My Great Coaches

I was blessed with some great hockey coaches growing up in Peterborough.   Good people all, some there to ensure that first and foremost we had fun and others believing those prizes were at least partly a bi-product of winning.  There were a couple of father-son pairings in there, some solo efforts and a few were parents of other guys on the team.

I mentioned the McIlwain’s (Ed and Brian, a father-son duo) in one of my others posts.  Ed had some great techniques in his tool bag to influence the game.  I remember he was a master of trying to intimidate the other team.  For example, if we were playing one of our arch-rivals, during the warm-up when both teams were running their own respective drills, he would get one of his players to skate slowly down the ice into the other team’s end right through whatever drill they were running and slowly around behind their net and back up the other side to our end.

We weren’t to chirp at the other team and we weren’t to respond to any chirping.   I had to do this more than once and I’m not sure what I was to do if one of their enforcers (well, this was house league pee-wee so I’m not sure enforcer is the right word here) was to try to block my way out or stop me on the way in!  I don’t remember how often he did this but it was not infrequent.  If you tried that today as a house-league coach, you’d get your name in the paper as a callous, anger-inciting, bonehead.   Seemed perfectly fun back then though.  He had guys in his room lining up requesting to be the guy to take that skate.

The Prindibles (Dennis and father), were also excellent.  Dennis was the more active and vocal of the two.  He taught some really simple lessons on how to forecheck, that I still think about today.  It was all in the angles for the first forward in.  Don’t let the defenceman by you.  Very simple – just skate with him, don’t get too far in front of his path, and angle him into the boards.  No big hit needed.  Just rub him out.  If you got too far in front of him, he’d cut back inside and you were beat.  If went too slow, he’d blow by you.  We practiced it quite a bit that year and had great success with it.

Mike Crowley, a very distant relative (whose 90-year-old great grandfather died when the wind blew a barn down closed and him him in the head, but that’s another blog entirely) coached me in one of my last years of playing house league.  A wonderful guy who, when you watched him during practice gave you every indication he could really play the game, was one of those low key guys.  He knew that given our age (late high school years), we were there just for an hour away from school, part time jobs etc.

Bob Hickey and Jerry Strickland, coached me in Atom.  It was the only year I played beyond pure house-league level until I got to high school, as this was called a “Tier team” which is sometimes now called a select team in the Waterloo region.  There were about 5 levels of all-star beyond this but some of those kids could also play on this team so I got to play with some really good hockey players.  I played defence all year (and hated it but yes, it was probably good for me) but the coaching was excellent and we “won it all” that year, the first time I’d been part of a championship team.

Dave Bowen was my high school coach and there was was no one better.  He was really a student of the game, absolutely passionate about it and it rubbed off on his players.   He had great success as a high school coach with the St. Peter’s Saints.    For several years, the team won the city and COSSA championships and twice made it to the semi-finals at the OFSAA level.   Bowen’s genius was building a strategy around the abilities of his players.  We had a couple of really outstanding defencemen so our game was built around them.

In the two years I played on his team, he taught me the importance of competing really, really hard and the importance of mental preparation (life lessons, not just hockey lessons).   I sat on the bench most of the first year during key games but played enough during the regular season to learn the game from him and the better players around me.   I also learned the value of being hungry.  At the start of the second season, I wasn’t interested in sitting on the bench and really worked at being a regular.  It worked, I had a great year, loads of fun and look back often at how very special it was to play on that team.

He taught me a ton about the simple aspects of the game that to this day I see many pros not able to handle.  As a winger, he taught me how to play defence from the centre ice line back.   I learned how to take the opposing forward right to our goal line if required and how to get back to cover the points in time should the puck break back that way.  He taught me how to take the opposing hit along the boards in my own end to make the play when clearing the puck from our end.   I still believe this is the toughest play a winger has to make.

I can remember on game days when our high school student body would be let out to attend our games, he constantly hounded us prior to the game to play with our heads and not let the adrenaline take over.   His practices were creative and fast and his players loved him.   In run of the mill games where our discipline got shoddy, he’d exhort us to “Concentrate!”   I can remember him telling me, after I’d missed a decent scoring chance in a nothing game where we were way ahead “You HAVE to score there!  If this was an important, low scoring game, that might be your only chance to score.  If you score, we win.  If you miss, we lose. Concentrate!”  However, his best line ever, and one that guides me to this day – “Victory is so sweet, boys!”

At the end of my second season on his team, we lost the semi-finals at OFSAA in North Bay to a team I really believe we should have beat.  We got caught looking ahead to the finals because if we’d made it, our opponent was to have been the Monarch Park Lions of Toronto, the eventual champions and a team we had beaten once and tied once earlier that season.  It was a long, cold four hour ride back to Peterborough on an unheated school bus on a Friday night, our season over.   We got into town around 3:00 AM.   It was a sad day shortly thereafter when he announced that he was stepping down as coach and switching schools.

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