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What I miss about coaching

09/13/2019, 1:00pm CDT
By Kevin Hartzell, Let's Play Hockey Columnist

Helping players reach their potential is one of the best parts about coaching


Abby DeLaRosa was a two-time MGHCA All-State honorable mention defenseman at White Bear Lake. Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill

Just recently, my wife and I attended back-to-back wedding celebrations. On the first night, a young person asked me if I missed hockey. I told him I didn’t miss hockey but missed the many great students/players I was fortunate to be entrusted to coach. The next night, I was asked by a White Bear Lake father about my experience as a volunteer coach with the White Bear Lake High School girls for two-plus years. I shared with him that I loved the experience. This following story addresses both questions.

Abby DeLaRosa is going to be a freshman defenseman this year at Bemidji State. I expect her to do well, if not right away, certainly over the tenure of her four-year career. 

I was lucky to coach Abby her freshman, sophomore and into her junior year, before I resigned halfway through her junior season. She was quite the role model. When it came to applying skills such as setting a great gap, how to angle, how to compete for pucks, how to support the attack, how to practice, really just about everything, Abby could be counted on to show all how to apply one’s skill and execute these various skills properly. A bit on the quiet side, she let her superior play do most of her talking. She was truly a joy to coach.

Her junior year, we had three senior captains. I thought it was a mistake not to have Abby named as our captain, or at least as an assistant captain. But sometimes in the high school world, there are allowances for seniors to take their turn in the leadership progression. So Abby played on without the designation of being a captain. The season started OK, but our schedule was about to get stronger.

The highest expectations in some time were being placed on the Bears’ program. The Bears were sporting a very good team, their best in years. The team was blessed with a goaltender in Calla Frank who could win games by herself (Calla will be a freshman this year at Minnesota State) a very good all-around forward in Claudia Verkerke (a sophomore this year at Bemidji State) and a future Gopher, Syd Shearan, the team’s leading scorer. There was a decent supporting cast, and of course, Abby.

Just a handful of games into the season, we won the Tuesday game right before Thanksgiving. The team was on a good track, but in my eyes for the first time in over two years, Abby was not playing well. After this Tuesday win as I was walking out of the locker room, I did something I had not done with Abby in our two years together. I called her out. In front of her teammates. As the coaches finished their post-game remarks and we were departing the locker room, I said, “Oh, and Abby…, you are going to have to play much better.” Out the room I went, not even looking for a reaction from her. A seed had been planted and I was hopeful it would get her thinking.

The next day, Wednesday, we had the opportunity to watch video before practice, and I had a plan. Video, and then an on-ice test for Abby. I was confident she would pass the test. 

I gathered our entire D corps. I hadn’t spoken further to Abby since the previous night. Our D group of a half dozen gathered in a lobby area where all could sit together. I opened up the laptop to get started. My initial words to the group went something like this, as I turned my words directly to Abby: “As Abby knows, and many of you are about to know, if I had a vote for captain, my vote would have gone to Abby. But as you all know, I don’t get a vote. Abby, you know how highly I think of you. But this video we are about to watch isn’t the Abby I know and appreciate. This is not a good version of you, and we are all going to learn from it. More disturbing, however, is while this is not the typical you, it is the current you, it is also the way you have been practicing so far this year. I don’t know what is going on, but if you are going to be our leader, the leader I think you are, we have to fix this.” 

As I spoke, I could see the emotions in her eyes. I had never seen her lack detail in practice. It was obvious to me and I aimed to fix it. But I also aimed for the whole group to learn something here.
We watched the video. Abby at times seemed to fight back a tear. We watched her not at her best. It was emotional for her as I suspect she had never been singled out for poor play. But I also believed strongly that not only was she about to respond like the leader she is, but that this lesson, not just for her, but for the whole group, was going to be invaluable. We will all be held to account. If Abby is held to account, so too will everyone else. Now to part two of the day’s test.

I had lobbied head coach Jerry Kwapick for the on-ice portion. We would warm up, then spend the entire practice playing cross ice 3-on-3, but different than in the past. This day, we played the best three against the best three only. Then, the next group of six would take their turn, and so on. All groups would play for 25 push-ups to the losers. As we said often, “it pays to win.”

Abby and two of her top defenders, would go head-up against our top three forwards, two of which would be headed to Division I colleges. It was quite a strong group of competitors.

You can guess what happened. Abby dominated. After all of 20 minutes of 3-on-3, she and her two D teammates threw a shutout. I believe Abby’s team won their competition 4-0. It was an impressive performance by Abby and her two teammates.

The day after Thanksgiving, we traveled to Grand Rapids to play in their weekend tournament. Night one, we would play a stubborn, tough Grand Rapids’ team. About an hour before the game, I asked Abby to join me in the lobby. We sat and chatted. I asked her if she thought the Wednesday 3-on-3 practice after the video session, was a coincidence. 

“Probably not,” she answered.

“Right! And what happened?” I asked. 

“I pretty much dominated some pretty good players,” she said. 

“Yes you did!” I said. “What I also hope you saw is how your good play, your enthusiasm, elevated the play of your two teammates that day. You made them better as well. That’s what leaders can do. That’s what you can do. For that one day, Wednesday, you were our captain and leader again.”  

I told her how proud I was of her, but it was just one day.
To no surprise, she, in my opinion, was easily the best player on the ice that Friday night in Grand Rapids. At the end of the game, I went over to her and softly said, “Now you’ve been our leader and captain for two straight days, let’s make it three tomorrow.”  

The team was on its way to a double digit win streak, certainly not just because of Abby, but she played her part in it well.

That’s what a coach and teacher misses. Young talent is fun, but when it is combined with coachability, resilience and even toughness, that’s more fun! I remain one of Abby’s biggest fans. I am so excited for her to rejoin her Bears’ teammate Claudia Verkerke in Bemidji. I don’t wish for them that it go perfectly. It’s in the “bumps in the road” that we often learn the most about ourselves. Abby will hold herself to account. In the end, I am confident Bemidji State will be grateful for her presence, both on the ice and off. Memories like these, are what make me miss coaching.
 

A St. Paul native and forward for the University of Minnesota from 1978-82, Kevin Hartzell coached in the USHL from 1983-89 with the St. Paul Vulcans and from 2005-12 with the Sioux Falls Stampede. He was the head coach of Lillehammer in Norway’s GET-Ligaen from 2012-14. His columns have appeared in Let’s Play Hockey since the late 1980s. His book “Leading From the Ice” is available at amazon.com.

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Tag(s): State Of Hockey  News  Kevin Hartzell