Sunday, November 24, 2013

Minor Hockey - Make the rink your classroom

People always say that it's not the homework or the exams you'll remember when you're no longer in school. It's the class field trips, the school plays, and all the special events that you'll look back on with fond memories of what it was like to be a kid. The same is true for minor hockey players. No one remembers every game they ever played or every opponent they ever faced. What everyone does remember from their minor hockey days though, are the weekend tournaments, the team parties, and all the other festivities associated with being a minor hockey league player.

Minor hockey is a time like no other in the life of a hockey player and it is very equatable to academic schooling. Early on in Novice, Atom, and PeeWee the players aren't really concerned with their futures as pertaining to hockey. Just like Grades 1-7, it's about learning the basics, making friends, and having fun. But then suddenly a student hits Grade 8 and they have to contemplate their futures in academics just a little bit because they want to make sure they're taking the right courses and doing the right things to prepare for potential entry into University faculties. Let's equate that phase of school to the Bantam, Midget, and Juvenile phases of hockey. It's still about having fun but suddenly there's an end in sight. Players are asking themselves: "What happens when I graduate from minor hockey? Do I want to continue to pursue hockey seriously? Because if I do, I have to start taking my games more seriously."

There are great opportunities available to pursue hockey after minor hockey. Scholarships to great Universities in Canada and the US are available to those who strive for them. From there, there are further opportunities to continue to play competitively thanks to the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which offers players a league to play in where the caliber is high and ties to the National Teams are rich. The opportunities are there, but the players have to be willing to go get them. Just like in school, if the grades aren't there, the opportunities won't be either.

Having been around the Minor Hockey scene as an adult for a few years now, I can honestly say that the opportunities come easier to some players than they do to others. Some players are naturals. Their talent is obvious, their skills are effortless, and their physique is ideal. Maybe their parents were both athletes in their day so they've inherited the sports gene. Others are not so fortunate. They might be a first generation athlete in their respective families and the only physical attributes they may have inherited are short legs and a sweet tooth (thanks Mom and Dad!). It is a lot to ask of teenagers to contemplate their professional futures. While their friends are out having a good time and enjoying their freedom, hockey players are at the rink every day of the week trying to hone their trade. Not only that, they are also having to be cognizant of what they're putting in their bodies. Cookies or fruit? Pop or water? Drugs drugs?

From what I have witnessed, the players who are meant to have success make these decisions effortlessly and unbegrudgingly. Even if they are not the most skilled, they do have the most maturity. While the rest of their team mates are throwing back sodas before a big game, they are walking around with a homemade protein shake. While their teammates are slacking off and playing Candy Crush (addicting game, I know!) before a big game, they are in a quiet corner thinking about what they need to do to help win this big game. They are working on their physique away from the rink. Hockey players are famous for having big strong legs. Hands up - whose pants no longer fit around the thighs now that we're into the thick of hockey season? But these Minor Hockey players are focused on their upper bodies too. They recognize that if they want to shoot with velocity they need strong arms. They recognize that if they want to be hard to beat they have to protect the puck so they need a strong core. They are already incorporating extra training because they know that the on-ice portion won't be enough.

I am not trying to depress players by making hockey sound like school. It's not, trust me! It's way more fun! But I guess what I'm saying is this: if you have the talent and if you have the means, try to recognize this so that you don't waste the opportunity. It may feel like a sacrifice right now but it'll lead to years and maybe even decades of a great life in hockey. Enjoy the games, the tournaments, the parties, and even the training. You will never forget those experiences. If you're a young person who has the opportunity to pursue hockey further, give it a shot. What's better than having an ice rink as your classroom right!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Swan Song for the Dynasty? Appreciating Team Canada and all they have accomplished.

Newsflash everyone: We are living through a hockey dynasty right now. When we think of hockey dynasties we think of the Detroit Red Wings of the 1950s, the Montreal Canadiens of the 1960s, or the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. Those teams accomplished it all during their respective eras of supremacy. Their players dominated the competition, the teams won multiple Stanley Cups, and their successes captivated a new generation of hockey fans. Each of those dynasties is defined by players whose accomplishments during those periods have become the stuff of legend and have led to the players being worshiped and immortalized. The NHL has not seen a true dynasty come along since the 1980s, but that does not mean that hockey hasn't seen a dynasty since that time.

Three Olympic gold medals, ten World Championship gold medals, the emergence of several players into becoming household names and Hockey Hall of Fame candidates, and their successes leading to the sport more than doubling its enrollment numbers since its inception into the Olympics. That is the résumé of accomplishments for Canada's National Women's Hockey Team from the year 1990 till present day. Team Canada women's hockey has become an international model of consistency, commitment, and professionalism. The Wings, Habs, and Oilers had the likes of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Jean Beliveau, Rocket Richard, Wayne Gretzky, and Mark Messier as the backbones of their respective teams. Team Canada boast equally illustrious names. Angela James, Geraldine Heaney, Manon Rhéaume, Danielle Goyette, Cassie Campbell, Jennifer Botterill, Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, Kim St-Pierre, and Caroline Ouellette are just some of the legends this era has produced. These women, along with the rest of their team mates, are directly responsible for the meteoric rise of women's hockey in Canada. They have also taken a sport that is becoming synonymous with multimillion dollar salaries and lucrative endorsement deals, and taken it back to a place of honest intentions and to a place where athletes are fueled by passion rather than by money or fame. To the women of Team Canada, the word "Role Model" is not just about signing autographs and posing for pictures. For them it entails running hockey camps, reaching out to international hockey federations, and growing the game both here at home and globally as well. 

Critics who are reluctant to see the rise of women playing hockey will cite the lack of parity in competition as a reason to banish the sport from the Olympics and to discredit the athletes from their efforts. Does the rest of the field need to catch up to Canada and the USA? Absolutely. Does the lack of parity diminish the top players' accomplishments and skill levels? Absolutely not. By the time all is said and done, many of Team Canada's players will have given more than half their lives to playing for the National Team. Hayley Wickenheiser and Jayna Hefford played in women's hockey's inaugural Olympics in 1998 and both remain with the team today. Caroline Ouellette, and Charline Labonté joined Wickenheiser and Hefford to help bring home our first gold medal in 2002, and both remain important members of the current team. The game has already lost some great names, with several elite players such as Botterill, St-Pierre, and Becky Kellar calling it quits after the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, and several others retiring even prior to that. The Sochi Olympics in 2014 might just be the swan song for many of the remaining members of Canada's original finest players. Considering that by the next Winter Games in 2018, Wickenheiser will be 39 years old and Hefford will be 40, this could possibly be it for them. Now this is going strictly by age. Physically, Wickenheiser, Hefford, and Ouellette (who happen to play on a line together) still look like they could go full throttle for years. They put me and my weak strides to shame that's for sure! But their retirements are still a possibility, and for fans of the game, just the thought of these legends hanging up their skates should evoke some emotion. We will look back on this era of Canadian women's hockey and call it the Golden Years. There will come a time where other nations will challenge us and overthrow us at the top of the ladder. When that day comes, we will look back at this era in Canadian hockey history and we will finally realize, "wow, those girls were good. What a great time that was to be a fan of the sport." By then the legends will be long into their retirements.

How many of us wish we could have seen Richard or Beliveau play live or even on TV? Well folks, the Richards and the Beliveaus of women's hockey are still here. They're on the ice at arenas near us and they're on TV for all of us to cheer on. Don't wait till it's too late. Tune in and support them. Google their bios, learn more about their journeys, and follow them on Twitter and get to know who they really are. If you have young sons, and especially if you have young daughters, introduce them to these players and teach them that this is what a role model should be. These are the players who got it all started. They will go down in history as the people who put women's hockey on the map. And their reign just happens to coincide with all of us being at an age where we can understand and appreciate all that they have done. If this is indeed the swan song for the first generation of women's hockey royalty, we can't let them stroll quietly into the sunset. We must take advantage of this privilege we have been given and enjoy every last minute of their brilliance on the ice. And when they give the word that it's all over, we must stand and applaud, for if it is one thing we know it is that dynasties are rare and can not be replicated, but that when a dynasty comes along, it changes the landscape of the sport forever. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Fight - what fuels you to train harder?

Jayna Hefford - Team Canada

Twitter. A place to connect with those we know, those we wish we knew, and those we don’t know but are getting to know better through their tweets. I follow a lot of pro-level athletes on Twitter, and following them is basically an invite to go along and spend a day with them in cyberspace. If there was an “athletes on Twitter drinking game” (great idea, I know!) we would definitely be reaching various levels of inebriation based solely on one statement: “drink when an athlete tweets that they’re heading to the gym.” After big wins, tough losses, painful injuries, and even during holidays, it seems like the gym where athletes spend a majority of their lives. Even in leagues like the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, NCAA, and CIS, where most of the players have day jobs or college classes or families to attend to, they still seem to be able to squeeze in the time for a workout session no matter what. The commitment of these players into improving their skills and conditioning is remarkable. As a recreational hockey player, I am not required by my team or league to meet specific requirements or pass any tests in the gym (for which I am grateful, because I’d fail miserably), but I still think about finding that motivation from within and how it would factor in to an athlete’s overall performance. Why is it that some athletes are able to play at a high level for decades, while others fizzle out in just a few years? Why is it that some athletes are able to enjoy season upon season of injury-free participation in sports, while others can’t seem to go more than a month or two without ending up on the shelf? And as athletes, when are we most motivated to train harder: after a big win or after a tough loss?

In January of 2012, after losing a tennis match that lasted 5 hours and 53 minutes, Rafael Nadal was asked how he felt about the match. “It’s nice (to) be there fighting, trying to go to the limit, bring your body to the limit of its chances,” he said. “It’s something I really enjoyed, and I (have) always said it’s good (to) suffer. So when you are fit, when you are with passion for the game, when you are ready to compete, you are able to suffer and enjoy suffering.” And, as legend would have it, Rafa and his opponent Novak Djokovic were both back in the gym training within a week of their marathon match.

There are constantly features on NHL players and their training regiments. A lot of them are interviewed while they ride the stationary bike or jog on the treadmill. The general public is well aware of the players’ commitments to physical fitness when they’re not on the ice. Such is not the case in women’s hockey. It is always surprising to talk to people who claim to be knowledgeable sports fans but who are still under the impression that female hockey players are merely beer leaguers with a bit more publicity. They claim to be fans of the sport yet they are unaware of how much the women commit to strength training and cardio. They think the women just show up to games and hit the ice. If only it were that easy eh! They never stop to ask themselves: “how was it that at age 35, Becky Kellar was able to compete at the Vancouver Olympics against opponents who were 12 or 15 years younger than her? How was it that Kim St-Pierre was able to be back playing for the Montreal Stars just 8 months after having a baby? And how is it that, at the age of 35 and with over 200 games played for Team Canada, Jayna Hefford is still able to compete for a spot on the National Team for the 2014 Olympics?”

For those of you who follow these players closely, you know the answer. They train. They train hard. And they get fitness tested all year round (including on the day after Christmas apparently!). What I would like to know is, what is their motivation when they train? Are they training so that they can play their best against a longtime rival? Are they training to avenge a tough loss against a longtime rival? Are they training to ensure longevity in their career so they can play the sport they love for as long as possible?

And what about the rest of us – what motivates us to get up off the couch and head to the gym? What are we picturing in our minds when we are trying to push through that final leg of the cycle on the elliptical? What pushes us to add those extra 10 pounds to the free weights? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. For me, it is not the promise of winning or the fear of losing that motivates me. It is the knowledge that the only way to sleep soundly at night is to know that you did everything you could to be the consummate player and professional for your team. It is the feeling of a certain pride and joy that is associated with knowing you came through for them because you were ready for the challenge. And it is believing that nothing is ever “meant to be” unless we make it so. As Jayna Hefford and Jarome Iginla once said in a commercial for Nike: “Let the world keep believing we owe everything to fate. We’ll keep training till we control theirs.”