not in the NHL. Compare that to 2006 – the only other Games where neither Canada nor the USA won a medal – and there were a total of 14 non-NHL players on the 3 medal winning teams (Sweden, Finland, and Czech Republic.) But of those 15 players, 12 of them did go on to play in the NHL after the Olympics year. 

These stats are proof that the partnership between pro hockey in Europe and North America is a mutually beneficial one. And it doesn’t just exist at the NHL level. European players are now open to playing in the Canadian Hockey League prior to being drafted because it keeps them on the radar of NHL scouts and prepares them for the game at the pro level much more than if they were in Europe. The exodus of European players into the NHL proves that there is a recognition of the fact that the hockey is better here and there is more to be gained in a pro career in North America over Europe or Asia. Women’s hockey is already attempting international partnerships of their own and this is good news for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, the NCAA, and the sport in general. Ideally, all the elite women’s hockey players in the world need to be playing under the roof of a common hockey league where they can all grow, and develop, and improve together. Is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League our sport’s best chance for such a league? I would have to think so. The league is still in its infancy but they have already reached out and attracted players from Sweden and Finland to come play in the league.  And while the CWHL may find it hard to attract international players at the moment, the NCAA has already had tremendous success in doing so. This is another encouraging sign for the sport and possibly something that could be of benefit to the CWHL as well. NCAA players are able to play the game at an elite and competitive level while they pursue their educations. It gives them the opportunity to graduate and pursue their respective careers as a means of providing financially for themselves while also continuing to play high level hockey in the CWHL. Several international players are currently playing for or are alumni of NCAA programs. While this list is, by no means, comprehensive it certainly does highlight the incredible successes the players have achieved:

International players in the NCAA
The University of Minnesota-Duluth program alone has been home to 23 Olympians from 7 different countries.  All the players who appear on these lists were not just participants at the Olympics. They were leaders on their respective teams. They learned from the best in the NCAA and they took that knowledge home and helped their national teams try to raise their game. If only a few players were able to be difference makers because of the skills and experiences they gained playing in North America, imagine what a Team Russia or a Team Switzerland would look like if every player was an NCAA or CIS or CWHL product. It's a daunting task to recruit female players to come play in North America. It's one thing to lure Alex Ovechkin away from Russia with the promise of a multi-million dollar contract and endorsements, and it's quite another to lure a women's hockey player for whom there isn't a penny to be made. But the one thing I respect the most about women's hockey players is that they train as hard as and make all the sacrifices that their male counterparts do simply because they want to be the best. This is where our Canadian and American players can take advantage - appeal to players on European and Asian teams, pitch to them the idea of playing in the NCAA or CWHL, encourage them to consider it, and make them feel at home if and when they decide to make the move.

Women’s hockey is like a family. At the end of the day the players have more in common than they do apart. The players, coaches, and governing bodies of elite nations like Canada and the US have a responsibility to share their resources and knowledge with the up-and-coming nations who are doing all they can to grow their programs. In the end, what European players learn from their North American counterparts they will take back to their national programs and they will apply it to help their teams improve. And much like how it happened in the NHL, there is a good chance that for every thing we teach them there will be something else that they teach us. Angela Ruggiero and Jennifer Botterill (speaking of unlikely partnerships) have already joined forces in their retirements to visit the Youth Olympics in Innsbruck to help inspire the next generation of women’s hockey players. The knowledge and experiences that players like them will share with other nations will be invaluable and critical to those nations as they then move forward and  apply that knowledge towards their programs.

When the puck drops between two women’s hockey teams at international competitions each player should be playing for keeps; playing to bring victory to their respective nations. But when the final buzzer blows and the jerseys come off, the players, coaches, management, and fans alike need to put on a new jersey – a women’s hockey jersey. We all need to put on an identical jersey and work towards identical goals because that is the only way our sport will improve. Recruiting international players, teaching them the tools of our trade, and encouraging them to share these tools with their fellow country mates may someday lead to Canada and the US no longer being at the top of the podium in women’s hockey. But it’ll be our victory too, because for every gold medal being placed around a European or Asian player’s neck, there will be a story of what they did to win that medal and who helped them along the way. If we take cues from Ruggiero and Botterill and continue to share our knowledge, I guarantee that the gold medal winning players will have a story of a Canadian or American who helped them win that medal.

The efforts and sacrifices made by women’s hockey players, coaches, and officials all over the world are admirable. They are the reason the sport is where it is right now – growing at a rapid pace, improving every day, and inspiring young girls along the way. The results may not be evident on the world stage just yet but the sport is moving in the right direction and there is reason for optimism and continued dedication towards helping our counterparts in other countries improve their programs so that someday we can all unite under the banner of women’s hockey and do battle against each other at the highest level possible. 

I’d like to dedicate this blog entry to the memory of Canadian skier Sarah Burke who passed away earlier this month. I said earlier that women’s hockey is like a family. In reality though, women’s sports in general are a family. We encounter the same challenges, fight the same fights, and all the athletes who compete at the highest level are heroes to many young girls and women who will someday follow in their footsteps. Sarah Burke was one of those heroes and what she did for her sport and for elite-level women’s sports in general won’t soon be forgotten.