By: Connor Cadaret
I write this today realizing and knowing that this pandemic is much, much bigger than me and much bigger than sports. But I thought I could share some feelings now that I am stepping away from the hockey team I have been a part of for the past 4 years of my life. If anything it will help provide me with some closure and I hope it can help others who are in a similar situation and dealing with similar emotions. For others, I hope it provides a brief distraction from what is going on in our world and some hope for the future.
I was very lucky to have played hockey competitively all my life, mainly with the same group of players. We had formed a special bond after winning multiple championships together and had created lifelong friendships and memories. We would do anything for each other.
I was generally never really nervous before games that I was playing in. There was always excitement and there was always focus. Excitement because the time had finally come to compete again with my team. The focus being on what I could do to help the team win.
After playing junior hockey in my first year at university, I stepped away from the game. I would like to say it was to focus more on my school but that really wasn’t the truth. I just wasn’t as passionate about the game as I was when I played growing up. It used to be all I thought about. Times had changed.
Then I got through university but there was always something missing in my life. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it…
I still remember walking into the rink for the first practice with my new team in September 2016. I was 23. I was entering the hockey world again, this time on the coaching side. I was excited to be re-joining Stouffville Minor Hockey. It had given me so much and I wanted to give back. I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to embark on the ride of a lifetime.
I was so nervous that September evening. Nervous to join a new group. A new team. Would they accept me? Do I remember how to skate? Nervous to enter the coaching world. Do I actually know what I’m talking about? What does F1 mean again? I was mainly nervous for the unknown. A feeling that many of us are feeling right now. To that point in my life, that was definitely the most nerves I had felt walking into a rink.
Eventually, I worked my way into the team. I worked on relationships and developing some trust as this unknown new coach. Preparing to work with 12 year olds, I was expecting some difficulties getting through to them and holding their attention. But this group did not fall into that category. They wanted to get better, which was good, because there was a lot of work to do.
Our first year together was a challenge, but after working on some fundamentals they had definitely become more of a team and in the second half of the season they were playing very well. We won a tournament in December. The first tournament win in a long time for many of them. I was starting to develop my voice as a coach and a mentor and starting to realize what my main focuses were going to be. The main habits I wanted to develop in these young men and the culture I wanted to create. All along the way, they continuously showed their commitment to get better on the ice and their commitment to develop important relationships in the room and within the team. Their commitment to help create the culture needed to be successful.
In my second season with the team I was still just an assistant coach, but I was beginning to feel like a bigger part of this team. It takes a long time to develop the necessary trust to guide a successful team. You can have the greatest scheme ever created, but if your team is just going to tune you out and not listen, it’s useless. I worked really hard on being attentive and empathetic towards each player. Some came and went. Whether that was moving towns or graduating to new levels. But if you came into contact with me the lessons remained the same: Control what you can control. Respect and don’t cheat the game. Trust the process. Always, always be there for your teammates. Put the team’s success over your own individual success.
These were lessons that I was taught in my playing career, and lessons that I try to relate to as many aspects in my life as I can. That season, my second with the team, we finished 2nd in the regular season and made the OMHA Playoffs for the first time in a long time. We were eliminated in the first round, but again it was a step in the right direction and more importantly the relationships and friendships I saw developing whenever we were at the rink were very encouraging. It started reminding me of the championship teams I played on and I knew what it was going to take to get this team to reach its full potential.
In my third season with this group, I became the head coach. I was very proud to reach this level of my coaching career and ready to really be able to put my stamp on this team. I got to work right away. I added two new assistant coaches that I knew would bring exactly what the team needed. One was passionate and old-school. One was caring and tactical. They were new to coaching as well, but I knew I could help guide them in the right direction and make it worth their while.
They soon saw the special nature of this group, as we got to work right away after the team was selected and the group was already focused on the season. I put a lot of time and effort into trying to continue to develop the culture I was trying to culminate within the team since I had been with it. I focused on my verbiage whenever I spoke to the group. I focused on my messaging in all team materials I created. I had each player sign a contract with some guidelines and rules that we all agreed were foundations on how this team culture should be built. Remembering to stay consistent with my message and put the most weight on trust and relationships.
I chose to coach with trust rather than fear. I am not a yeller, and would not change my ways to conform to the way most coaches are. I went into the challenge of being a head coach being told that you could not be friends with your players. You really need to have that dichotomy between the coach and player. I didn’t believe in that. That would be against my overall message of this being a family and no one member being more important than the other. I set my ego aside at the door and let the team have as much input as possible into our strategy and direction.
Yes, I was still the leader and was going to make the final call. But successful teams are player-driven. The players need to feel a part of it and feel like they are driving the bus. They are the ones that put in the work and they are the ones going to battle with each other each and every night.
We saw a ton of success throughout the year. We won the North American AA cup Tournament in December. We finished 1st in the regular season. We won a hard fought first round series vs. the Aurora Tigers. Unfortunately, we ran out of gas in the second round and were eliminated by a very good and eventual OMHA Finalist, Richmond Hill Stars team. But above all of the on ice successes, the team grew together through all of it.
The relationships grew even stronger. So many times throughout the season I was incredibly proud to be a part of the team. I could see each player’s confidence grow and certain players become more outspoken in leading the team in the right direction and along the path I had hoped. The culture was incredible. The team was on the right track and it was being led from within the locker room. I still had some work to do but I couldn’t wait to be along for the ride and see where they took themselves next season.
This past season was a dream that I wish I never woke up from. There was never a moment when I was away from the rink that I was not looking forward to the next time I got to be with the team. Never a moment where I wasn’t thinking how I could make this team the best it could be and do my job to prepare them to the best of my ability. I had poured my heart and soul into this team and it was the best feeling in the world to be able to take a step back and see the results of this effort. The messages were continuously apparent. The culture had been formed. Each player went into each game focusing on what they could control. Being hyper-focused on the specific things that they do well and help contribute to the team’s success.
Without getting into specifics, players played responsible hockey. Covering for teammates who were out of position. Holding each other accountable when selfish plays were made. When we hit adversity, they put even more effort into the team and trusted that, along with the coaches, we would be able to work our way out of it if we continued to play the game the right way. More times than I can count, players put the team above themselves.
They knew their roles. They suggested different strategies that would not directly benefit them, but would put the team in a better position to win. They did not complain when things weren’t going their way and when they may be seeing less playing time than others. They knew there was a reason, and if they were confused they asked why. They accepted what they needed to do better and worked as hard as they possibly could to execute their role to the best of their abilities. This team that I had been so nervous to join back on that September evening in 2016, had become my second family. They had accepted me with open arms and had allowed me to provide them with life lessons along the way. They trusted me and my messages towards the game. They were brothers in arms. We were all in this together and we would do anything for each other.
To say I was proud of what we accomplished this post-season would be an understatement. This family came together more than ever. Never quitting. Playing for each other. Watching them battle night in and night out, and completely and unequivocally buying into the way I wanted them to play, was surreal to see. Watching them go on this magical post-season run, which led us to the OMHA Finals, gave me so much satisfaction as a coach.
We finished 1st in the regular season, finishing ahead of 2nd place by 11 points. We won our first round series against TNT. We won our second round series against Newmarket. We won an incredibly tough third round series against a hard-working Markham team that took us to the brink. We won our OMHA semi-final round against Kingston. We were heading into the OMHA Finals on a roll and ready to take on the # 1 team in the province, the Oakville Rangers, when the season was suddenly over due to COVID-19. No more practices to prepare for the Finals. No more meetings. No more motivational speeches. No more time together with our family.
Being away from my team and family since the season has been cancelled has been very tough. Like I said at the beginning, I realize that this is such a small, small part of this global pandemic, but it has made me realize some important things. I realized that the ultimate goal, and something that many people strive for, is being part of something bigger than yourself. Knowing that you have an entire team of people, an entire second family that will do anything for you and will always be there for you no matter what.
This is what I was missing when I stepped away from the game for the first time. I was missing that camaraderie and that family. Putting my effort into a common goal, with people who want success just as bad as you do. You can only get to the top if you do it together. There are no shortcuts to success and this team, this family, was so close to the peak.
Winning a championship bonds you forever. It changes you as a person. It fills you with confidence that you can take into the rest of your life. The lesson that if you put all that you possibly can into something, and work with people together, through thick and thin, you will be rewarded. It’s the best feeling in the world.
I was lucky enough to win 2 OMHA Titles when I played hockey in Stouffville growing up, and as I told my team many times throughout the years, I am still very close with and keep in touch with everyone on those teams. I was so genuinely happy that my team I had grown with over the past 4 years was ready to feel those championship feelings. They were going to know what I had been talking about over and over. The feeling of achieving the highest success with your brothers by your side. We had a very tough battle ahead, but this team had “it”. They were going to pull through no matter what it took. I just knew it.
There were definitely tears when I heard the news that the OMHA Finals were cancelled and that my players, my family, would not be able to experience that championship feeling and see their dreams turn into reality. My dream turned into a nightmare. But immediately after the season was cancelled, my tears of sadness turned to tears of joy as I saw the culture that I had wanted to build when I stepped into this role as coach come to fruition right before my eyes.
That night, I saw players reaching out to one another over social media. I heard our players were coming together, and being there for each other to talk their way through this tough news. I had players reach out to me to see how I was handling this news. Players were saying that this was out of our control. All we can do is focus on what we can do to help and trust that things will get better if we do. It made me feel as though I had done my job. I had done my small part to help develop these young men into seeing what is really important. They didn’t need to win a championship to become connected for the rest of their lives. They already were.
As disappointed as I was to not be able to finish the season and finish my coaching career with this team in the way I always dreamed of by going out on top, I was lucky to have met all these kids and watch them grow into young men.
To every player that I have coached over my past 4 years in Stouffville, I thank you for listening to what I had to say (or at least pretending to). I thank you for reminding me what it means to be dedicated and passionate about something bigger than yourself. And most importantly, I thank you for helping me develop my passion for the game of hockey again and providing me with a second family that I loved deeply and will never forget. Championship or not, we will remain bonded forever and I look forward to seeing everyone sometime soon.