Note: This is a version of a column that I had published in the April 12, 2011 edition of the Kings County Record.
It is that great time of year when the Leaf fans are spending their evenings raking the yard and prepping their gardens while the Canadiens fans are glued to their televisions hollering loudly as Carey Price makes a remarkable save on a blast from Zdeno Chara. My hockey season, much like the Leaf's is over. I wrote last fall that I was coaching an Initiation hockey program. That team just finished up their season. There is no Stanley Cup, no big contracts, or promotion deals but to me it was hockey at its best.
To watch kids step on the ice for the first time is very entertaining. Some were fearful, some clumsy, and some were just naturals. No matter how good they were, when they took that first full stride, their face would light up with such pride and joy I couldn't help but feel their excitement. They overcame the first challenge with ease. From that first stride the kids made huge improvements throughout the season. Unlike the pros, the kids don't suffer slumps or ups and downs during the season. Every game they show improvement and win the personal battles while honing their game skills.
Another aspect I noticed was how many of them responded to competition. I have always been a believer in healthy competition and its ability to bring out the best in people. Watching how much more effort some kids put out to win a relay race and to watch them improve over the span of that short race has further affirmed that belief. A child who can't focus their attention long enough to listen to an explanation on how to complete a drill, suddenly watches and cheers on his teammates as they run through a grueling relay. If they lose they are more than eager to try it again in hopes that they can improve and win. This illustrates how the competitive drive pushes people to improve.
Sport at this level is much more pure than at the pro level in my mind. The kids at this level usually aren't even sure what the score is so they are simply playing to play. The score only matters at the end of game and then, only if you can get their attention long enough to let them know that it was "a tie game." Once off the ice the kids immediately start to focus on what kind of donut they want at Tim Horton's after the game. They talk loudly about who has the biggest "Bakugan" collection or asking their parents if their newly formed friend can come over and hang out. They aren't dwelling on the missed shot or the botched call by the referee. It was always up beat in the room after the ice time which made it very enjoyable.
It is a great reward to watch a young kid improve throughout the season. As a reward for the kids this year we took them to a Saint John Seadogs game. I was amazed to see in my own son how much his understanding of the game has advanced. This was something I did not focus on as a coach so he simply picked up this aspect of the game himself. It is likely that all the kids were growing in this manner and so next year I better adapt my coaching approach.