Sunday, April 3, 2011

My guide to captaining a lower division beer league hockey team

I'm on the verge of celebrating my one-year anniversary of being captain of a lower division ice hockey team in Pasadena.

That encompasses three 12-week seasons at our local rink here in Pasadena, CA, and it's utterly amazing to me that I've survived this long. In the past year, I've gone from having no clue about what I'm doing to having mostly no clue about what I'm doing.

Me being me -- that is, having quite low expectations -- I am pleased with this progress.

Especially since personally I am coming off the single worst season ever played by a recreational league hockey player in the history of man/woman-kind. Here's how one popular blog posting about beer league personalities characterized the role I play on a team:

The Organizer – This guy is absolutely brutal but since nobody else could be bothered to do all the paperwork and collect the money he gets to play. Is frustrating to play with because they can barely skate let alone take a pass but nobody gets mad at him cuz he’s a really nice guy. Is often heard in the dressing room saying ‘Sorry guys, that one was my fault’ and if he’s lucky somebody will chip in something like ‘No worries Donny, it’s a team effort.’ What everybody is really thinking is ‘Hey Donny, my grandmother is a better player than you and yes you are right, that was your fault.’ If you are lucky the Organizer is usually smart enough to take himself off the ice in critical situations.  
Yep, that's me! Nonetheless, I have learned a few things, so here are a few tips to those putting together a beginner's or lower division team:

•Build around defense. A good defense coupled with a decent goalie will more often than not give you a chance to win games or at least keep games close. Sure, you can put all your talent on offense -- but what happens when they come up against a good D and goalie and get shut down? You're going to get spanked harder than Tiger Woods in a Texas whorehouse. Defense isn't sexy. Most guys would rather play on O and score, allowing them to pleasure themselves while admiring their statistics online. My tip: find guys who see value in D and want to play it and make them the foundation of your team.

•Get two or three guys who have played rec league hockey before. Just because you can get everyone to show up for a game doesn't mean you know jack shit about actual hockey strategy. I'd go after guys who are maybe a little older who don't want to play in the more advanced divisions and have a little hockey wisdom -- the ability to put a 12 to 0 loss to an all-girls team in correct perspective. In other words, get a couple of Yodas that have been skating for 700 years or so.

•If your goalie is a beginner or low intermediate, he or she is learning the game, too. Except there's one difference: their mistakes are hugely magnified because of the position they play. So you and everyone else on the team better accept the fact that some soft goals are going to be surrendered and shut the fuck up about it. Also: don't tamper with your goalie's pre-game ritual, whether it's speaking in tongues or retiring with a Mad magazine to the men's room to, ahem, 'drop the boys off at the pool.'

•Clearly define your team's mission. If it's to win the league title at all costs, then let your players know before signing up -- because it's going to impact the decisions you make and their playing time. In the case of my team, our mission (at least in my mind) is threefold: have fun, learn the game of hockey and be competitive. Of the above, I think the quality that's most important is having players who want to learn hockey and are willing to honestly assess their own play.

•Even with such a mission, understand different players on your team will likely have different priorities. My team is a good bunch of guys (and one girl) and we're mostly on the same page. As would be expected, some take it more seriously than others and some definitely want to learn more than others. My advice is try to keep everyone on the roster inside the bell curve and lose the outliers: the dudes who think they're playing for the Stanley Cup and the ones who treat playing beer league as just a different way to get a workout. Beer league hockey is fun, but it's not a spin class.

•Have the "playing time" discussion. Everyone on my team is paying to play and therefore expects to play. So I try to let everyone know before the season begins on how big the team will be and how that will impact their minutes. The guys who say they want more minutes are told that playing D is the best way to get them. I also try to make it clear that while I try to get everyone significant playing time, I reserve the right on occasion (i.e. the playoffs) to put our better players on the ice in critical situations. It's not my favorite thing to do. But I think it's important to try to win and winning helps make any sport more fun.

•Game time is not practice -- it's the time to try to execute what you've practiced. Try to find players who in addition to games will attend clinics, stick times and pick-up sessions or go for a public skate. It's not a hard and fast rule on my team -- there's no rule everyone has to practice. But I know who's practicing and who isn't and try to nudge the non-practicers to get some more ice team.

•The hardest part about running a team of players -- particularly those lacking in hockey experience -- is dealing with the lack of team practice time. We have a few charts showing basic positioning for O and D that I email around every so often. Whether it's working is debatable. As a player (right wing), I screw up my own positioning more than I like. Still, be a pest and don't be shy about the emails to your team.

I could write more, but I think that covers the basics. Email or leave a comment if you have questions or feel the need to publicly express your opinion that everything above is deeply flawed thinking.

One last thing: you're probably wondering how good or bad my team is. Fair enough.

In our first season -- in which nine of the guys had never before played organized hockey -- we went 1-10-1.

In our second season, we went 7-4-1 and played for the league title but lost.

In our third season, which ends later today, we're 5-5-1 with nine of our original players still on the squad. Most of my players are about 40 and over in a 17-and-over league.


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