October 05, 2010
You silently trudge through the bowels of the arena, head down, and enter the locker room.
The night before, your team got absolutely abused. It's tough to explain what happens some nights, how a normally good group of players can have meltdowns on the same night, leading to your team getting physically dominated, badly outscored, and just generally embarrassed. At home.
Your coach, if he's like most, has two gears: Joking, back-slapping, things-are-going-great guy, and silent, scary, I-dare-you-to-say-something guy.
I dislike the latter.
When you get on the ice, it's always just the players at first, quietly churning circles around the rink like a cotton-candy machine, only what's about to happen is far from sweet. Scary I-dare-you-to-say-something guy steps on the ice, cuts a lap or two himself, then unceremoniously calls everyone into the board, and starts drawing up the practice plan.
The tension is palpable. It's truly an uncomfortable feeling. You all know what coach knows - the tone of this practice, currently at status: civil, is hanging on by a thread.
And that's the problem. It's impossible to play at your best under that level of looming evil, unless you're a multi-year vet who's become immune to it. First-year guys grip their sticks so tight they damn near snap.
Here's a taste of what I've come across from post-loss practices:
• I've seen a stick get helicoptered over a line of bag-skating players because the coach didn't think one guy skated through the end line as hard as he could.
• I've had a stick, in cross-check position, up against my throat pinning me to the glass. For laughing.
• I've had a teammate be asked to sit in the penalty box and repeatedly yell his own name until coach said stop, because he wasn't calling for passes.
• I've had a coach line the players up on each side of a blue-line, place a puck behind the net, and have one guy from each line run full speed and blow each other up. That stopped when our leading goal-scorer separated his shoulder.
• I've seen my linemate asked politely, to "please just go home. Go undress, and f***ing go home."
It can be a tad intense for a day that still saw the sun rise.
Not all coaches are complete wingnuts, and the occasional gem even realizes that you're not going to go 82-0. But even those more reasonable fellas can't accept a lack of effort - if the team isn't good enough, they can talk to the GM. If the team isn't trying, guys will be asked to go the f*** home.
The post-loss practices are always worse, because the snowball effect builds the tension exponentially with every missed pass. You can watch your coach's anger build through non-verbal communication. Maybe it's not so subtle, like a slap shot into the boards from three feet away. But maybe it is subtle, like a nice little twitch or two, or his eyes blinking independently.
It's priceless watching a line of players, none of whom are 100% certain of the drill, trying to slide farther back in line while his buddies are doing the same thing. Anyone who's played hockey can tell you that the line always pushes way to far forward, so when it's about four feet behind where it's supposed to start, you know your players are lost.
And it's always the same kid -- the DW (drill-wrecker - whenever you're in trouble, don't call DW) -- who pushes things over the edge.
You're walking that fine line, getting through practice, and coach's mood might even appear to be lightening. Did he just blink both eyes at the same time? Nice. Then BAM. DW starts a drill in the completely wrong direction.
The drill restarts, and he passes the puck to the wrong line. Then coach twitches.
And before you know it, we're back on the line, "getting in better shape." Only by the end of my career, I had learned to skate all the way through the final line.
Justin Bourne is a former player in the WCHA, AHL and ECHL, and had an NHL tryout with the New York Islander in 2007. His father, Bob Bourne, won four Stanley Cups with the Islanders in the '80's, as did his fiancee's dad, Clark Gillies. He blogs on Bourne's Blog. His columns and videos will appear on this site on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.