In previous blogs and on my podcast, I’ve often referenced a magical season while playing for the Chicago Young Americans in the early 2000’s. It was a year we only lost four games, won the National Championship, and had almost our entire team move on to play at high levels of hockey.
9 of us played Division One (including 3 that went to the NTDP), 2 played in the OHL, and 2 played Division III hockey. That’s 13 out of 16 players…not too shabby.
This month marked the 20 year anniversary of our winning the National Championship, a championship game we won by a score of 9-1. Last week we held a Zoom reunion to celebrate our incredible season and all 16 players…and both coaches…showed up.
That should tell you something right there.
We had a blast reconnecting, reminiscing about the year, and ribbing each other just like we did in the locker room 20 years ago. And although we now have 22 kids between the 16 of us…it was hilarious that nobody had really changed since we were 15 years old. It was as fun a couple hours as I’ve had in a long time.
And while we caught up and laughed for the better part of the night, there was one theme that came up that really meant a lot to us. And that was this:
While we were definitely a talented group, none of us thought we would’ve had the careers that we did without that year.
Without that group of players, our crazy Russian coach that challenged us at every angle, and a parent group that bought into a different way of doing things in youth hockey…we all agreed that things may have turned out differently for each of us.
We had a team camaraderie and chemistry that was so special. We had a coach that did things so outside-the-box for typical youth hockey that made us so much better. And we had a parent group that had a similar type of camaraderie as we did. Everything clicked and the results (from a win-loss and player advancement standpoint) are the proof in the pudding.
The day after our reunion we all got back on an email chain to say how much fun we had and how much we enjoyed reminiscing on that magical year. One of the players wrote a longer email about how the year shaped him and I wanted to share it with you here because I think it has some powerful points for any player, coach, or parent involved in youth hockey today.
Here you go:
“Great seeing you all and catching up last night. Crazy that it’s been 20 years, yet some memories are still very fresh in our minds. Awesome to see everyone doing well and I really hope we can make it work and get everyone back together. I think we should make this a priority at some time.
I enjoyed hearing what that year meant to the guys who had a chance to touch on it. I think we’d all agree that year had a large impact on everyone involved. Since we did not make it around the group, I figured I’d share what came to my mind when Bobby asked that question.
First, that year taught me to expect to win. “Winners expect to win in advance. Life is a self fulfilling prophecy.” I believe that quote came from somewhere during that year. I’ve always remembered it and try to live by it every day. We never thought we were going to lose. Stan (our coach) kept so many other things on our mind that we never thought about it. We competed and we won. When we did lose, we didn’t point fingers. We got back to work and made sure we didn’t have that empty feeling again. Our mindset and mentality wouldn’t allow us to think about losing and I learned if you were, then you had already lost.”
I wanted to share a story about this.
Like I said earlier, we only lost 4 games all year. But in our Regional Championship game…a game we had to win to get to Nationals…we were down 5-2 going into the 3rd period. If we lost that game our season would have been over.
We talked about this game at length on our Zoom call. We were playing against Ryan Suter and the Madison Capitols, a team we’d beaten all year but they were really outplaying us in that particular game. But in the locker room in between the second and third period there was this aura of confidence and unity that I’m not sure can be replicated.
We knew we were going to win. Partly from the work we put in, but partly also because there was no way we were going to let that magical season end early. And we came out and scored 5 goals in the third to win the game 7-5.
While thinking about this game, I really think of that year and our awesome Russian coach.
We were so much better than many of the teams we played against that season, so he actively tried to challenge us and make us lose. And I’m not kidding when I say that.We played entire games short-handed.
We played entire games where 1/3 of the players would do dryland training for a period while the rest of the guys played with a short bench. Each period we’d switch which line would leave the bench to go train upstairs.
And yes, we also played entire games without a goalie. Again, not kidding.
By focusing on challenging us to be better, rather than the end result of winning…we won A LOT of games. It was always about pushing us outside our comfort zone. It was always about our improvement. What good would there be by us beating a team 7-0? None, so he would find ways to make winning those game more difficult for us…like playing without a goalie. And the funny thing about it?
We still never lost those games.
The way he challenged us not only brought out our best in competition because we weren’t allowed to be satisfied…but it also bonded us as a group. Shared adversity is the best way to build camaraderie, and our Russian coach found a way to always make it more difficult for us as a group.
We became so tight because we had to work together to accomplish our mission. Imagine the amount of passing, keep away, and collective effort defensively it takes to win games shorthanded or WITHOUT A GOALIE. People talk about puck possession like it’s gold today…that was the way we played 20 years ago. It was an amazing experience to be a part of.
But I also think about how this incredible year never would have happened today. With people being so focused on My Hockey Rankings, our coach never would have been allowed to challenge us the way he did. And we would not have improved as much as we did without consistently being pushed outside our comfort zones.
We were always focused on the process of getting better. And because of that, we won a lot of games. But even better, we improved so much that almost our whole team went on to play at high levels of hockey. It was nothing short of amazing.
Ok, back to the email.
Second, I learned to be a teammate that year. As mentioned last night, we had no specific guys to play specific roles, such as power play and penalty kill. We all relied on each other to get the job done. Everyone could do it if given the opportunity. We believed that and it showed. Some guys were definitely better at roles than others, but we all had to do our best in every role even though we may not be good at, or love, them. Playing every role helped all of us in our later careers when we were no longer the top scorers on our teams, but could get spots for the adaptability we could bring to the team. I learned that everyone of us was important if we wanted to win and if you showed someone you believed in them, they would find a way to get it done.
Another story about this.
The last player to make our team that year was the player that went the furthest in his hockey career. In fact, he’s the only guy that would go on to have a career in the NHL.
Mike Brown was the last player to make our team…and he did it in dramatic fashion. The whole team was picked on the 2nd to last day of tryouts, except for our last spot. The day of our last tryout, our crazy Russian coach held a 1-on-1 competition between Mike and another kid. Just the two of them on the ice while everyone else watched.
(…yet another experience that could not have happened in our world today…)
Obviously this tryout came up on our Zoom call. And it was really cool to hear Brownie talk about it. He actually credits that tryout for the reason he made it to the NHL. He spoke about how on that day he learned that he had to earn everything that he had and nothing was given. And he learned, being the last player picked, that he had to work harder than everyone else to move up. And man was he ever the hardest working player.
Two years after that infamous tryout…
Brownie made the NTDP, got a full scholarship to the University of Michigan, and was the only one of us that made the NHL. The last player picked at 15 years old…went the furthest by turning a “negative” into a driving force for his individual improvement. Amazing.
The other thing written in this email that allowed Brownie to flourish though was that we didn’t have set roles or anything like that. We rolled and played…each of us in every situation on the ice. Brownie would have been classified as the “3rd line RW” at the beginning of the year, but he wasn’t asked to play that way. He played the same amount, in the same situations, with the same expectations as every other player on the team.
Imagine that today. He wouldn’t have had a chance. Mike Brown doesn’t make the NHL in today’s day and age.
I hear peewee coaches talk about players buying into certain roles. Certain kids only play on the power play (usually the more talented players), certain kids only play in defensive situations (usually the less talented players), and certain kids barely play at all (because God-forbid you lose a game in peewee). I’m not a huge fan.
The way we played in rolling everyone also made us more versatile players. Many of us, even though we were talented, had to accept lesser offensive roles later in our careers the higher the level we moved up. And by learning how to play in all situations, it allowed us to gain flexibility in our games to be able handle any role we were asked to play.
All of us were important to the team. In every aspect of the game. We relied on each other, cheered for each other, and at the end of the day competed with each other to be the best. With all of us playing in all situations, you better believe we were competing with each other to be the best. If one line scored a PP goal, or a SH goal, the next line to play in that situation sure as hell was going to try and do the same. It created an awesome camaraderie that was still felt in that Zoom call, and on this email as well.
I’m not saying that all teams should roll lines or that all teams shouldn’t have roles. I don’t want to tell anyone how to coach their own team. But I’ll tell you what…
Our team was better because of the way we were played. As individuals we became better because of the way we were played. And Mike Brown is the perfect example of why you shouldn’t pigeonhole players as a “certain type” at too young of an age.
OK, back to the last part of the email…
Last, and this came later in life, I learned you will remember the losses. We lost 4 games that year. 72-4-3. Yet somehow I remember all the losses. 2 to Honeybaked, 1 to Hamilton, and 1 to Compuware. We never won Silver Stick, which I believe was the one major tournament we never won. 2-1 OT loss to Honeybaked from a Sciba goal. I know those losses hurt hard, but I remember them making us better. I also know a lot of people learned from their losses to us. It was funny hearing last night how many guys, and future NHLers, remember losing to us. Crazy to think the impact that team had, not only on ourselves, but all those that played against us.
Hope to see you all soon. Love you all. Stay safe.
OK, last story here.
Everything we did on this team revolved around competition. We played endless keep-away in practice. We played so many games. And one of the biggest competitions, which we would do at the start of every practice, was “First 6.”
The first 6 players lined up to go on the ice would have the first 10 minutes of practice to play 3v3 against each other. The other players would do some sort of skill drill on the other end. And you would literally see guys sprinting from the locker room to the door to the ice with half their equipment hanging off to get to be in the first 6 game.
We competed so hard against each other in everything that we did, that the games were honestly so much easier than the practices. Whether it was on the ice or off the ice, everything we did had a winner and a loser. It really taught us the value of competing, but it was so much fun as well.
We hated to lose and we expected to win by how we prepared and how hard we were taught to push each other. And obviously, it showed on the ice. We lost four games out of 80 the entire year with our coach actively trying to make things harder for us in games. Together, we had such a collective competitive spirit that none of us wanted to be the weak link to let each other down. It was an amazing thing to be a part of.
And it is funny running into guys that we played against that year later in life. They couldn’t believe the way we played…that crazy Russian style. That puck possession style of play that everyone aspires to today that we perfected 20 years ago. The passing, the creativity, turning back with the puck if we didn’t have an entry play, the keep-away and puck protection…teams chased us all over the ice.
Our coach was actually the interpreter for Artemi Panarin while he played for Chicago and he would run into opposing players after the games who would recognize him for coaching our team. The impact that team had on youth hockey at the time was really something extraordinary. Towards the end of the year we even gained a little bit of a following.
We did things different, yeah. But we did them right, and we did them hard. We focused on “improvement at all costs”, not “winning at all costs” and we won a hell of a lot of games because of it. And in the end, we bonded as brothers as well.
This post probably sounds like a bit of a condemnation of what youth hockey has become today. It’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be a reflection and celebration of one of the best teams I’ll ever be a part of and probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing the game of hockey.
At the end of the day, it was a team of really good players that really loved the game and really grew to love each other. We loved coming to practice and we loved competing to make each other better. We loved being challenged with anything our coach threw at us and accomplishing it together. And man, we loved to win.
That year shaped a lot of what I believe about the game today. And it’s clear from our Zoom call that it shaped the other guys as well.
We’ll forever be grateful for that year and what it taught us about hockey and life. We’ll forever remember the crazy things we were asked to do by our Russian coach to challenge us to be better (seriously…playing entire games without a goalie?!?!). And we’ll forever be bonded by a youth hockey experience that we all agreed made a profoundly positive impact on our lives.