There's No 'I' In Team

Teamwork And Commitment At The Core Of USA Hockey’s Success

Leave it to the Great One to sum up what makes hockey so great.

“Hockey is a unique sport in the sense that you need each and every guy helping each other and pulling in the same direction to be successful,” Wayne Gretzky said of the game he helped to revolutionize.

The teamwork and commitment that Gretzky talks about are more than just words to the more than 1 million players, parents, coaches, officials, administrators and volunteers associated with USA Hockey. It’s the driving force that rousts them out of bed for early Saturday morning practices and keeps them at the rink until late at night after a long day of work.

As USA Hockey embarks on its 78th season, the daily effort and selfless sacrifices on the part of everyone involved in the organization, from the grassroots volunteers to the U.S. Olympic Team staffs, epitomize what teamwork and commitment are all about.

Inside USA Hockey headquarters in Colorado Springs, a dedicated staff goes about the business of charting the course for the game at all levels. They may be the architects of a vision, but the builders are the legion of volunteers stationed on the frontlines around the country who turn those ideas into reality for its registered members.

They are the heart and soul of any non-profit organization. There’s something about hockey volunteers that sets them apart from others. Maybe it’s the bad coffee in frigid rinks or the countless hours they log before sunrise or after sundown organizing a team, a league or a tournament. And they all do it for the same reasons.

As the late Don Kohlman of the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association liked to say, “It’s about the kids.”

The teamwork and commitment demonstrated at all levels of the organization is enough to make any corporation envious. From the hockey moms who handle a myriad of details in their roles as team managers to the league administrators who juggle large blocks of ice time for games and practices, the puck doesn’t get dropped without everyone working together for the good of the sport.

“Hockey is all about trusting your teammates. It’s about being unselfish, and that all does translate to the business world,” said Bill Ford, a longtime executive with the Ford Motor Company and a dedicated adult hockey player.

“I wish we had a lot more of that hockey character in business today. I think we’d be a stronger country if that were the case.”

Countless volunteers came to the sport because of their kids and have stayed involved because of the friendships they made along the way.

“It starts at the Mite level and goes up from there. You get the parents motivated to help out and they’re hooked. Look at me,” said Gloria Heerman, a longtime volunteer with the Brockton (Mass.) Youth Hockey Association who has stayed involved in hockey long after her son, Roger, hung up his competitive skates.

With more than 2,500 teams under the USA Hockey banner, it’s a huge job, but one that is made manageable by the dedication of associate registrars in each state. They’re in constant contact throughout the season, but during the peak times they probably spend more time talking to each other than they do with their spouses.

It’s that teamwork that ensures that every player who wants to be involved in a USA Hockey-sanctioned program is given the opportunity to experience the thrill of the game.

Nowhere is that on display more than with the 55,000 coaches around the country who are on the frontlines of the sport’s growth and evolution.

Those who grew up with the game and developed a passion from volunteer coaches in their local associations are now giving back to the game. And someday, their sons and daughters will do the same, keeping the circle of hockey life moving forward.

“I feel like I owe it to the game of hockey to try to help out kids. I love being around the kids, I love helping out,” said Hall of Famer Keith Tkachuk who continues giving back to the game in the St. Louis area.

“Who knows what can happen down the line, but if you want to give kids an opportunity to become not just better players but better people, teach them the team aspect. That’s why I enjoy doing it.”

The Toyota-USA Hockey National Championships are a prime example of what can happen when dedicated hockey people work together to execute the mammoth task of organizing a national tournament.

This year, nine sites hosted more than 4,000 players, from 14 & Under girls to 60 & Over adult players. From Amherst, N.Y., to Green Bay, Wis., a small army of volunteers worked from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. for five straight days without a hitch.

“Hosting a USA Hockey National Championship tournament is a lot of work, but as long as you have people you can trust, it’s not that difficult. It's not rocket science. It's just a hockey tournament,” said Bob Schell, whose Amherst Amateur Hockey Association hosted the Youth Tier I tournaments this year.

Of course none of this is even possible without the love and support of hockey parents. Their commitment to their sons and daughters, from the tiniest Mite to the toughest Midget, is on display every day in rinks all around the country.

The sacrifices they make over the course of a hockey player's career cannot be overstated. From forgoing family vacations and holidays to evening hours at the rink after a long day at work, their efforts are the lifeblood of our sport.

Hockey parents are the lifeblood of the sport as their commitment and dedication to their sons and daughters keeps the love of the game alive.Hockey parents are the lifeblood of the sport as their commitment and dedication to their sons and daughters keeps the love of the game alive.

“I need to thank [my parents] for all your sacrifices so that I could play hockey. The early morning practices on the weekend, having to buy hockey gear every year cuz I was outgrowing it, countless hours on the road traveling to hockey tournaments. Those moments I’ll never forget,” Mike Modano said during his 2014 acceptance speech into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Over the past several years, USA Hockey has celebrated a number of important milestones, such as registering more than 100,000 players in the 8 & Under category for a single season, and reaching the 150,000 plateau among adult players. While USA Hockey is proud of the accomplishments of its elite teams on the international stage, it’s the grassroots programs that make the game accessible, affordable and, most importantly, fun, for players of all ages.

“I had a friend ask me, ’What is it about hockey that you like so much? Is it the team? Is it the camaraderie? Is it the workout?’ It’s all of the above,” said Julie Johnson, a Minnesota mom who plays adult hockey.

It’s that love of the game that keeps people coming back season after season, returning to the rinks as an annual rite of passage, just as the New England leaves turn or the first snow covers the Rocky Mountains.

As another season ramps up, it’s a good time to think about all that was accomplished over the past season, and to look ahead to next year. With players to register, ice time to book, and tournaments to organize, the tasks seem monumental. But when that puck is dropped to start a new season, it doesn’t take long to realize that all the hard work is worth the effort.

“Each man and woman who is involved with hockey has to have a philosophy as to why they’re doing what they’re doing,” said USA Hockey Director Emeritus, Bob O’Connor.

“For most, it’s a philanthropic reason. The hours that these people give to hockey is done because they love the sport. They want to use hockey as a vehicle to help kids grow as people and improve their self-esteem. It’s not just winning. It’s teaching kids to work together.”

And that’s what it’s all about.




Photos By USA Hockey Magazine Archives;  Steve DeMeo




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