It's a cliché, but some of the most memorable moments in sport often hinge on the coach’s pregame pep talk. The most influential one I have ever heard was at my son's first Timbits hockey final.
After his first season of early-morning practices and extra time spent on the backyard rink, my son still skated in a one-foot scooter style. He could make a wicked right turn, but that was about it. The rest of the team pretty much matched his skill level, except for the one kid who could actually skate and stickhandle at the same time.
There we were in a room full of six-year-old boys and their excited fathers. Our team was the “feared” Bruins. The kids had actually wanted to be called the Bumblebees because the uniform was black and yellow, but the coach vetoed that for a more storied hockey name. The dads were relieved. It didn't matter that none of the kids knew that a Bruin was from Boston or that it was even a mammal for that matter. It was clearly the proper name for a black-and-yellow team.
The excitement among the adults in my son’s dressing room was palpable. It was the first game our sons would play on the full ice and the score was actually going to be kept on the scoreboard. The parents would not have to use their fingers this time. It would be an official win.
Moreover, for many of the dads it was their first direct experience with “playoff hockey” in a very long time, if ever. We were all reliving our own moments on the ice.
I played hockey as a kid for three years and scored one goal. I remember it as clear as a bell. It was the first game of my third season. There was a mad scramble in front of the net, as happens in most games involving little kids still struggling with the concept of blade on ice.
I was in my usual position outside the crowd. I am not a particularly assertive person and driving hard to the net was not my style. Rather, I stood by the hash marks expecting a whistle and therefore being better prepared to return to the bench.
At any rate, there were nine players and a goalie falling over each other looking for the puck when suddenly it squirted out and stopped in front of me. No one knew it was there so I had plenty of time to plant my skates firmly and line up the puck on the back of my stick.
I could not do a wrist shot and, surprisingly, I had enough wherewithal to know I had to get the puck up in the air and over the scrum. Clearly I had a great deal of time to think this through. I positioned myself, visualized the shot and mentally crossed my fingers, then managed to shovel the puck just high enough that it toppled into the net. I was mobbed by my teammates. I scored! I have no idea whether we won or lost but I had scored.
After the game my brother, who was eight years older and so much cooler, congratulated me with genuine enthusiasm. He was impressed with my new season pace of a goal a game and proclaimed, “You are going to have a hot year.”
I remember basking in his excitement and forecast. Alas, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment that I will always cherish. I retired from hockey with a career stat of one point.
My son’s coach turned to the chalkboard – one more hockey accessory yet to be put to use this first season – and wrote one word on it: FUN. As he wrote, the room fell silent. He paused for a moment with his back to the players, then emphatically underlined the word and turned to his team.
“Okay Bruins. Listen up! I want you to remember one word today: fun.” He turned and underlined the word one more time, then threw down the piece of chalk to punctuate the drama. The room was spellbound. I smiled. This was perfect, I thought.
The coach looked around the room at each player, then suddenly became animated. He pointed to the word and repeated it. “Fun. Do you know what that stands for?” He paused for a moment.
“F. F stands for fast skating. I want everyone skating as fast as they can at all times. U. U stands for up the ice. Drive the other team's net. This is the last game of the season and I do not want to see anyone holding back. Finally N,” he paused to make sure he had everyone’s attention. “N stands for no-nonsense. We are here to play hockey, not fool around. We are here to play hard. We are here to win. Now get out there and show them what the Bruins are made of. On three give me a 'Bruins!' One, two, three, Bruins!”
All the dads eagerly joined in the final cheer, then congratulated the coach on his speech. Some even asked for a paper copy to mark the moment. With a pep talk like that, I am sure we won. To be honest, though, I can't really remember.
After the game, my son was overwhelmed with excitement.
“Did you see that? There was a real ref wearing a black-and-white striped shirt on the ice!”
That became the highlight of the game for both of us.
It was then that I stopped keeping score and my son’s hockey games became more about the Bumblebees and less about the Bruins.
John White lives in Burlington, Ont.