By JJ Santagata
A year ago I would have been on the other side of this writing a letter about how I appreciate the game more than anything as a player. Yet after unforeseen events, my playing days ended shorter than I would have liked. It was heart-wrenching to step away from the game as a player, and I thought about how hard it would was for several months following the day it ended. I still have flashbacks to the great moments of my career and miss not just the game but the road trips, locker room and guys on the team.
I knew I could not step away from the game completely. It would be near impossible for me. I moved to Virginia…and for those that do not know the Virginia area, ice is scarce especially where I am. I moved to an area an hour outside Washington D.C. and the closest rink was 45 minutes away.
I reached out to a contact from a local youth team’s website, met with the person face to face and thought everything went well. Following the meeting, for three weeks it went radio silence. He stopped answering and I was panicking until the general manager of the rink answered me and said to come in for an interview. I came in and landed the position of head coach.
I am a 22-year-old fresh out of the game and have no idea what it took to be a head coach, and I was nervous yet confident that I could do it. The moment my journey began in coaching, I stood behind that bench as a head coach for a 14 UAA team. And I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.
Taking it back earlier, I actually gave up on the game when I was 14 after a terrible incident with a travel team. I stepped away from ice hockey for a year…but the moment I came back to it there was no looking back. Coaching this team hits close to my heart, especially with these kids being the age I stepped away from the game. That makes it extremely special. I have been a head coach for nearly five months now and it has been the best experience of my life.
I also work part-time as a graduate assistant for sports and outdoor recreation, but realistically coaching is my full-time position. There are coaches out there that come to the rink with no plan, no enthusiasm, no care or energy for their players. They come, throw together a few drills, have a few laughs in the coaches locker room and go home.
Well for me, I have seen that too many times and never ever want to be a negative part of these kids’ lives. I knew the moment I was to be a head coach that I had an opportunity (1) To be a positive part of these kids’ lives, (2) To help them grow as players, expanding their knowledge and love for the game, (3) To support and guide them in any way possible, and (4) To come to the rink energetic, give it my all and make the most of my opportunity. For new coaches, do not be a disservice to your players. Give them everything, they deserve someone who cares and who wants to be there.
I do not get the same feeling out of coaching as I did playing but it is a close second. The bumps in the road, the highs, the lows, the laughs and all in between has made me love coaching. But the biggest reason coaching has been my #1 priority in life and a path I plan to continue on until time calls for it to end is because hockey has done so much for me personally and I want to give back as much as I can. Therefore deciding to coach was easy for me. I had the chance to give back and play an integral part in these hockey players’ lives. I wanted to help players grow their love for the game so they can look back in life and say “I wanted to play hockey at 16, 18, and in college because my 14U coach was so awesome.”
To all organizations out there second guessing that young coach with a small resume… Give them a chance. They will struggle, they will be a little inexperienced, they will have to learn on the fly, but they will make the most of their opportunity and give you and the team their all.
Coaches please realize you have a huge role in your players’ lives. You can make or break their playing career. You can either make a player quit, keep going, push harder and make them love or hate the game. You have a responsibility as a coach. Show up, show you care, be energetic and continue to learn every day. Put your ego aside, put the players before yourself and enjoy your time with the group you have.