Lessons In Leadership

Best-Selling Author And Hockey Coach John Bacon Explains How He Turned The Huron River Rats Into A Winning Program

(The following is an excerpt from John Bacon’s upcoming book, “Let Them Lead,” which is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and available on Sept. 7, 2021.)

In 2000 I took over my high school alma mater’s hockey team, the Ann Arbor Huron River Rats. (I’m not making that up.) Problem was, the Rats’ record the previous year was 0-22-3. (I’m not making that up, either.) 

Even worse, the guy they picked to lead them, yours truly, happens to hold the school record for most games in a River Rats uniform, 86, with the fewest goals—zero. It’s actually a family record, as my brother also played on the team and failed to score. (He likes to point out that he played goalie—but hey, we’ve all got excuses.) 

So we were a team with zero wins coached by a former player with zero goals. Perfect! 

TED TALK


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Luckily, I had an ace: Culver Academies’ legendary coach, Al Clark, a close friend since I assisted his team back in 1986-87. Clark started the program in 1976 with an outdoor rink and 12 players who had never skated before. 

When Clark stepped down 40 years later his program had produced more than a hundred Division I college hockey players, 25 NHL Draft picks, nine NHLers, including 1986 NHL Rookie of the Year Gary Suter, and five U.S. Olympians, while winning 1,017 games, the most in the history of U.S. high school hockey. Along the way Clark was named National Coach of the Year in 1994, and started the Culvers’ girls’ program in 1998. 

Whether Clark’s team was up by five goals or down by five, he looked like a man waiting for a bus in the rain. But he knew the game, how to teach it and how to motivate his players. 

Years later, when I got the Rats’ job, I asked him, “So, what do I do now?”

“The first thing you do is make it special to play for Huron. And the best way to make it special,” he continued, “is to make it hard.”

This was the exact opposite of what everyone else had been telling me: players have changed; I shouldn’t expect too much; and I have to accommodate them, not the other way around. 

But Clark had a point. How can the Navy SEALS and the Peace Corps afford to be so picky? Those jobs don’t pay much, and the work is brutally hard. But the hard part is exactly why the right people apply. They are not repulsed by the difficulty. They’re attracted to it.  

“You need to make players feel like they had to do something hard just to make the team,” Clark said, “something not everyone would be willing to do, so they know just making the team means they accomplished something. And once that culture is established, it is relatively easy to maintain because the players, with a little guidance, will do it for you.”

My ultimate goal was simple, if ambitious: I wanted the players, not the coaches, to run the team. We had only two rules: “Work Hard, and Support Your Teammates.” If they did those two things, even if we got blown out, I was satisfied, even proud. If they didn’t do those two things, even if we pummeled a lesser opponent, I was not happy—and they would know about it. 

At our very first work out, conducted just one week after school got out, I told them, “We are going to be the hardest working high school hockey team in the state. You will be the most important team in school history—the one that saves the program and turns it around. Our goal is nothing less than winning the state title.” 

They thought I was nuts, but my vision got their attention. After four-months of grueling off-season workouts, we probably were the hardest working team in the state—and not one player quit. 

 

***

 

We started the 2000-01 season by winning our first three games, equaling Huron’s win total from the previous two seasons combined. But then we had to face Trenton, the best team in the state. The year before Trenton featured Andy Greene, who would go on to captain the New Jersey Devils and still plays for the New York Islanders.

The Trojans had already claimed eight state titles, and they would win six more. USAToday once proclaimed Trenton the nation’s best high school hockey team. Trenton’s teams at all age levels had already hung so many state title banners from their rafters that when we played in their rink I always told my players, “Don’t look up.” It never worked. 

Trenton smoked us, 13-2. That’s right: 13-2. 

Back in the locker room our guys were throwing their sticks and gloves around—angry, hurt, embarrassed. I put all of it to an immediate halt. 

“Sit down!” I said. “Hey, I saw what you saw. Can’t sugarcoat it. We just got our asses handed to us on a silver platter.”

They nodded, a little surprised I was taking this approach. 

“But that doesn’t matter. What matters is our principles. What’s the first rule of Huron Hockey?!?”

“Work hard,” a few mumbled. 

“WHAT’S THE FIRST RULE OF HURON HOCKEY!” I yelled. 

“WORK HARD!” they yelled back. 

“Well? Did you guys work hard tonight?” They thought about it, then concluded, Yes, actually, they had. “That’s right! Everyone here worked their tails off the entire game. No exceptions! Now, what’s the second rule of Huron Hockey?”

“Support your teammates!” they yelled, loud from the start. 

“Now, did we do that?”

Yes, they said. Nobody pointed fingers, and everyone supported each other.

“That’s right.” I said. “Now that is impressive! Listen to me: Gentlemen, if we can do that tonight, we can do that every night. I promise you, we’re going to turn this around. And let me tell you something else: We’re going to play those bastards again, and it sure as hell ain’t gonna be 13-to-2!”

They cheered. They believed.  

 

***

 

We finished our first season at 7-17-1, the most improved team in school history. 

The coaches could rely on the team leaders to decide what we were going to wear in school on game days to handling disciplinary situations to setting team goals. (Don’t worry: they’ll always set the bar higher than you would—always.) 

The next year we took our 16-8-2 record, second best in school history, into the regional final against—you guessed it—the mighty Trenton Trojans. 

I needed help, so I called Herb Brooks, the legendary 1980 Olympic coach. I had interviewed Herb for several stories over the years, and we were talking about writing a book. But this call was about the River Rats facing the Trenton juggernaut.

I will never forget his response: “Johnny, just tell ’em this: Above all, you gotta believe. If you don’t, nothing is possible. But if you do, anything is possible.”

At our team dinner the night I passed on Herb’s message. Then I added, “I admit, I’m scared. But not for you guys. You guys are a run-away freight train, a team that went from zero wins to 16 in two years. I know how hard you work, how close you are, and how you lead your team. I see you coming, but they don’t. I’m not worried for you. I’m worried for them. They’re about to get steamrolled—and they won’t know what hit ’em. 

“I don’t think we’re going to beat Trenton. I know we are. And you do, too.”

They did. 

“I remember being so focused going into the game,” recalls Ross Gimbel, who would captain the Tufts University hockey team. “We were ready to beat them, finally. I could feel it. I told the guys I believed in them, and let out a final roar which every teammate followed. I knew we were ready for that game and we sure as hell played like it.”  

In front of a full house we scored five minutes into the game. 

“Through the sweat, the tears, and all the time we put into our goals,” captain Chris Kunkel remembers, “we believed we deserved to win their respect.”

With a period left we were tied, 2-2. Everyone on our bench stood up the entire game. Trenton went ahead, 3-2, but we weren’t backing off. 

“We were the best conditioned team that season,” Kunkel recalls. “One of my favorite memories was in the third period, lining up for a face-off and looking over at their exhausted forward, huffing and puffing. I smiled and gave him a wink because I knew he wanted to give up in fatigue. 

“We just needed more time. Everyone believed we were going to win. There was no other way this story was going to end.”

Late in the game we pulled our goalie and unleashed a barrage of shots, hitting a post and a crossbar. But when the horn blew Trenton had won, 3-2. 

The Trojans’ fans gave our players a standing ovation. 

“I will never forget shaking the hand of the Trenton captain and him stopping me,” Kunkel recalls. “He gave me a big hug and whispered in my ear, ‘You guys should have won that game.’” A class act from a class team. 

I told my guys to stand on our blue line while the Trojans received their medals. I went down the line, giving all our players a handshake and a message: “You belong here. You have earned this right. Stand tall.”

Later, in the locker room, I asked them, with a glint in my eye, “Hey! What’s the first rule of Huron Hockey?!?”

They boomed it the first time: “WORK HARD!”

“What’s the second rule?”

“SUPPORT YOUR TEAMMATES!”

“That’s right. You did it a year-and-a-half ago, when they kicked our butts, 13-2, you’ve done it every game since, and you did it today. I love you guys.”

I walked out spent, but impressed by the young men who were leading our team. 

 

***

 

The next season, our third together, the River Rats finished 17-4-5, ranked 5th in the state, and 53rd in the nation, thereby passing 95-percent of the nation’s teams. Our fourth year, playing  at Trenton, the Rats finally beat the Trojans 4-3—our first victory over Trenton in 20 years. Herb was right: “You gotta believe.” 

Issue: 
2021-09

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