When an athlete walks off the field (or skates off the ice) for the last time the first question on everyone’s lips is “what’s next?”

Depending on the player the options could be endless.  Some like to take a few years off to recover from the beating their bodies have taken over years of gruelling training and ritual poundings.  Others have an exit strategy lined up and waiting as a product of smart thinking while still an active player.

But perhaps one of the most common career paths for a retired player is coaching.

The Great One while coaching the Phoenix Coyotes

Picture it: the old, grizzled veteran who has hung up his skates for good coming back to the team he loves and teaching the next generation of players how to be great.  It’s the image we first had of Wayne Gretzky when he stepped behind the bench for the Phoenix Coyotes.  Here was the Great One arrived to teach the Blake Wheelers, Kyle Turrises, and Peter Muellers of the hockey world how it is done.  It’s the image that Dale Hunter has honed for years with the London Knights before making the jump to the NHL with the Washington Capitals.

However, as Gretzky’s failure to turn Phoenix into a contender will attest to, making the transition from player to coach is best attempted by a certain breed of player.  Players like Gretzky, to whom the game came easily, aren’t as well equipped to teach young players the ropes as those who fought tooth and nail to climb to whatever heights they did.  To make a long story short: greatness does not translate, but hard work does.

It was with these things in mind that I stepped behind the bench to coach Men’s Rec League hockey in September.  A friend had invited me to play, but I didn’t have my equipment with me so he told me I could coach.  At first I expected to be a glorified cheerleader, especially given that all the players save one were older than me.  But for some reason the players actually listened when I told them to do something.

Now, I was never the greatest hockey player.  I didn’t win a lot of awards or play on many great teams.  I certainly never played with anyone who ever made it past Junior ‘C.’  Further, back in my playing days I was a goalie, alone in my own little world.  It didn’t really matter what my teammates did so long as they didn’t give up breakaways or shoot the puck at me.  It didn’t matter what system they played so long as the puck got out of the zone at the first time of asking.

The 1-3-1 is hockey's version of the 3-man midfield in soccer.

As far as strategy goes I am a novice.  You’re never going to see me scribbling complex systems on a white board while channelling my inner Guy Boucher.  You’re never going to see me counter a devious defensive system such as the 1-3-1 by telling my players to not attack a la Peter Laviolette.  I was taught the basics, so I teach the basics.

As I mentioned, most of the players on the team I’m coaching are older than me.  They forked over $250 and their Friday nights to have a good time shooting the puck around.  I can see a lot of reasons why they wouldn’t want a coach and very few, apart from wanting to win games, why they would.  That’s why it was such a surprise that in my first game one of the players looked up at me as I stood on the bench and asked what he could be doing better.

In the beginning, the team could only be called a team in a very loose sense.  Some of the players had played together before while others were completely new.  While it certainly wasn’t a blow out, that game would not have been anybody’s pick for prettiest game of hockey ever to be played.  The defensive zone coverage was loose and the attack uncoordinated.

But with each game that I’ve been behind the bench these things have changed.  The defensive zone coverage, while not perfect, actually has some shape to it.  The breakout makes it out of the zone more often than not.  And when the puck gets into the offensive zone the players are on the same page with how to attack instead of just flinging the puck at the net and hoping to get lucky.  The calibre of hockey still isn’t going to wow anyone, but the progress is definitely there to be seen.

Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence that my coaching is having an effect is what happens when the coach isn’t there.  As a full-time student, member of student government, and active fraternity member I have various responsibilities that have gotten in the way of being at every game.  But, apparently, when I’m not there the team reverts to the team that played in that first game.  The moral: hockey players respond to authority.

If I am allowed to hypothesize for a moment I would say that having a coach is built into the psyche of the hockey player from a very young age.  Even when you learn to skate you have someone, even if it’s only your mother or father, teaching you how to do it; you have someone who knows better than you telling you how to do it properly.  The same extends to when you start playing hockey, no matter what level you start at.  You always have a coach and that coach always attempts to teach you to be better, both as an individual player and as a team.

In light of this, not having a coach may seem unnatural.  One might even go so far as to say that the unifying force that makes a team something more than a loose collection of individual players is lost without a coach.  Gone is the mentor who keeps the game on track and teaches players to be better and a vacuum of leadership is left in his wake.  The question is then who is going to fill it?  From there everything degenerates as everyone starts to play their own way and it takes an actual authority figure to rectify the situation.

Scotty Bowman has coached more Stanley Cup-winning teams than any other coach.

It is in light of this that I find my experience in coaching to be so interesting.  I am consistently amazed that players look to me, a former goalie with nothing in the way of proper training, as an authority figure.  When you look at the coaches that are so respected around hockey, whether it be your Scotty Bowmans or your friend’s dad, they all have one thing in common and that is that they know their hockey inside and out.  They command authority not because they stand behind the bench and wave their arms about, but rather because they know how the game is played better than anyone around them.

Perhaps why I’m so amazed stems from the aura we build around coaches as being the untouchable fountains of hockey knowledge.  A good coach commands respect and awe.  Just like the first-grader looking up at the grade-eights it’s hard to envision oneself as being in the same position as those who hold such an elevated place in your personal pantheon.  It’s like wearing the ‘C’ for the Montreal Canadiens and having to live up to the reputations of the greats who came before such as Newsy Lalonde, Toe Blake, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, or Yvon Cournoyer.

The other thing is that, unlike other hockey players, I didn’t plan to coach hockey when I stopped playing competitively.  I didn’t plan on being back on a bench any time soon.  I didn’t plan on being the next Kirk Muller.

For better or worse though, now I know that it’s there if I ever need a career to fall back on.

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