“The real problem is not that we are different, nor that we disagree and have conflict. It's that most of us automatically view conflict as something negative rather than as a tool God can use to help us better understand ourselves and one another.

--Robert Ricciardelli”

Monday, September 04, 2006

Mr. Stealth

I had signed up to be an assistant ice hockey coach in the house leagues at a local rink. I knew nothing about coaching, and I knew I knew it. And, time went on.

I didn't hear back from the rink staff about schedules or acceptance. The season start date was only a couple weeks away. I guessed I wasn't going to be coaching that year. Yes, I was really down about it. I'd really gotten excited and was looking forward to it.

Then...the call came in!...The week after the player evaluations. The player draft would be that Thursday night. Could I be there? Absolutely, I said without breathing. And, then I was told I would be the head coach. My partner, an experienced coach, was an airline pilot and would probably be gone a lot. In fact, he wasn't able to attend the meeting.

I was so nervous sitting at that table! There were five coaches, and me. We made introductions. The hockey program director told the others I was a rookie coach. I instantly received looks that basically said, "Oh you poor guy." You see, they had all made the evaluations. They knew who the good players were. And, they knew I didn't. We went around the table picking from the player list going through the rankings one level at a time. I literally sat through the meeting holding the list of available players going, "OK, God. Who do I pick next?"

Finally, after two hours, the ordeal was over. I had my list of players. There were thirteen names, including one goalie. I had no clue who any of them were, or what they could and couldn't do. I think I left that meeting more nervous and scared than when I went in because now I had to call the players and make introductions....And, I still didn't know what I was doing.

Of my twelve players, I think I had three with any real experience. Which is good and bad. It's good because it meant there were very few that knew I was clueless about what I was doing. Bad because they were sadly disappointed, and it carried over to the rest of the team. I ended up losing one player to another team, for car pool reasons, which left me eleven players and a goalie.

We had six practices before our first game. I think it was the fourth one when my coaching partner handed me two drill books. I devoured those two books. And, I got SO excited! By the end of that week, I finally understood what I was supposed to be doing! Those next two practices were really good ones. And, then it was time for game number one...

The coaches were all told the league jerseys would be late--a couple weeks late. So, the home team would need to wear light colored jerseys and the visitors dark colored jerseys. After announcing this to my players at the next practice, I discovered almost everyone had only one jersey--some dark, some light. My wife and I discussed the possibility of making pullovers for the team--rather than making everyone buy another jersey. On the way home from practice number 6, we visited a couple of fabric stores. And, lo and behold, we found this stretchy, bright yellow fabric. I was thrilled. What I really wanted was a way my team could go out dressed alike--to look like a team.

My wife doesn't do a lot of sewing. She likes to. And, she's good at it. She just doesn't do it often. This time, she really worked at it and was able to make ten pullovers out of that small roll of fabric. But, I had 11 skaters on the team, which meant I needed I needed eleven pullovers.

Ten of my players showed up for the game number one. Everyone got a pullover. The parents all thought it was great. The officials were surprised--and pleasedThey really liked the idea of not working so hard at sorting out who was on what team. They all thanked me. The players, though--every one of them--rolled their eyes.

I don't think I considered until that moment how ugly that yellow color really was. But, like real troopers, those kids put the pullovers on, went and played their hearts out. And lost. 10-0. After the game, I told them the loss was on me because I was still trying to learn how to coach. It didn't help their feelings much. We all went home, pretty subdued.

The next game, all eleven players showed up. We were the visitors. So we were supposed to have dark jerseys. I checked with the other coach. None of his players had a black jersey. So, I had our eleventh player, his name was Chance, put on a black jersey. He looked really unhappy about not being dressed like everyone else. I felt bad about it, too. I made sure I told the on-ice officials, and the other coach, about the jersey thing. And, then...I forgot about it.

When I'm coaching, I've learend to focus my attention on how the team performs, with an eye to the next practice. I do pay some attention to induvidual players. I kept the stats back then--as well as being coach. I knew who is shooting the puck, scoring, checking, getting penalties, and so on. Posted it in the locker room every practice, too. I still do all that. I've spent almost six years on benches learning these habits. But, this being only my second game, I was totally lost.

So, it was some time late in the first period before I realized the other coach was really upset. I took a long look out on the ice.

Play was stopped. The face-off was in our zone--left of our goal. There were my six players on the ice--3 forwards, two defensemen, and a goalie. Everyone was lined up perfectly for the face-off. Chance was on the right wing. The official started redirecting players for the face off. That wasn't unusual in this league the first game or two. I kept looking around. Then, I blinked.

The official was making Chance line up with the other team! Worse, the official was sending one of the other coach's players back to the bench, with a warning about too many men on the ice. And, he was telling me I needed one more player on the ice. So, I called the referree over and explained the situation again. He nodded. Apologized to the other coach, saying he forgot. And, play resumed.

Two plays later, Chance was off-sides. For those who don't know hockey, that means he's in the opposing zone ahead of the puck. Play is supposed to stop and move outside the zone for a face-off. The poor ref was just standing there watching Chance move in on the other team's puck carrier. Chance's black jersey looked like it fit in just fine with the two defensemen's jerseys--one maroon and one dark green.

Two plays later, Chance was off-sides again. This time, he actually stole the puck and took a shot on goal, without the referree realizing what had happened. I thought the other coach was going to explode!

Well, the problem never did get resolved. It did get better. The ref was really getting the hang of it by the end of the game. And, by the middle of the second period, the other coach calmed down a lot. Probably because his team was winning by a sizable margin.

We ended up losing that game, too--7-1. But, we didn't care as much. We were actually laughing in the locker room. We had a secret weapon.

We had Mr. Stealth.