India Ice Hockey, Part 4: Even Closer to the Puck Drop

At this juncture in the journey, it’s worth restating the mission of “The Hockey Volunteer”: to share happiness through hockey and impart the values that the sport can impart onto others when fully understood, appreciated, and embraced.

That mission statement is not independent of hockey, though. In many ways, it is essential to becoming a better hockey player. If you play the game (now or in the past) at any competitive level, you have probably come across a player that just irks you when he (I’m going to use the masculine form, because I’m a guy, and that’s 98% of the players I play against) is on the ice, on the bench, or in the locker room. He exudes an attitude that makes you hate playing with or against him. What makes matters worse is that he has skills.

I’m not sure if I would like to believe that this only exists in my home region, Long Island, NY. On one side, I’d like to believe that the rest of North America has less entitlement issues, and teach better manners to their children, reinforcing that there’s hope elsewhere, and it’s just a small community of these types of players.

On the other side, I know that there are people all over that disrespect the game and those around them when they behave in ways that counter the sport: cockiness, overt aggression (especially in non-checking leagues), taunting, and selfish play. While we’d like to believe our habitat is either the best or worst place in the world (we are a people that think in extremes), this seems to be the case everywhere.

The reason I write about this now, is that what bothers me the most is that these players could’ve gone so much farther in the sport (even as professionals), if they just upheld the values of the game. Their skills on the ice become enhanced when those around them respect the player. They’ll pass more to the player (and expect some passes back), they’ll defend their teammate more (and expect that treatment back, too), and the opposition will end up playing more evenly against this player, not too aggressive, not too passive.

Case in point, Sean Avery. The guy has had more than enough troubles with his teams because of his character. Even before he got dumped by the Dallas Stars due to his “sloppy seconds” comment (I was hysterically laughing when I heard that, just so you are aware), he wasn’t resigned by the Rangers due to personality conflict. I can tell you that after some discussions I’ve had with some “tough-guy” NHL’ers is that even some of them were a bit wary of Avery. He’s the type of player that is crazy enough to make you play crazy around him, and it can easily result in someone getting severely injured. The guy is a fast and talented player, and as long as he can keep his cool (to a certain extent, he is an agitator, and a damn good one at that!); he can really thrive in the NHL.

I wanted to instill this in the Indian (Ladakhi) team as best I could. It is more important to play with high character, than to just go through the motions. It may sound simple, but you need to truly understand the game before you can truly succeed, and part of that success is having mental strength.

Without mental toughness, it’s easy to lose focus. When you get scored on, or you can’t score goals, you start to feel hopeless and overpowered. When you get checked hard, the inevitable bruises can feel like a muscle strains/ligament sprains (tears). Physical intimidation overwhelms your performance on the ice.

Since the Indian team had never played in an arena, or against international teams (the Canadian High Commission team DOES NOT count), or with real checking, I knew it was going to be more important than ever to strengthen their mental toughness.

But what about the technical skills? What about their familiarity with an international rink? What about reinforcing their team-play (i.e. passing, covering open areas in the rink, or power-play & penalty-kill situations). What do we focus on?

There was only so much time available to me for our one and only practice the day before the tournament began. Akshay requested that we receive 2 hours of practice time, as opposed to the 60-90 minutes that other teams received, and the organizers agreed due to our circumstances.

They also agreed to supply our team with some proper equipment, as many of the guys were missing elbow pads, among many other articles of equipment. 1-2 weeks prior to our arrival, I had a serious of email conversations with the organizers, after Akshay had gotten them to agree to provide equipment. When we arrived to our locker room, there were huge boxes filled with 10+ sets of used equipment that local players allowed us to borrow.

What an act of hospitality! This was the type of environment that I was excited to have the team participate in, more about camaraderie and support, than about raw, ruthless competition.

Wrongly, I assumed that the pro-shop in Abu Dhabi would be cheaper than the equipment available in India. It was more expensive! A basic wood stick cost the equivalent of US$100 ($30 in the U.S.), and an average, 2+ year old composite stick was $275 ($75-100 in the U.S.). I told the team to hold off buying any of the equipment there, until I could find a better alternative. What I did demand was that they sharpen skates, but as practice was starting in a few minutes, only a handful could do it before we stepped onto the ice, the rest would have to wait until afterwards.

It was the first time I had stepped onto an artificial surface in over 2 months, or any sheet of ice in over 1 month. But just like riding a bike, you get your senses back quickly. Hockey players can attest to this, your feet develop their own set of senses when you’re on the ice. Every minute detail is conveyed and stored through a 1 cm tall piece of steel, and some plastic, leather and cotton (if you’re fancy, include graphite, Kevlar, or other nifty synthetics).

This ice was not great, and neither was the skate sharpening I received. I pitched way too forward, more than I usually do, and cut into the ice way too easily. I can only imagine how this felt to guys only used to skating on the surfaces available in Ladakh, whether it is a rink with potholes, speed bumps, or shards of broken ice. As I gave a last inspection to their skates, I noticed that many of them had about 1/4 cm of steel left. What this translates to is that every time they will try to turn, the plastic of the blade holder will hit the ice, and they’ll lose their feet from beneath them.

Falling aside, I began practice with some casual skating around the whole rink. In between the blue lines (neutral zone) they’d skate at full speed, and skate normally in the attack zones. Apparently this was too complicated. Even though I had them follow me, players would skate in the wrong direction in the attack zone.

At that point, I knew we were going to have problems. I tried to do a few more full ice skating drills, just so they can get acquainted with the size of the surface, and the ways it feels, and even after a brief demonstration and translation, they still were making the simplest of mistakes.

Now I started to get annoyed.

As I have probably stated a few times, a player said to me on the very first day of training in Ladakh that, “we’re not basic.” While they didn’t fully convince me otherwise, I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt and increase the difficulty of the drills, if only mildly. This was in Ladakh, where I left without full confidence in their abilities, but left them with a practice plan nonetheless, hoping to see a noticeable improvement when we reconvened.

Now that we were back together, it was clear that while I was away, they didn’t practice as much as I had hoped, or they just weren’t learning the basics as fast as I had expected. This, combined with a major lack in critical thinking and the politicking that went into the team selection, as outlined in the prior post, were already proving to me that this was going to be a disaster on the ice.

Now, I know it’s important to exude confidence, trust, and belief in others, coupled with positive reinforcement. And believe me, I tried that. Many times. Even before the tournament started, I had many bouts of over-confidence, believing that the team was well capable of greatly improving. They were simple drills. Why couldn’t they do them?

Over time, the plan changed from positive reinforcement (“You’re representing your home, and I believe you can prove to everyone that your passion will succeed on the ice”) to frustration (“C on! This is easy. Kids can do these drills.”) to begging (“I need you to pay attention to me. If you can’t pay attention to me when I try to teach you, there’s no way you will be able to succeed in a game situation”).

There’s a point about the mental toughness that I think needs to be stated, as it’s been on my mind for quite some time now. I’ve had the opportunity (if you want to call it that) to take not only a stroll, but a sprint and a marathon (or a speed skate) down memory lane, in regards to my own life on and off the ice.

On the ice, there were many times that I lacked the mental toughness to take me farther in the game. I’d like to believe that wasn’t the case, but I’d just be lying to myself, and to you by extension. I can recall training sessions where I’d get a migraine, which I’m sure was in my head (literally and figuratively). I had coaches that in retrospect were trying to make me tougher, and I balked at the occasion. I didn’t even like to compete against other players, when I probably had as much talent as them.

This begs a few questions. First and foremost, have I grown? Have I changed? Am I mentally strong now? I guess I can’t really answer that; I can only analyze it years down the road or get outside consulting. I’d like to believe I am. I know I’m more aware, but to what extent?

Also, more relevant to the team, am I just passing along my past (repressed?) frustrations out them? Am I actually doing things that make them tougher mentally, or am I just giving them a hard time? On this point, it’s an emphatic: NO. I am not taking out my frustrations on them. In all of my pre-tournament practices and off-ice sessions, I utilized many different strategies. I made it a point early on, to suffer if they suffered. I spoke frankly, and honestly, but I also pleaded for the most out of them, and explained everything I could. I was diplomatic with them, begging for their feedback, especially from their leaders, and tried to act with as much humility as I could. They are the team, not me. I argued with anyone that tried to say I was more important (it happened), because at the end of the day, I will be on the bench, the rest of them will be on the ice, and there’s no paycheck or contract to even prove I did anything. And I tried to remind the team of that. Even as the tournament progresses, you’ll find that I try to change my strategy as much as possible, as I find that what I’m doing didn’t work.

Practice continued difficultly. We ended up doing some basic drills, with the plan of moving through each drill every 10-15 minutes, at most. At one point, I attempted to explain to the team how to do a basic 3-on-0 drill, skating down the rink, passing to one another. I have been told that I speak fast, and it’s an acknowledged fault (not really a fault, but for a team that barely speaks English, I can see how that would be tough), but I’ve still tried to use simple words. In particular, before the drill even started, I instructed the team to line up in three lines; one in the middle, and one in each corner. I pointed, spoke with simple words “Line up here, here and here,” and then had it translated. Apparently this was way too complicated, and by the time 30 seconds had passed and they were standing around, fuddling, I lined them up to do a skating drill. This time around, it was their own fault, and I wasn’t skating for their lack of attention. They may have had altitude to their advantage, but there’s nothing more tiring than skating up and down an ice rink, over and over again. Either way, they needed it, as it was another reminder of just how big the rink is. Again, I pleaded with them to pay attention and work hard (a common theme in this practice) and after a dismal failure in the 3-on-0 drill, we proceeded into our breakout-fore-check drill.

The drill was a combination of two drills we had already done incessantly in Ladakh. In the breakout drill, the center dumps the puck into the corner. The defense retrieves the puck (or the goalie saves it, if he’s not paying attention and the shot comes on net), and then make a pass behind the net. This pass is not something I wanted set in stone, but they ended up doing it that way almost every time. The purpose of the pass to the defensive partner was to get used to using your teammate and also familiarize the players with getting into positions that would support each other.

As that was going on, the forwards would come into the zone, and get ready for the pass from the defense. The wingers would come to the face-off circles along the boards, and the center would come down low, near his net. Depending on which way the puck would go, the center would criss-cross with the strong side winger. This is not necessarily what every team would do in hockey, but it was simple enough for them to do, and was just advanced enough to help them get the puck out of the zone effectively.

The pass could go to any player, but preferably the center on the strong side, as he will be in the least vulnerable position. He’d make a short pass to his teammate, follow his pass, and the puck carrier would go to his proper wing. Now begins the fore-check.

The moment the puck carrier crossed the red line (center line), they were instructed to dump the puck into the opposite corner (the zone they are attacking). This is called “dump and chase”. The premise is quite simple, dump the puck in the corner in two ways, 1) shoot it lightly behind the goal line, but in a spot where the puck dies, and sits right by where you shot it, or 2) shoot it a bit harder along the side boards so that it rings around the rink, just hard enough to make it to the other side without the goalie stopping it in the process. From there, you chase after the puck like you are running from the police, hence the phrase. If you weren’t huffing and puffing after the drill, you weren’t skating hard enough.

I’m not the biggest fan of a dump and chase strategy, but there was a method to the madness. When the team did their SWOT Analysis is Ladakh, we agreed that their stamina would be a major strength, as their lungs were used to the lack of oxygen (about that…didn’t help so much!), and I had hoped their training would make them even more prepared for intense skating. Also, since they weren’t great puck-handlers or passers, the only option left to get any offensive pressure was to shoot the puck in, and then skate after it hard.

One forward would go after the player with the puck, the 2nd forward would go after the puck itself, and the 3rd player would hover around the top of the offensive zone, analyzing the situation and going where he thinks the puck is about to go, or attacking the moment the puck gets there. If the puck does move to another player on the opposing team, then the 3rd & 2nd players would apply the pressure, and the 1st would drop back.

This can be highly effective, especially if you play at a level where players aren’t used to such intense pressure. It was our own “shock and awe” strategy.

Picture how this goes. I shoot the puck into my defensive zone, my defense retrieves it, exchanges it, passes back to me. I pass to my winger, who dumps it into the corner. He and the other winger go after the puck, as I stay high watching the play carefully. It’s not only the 3 of us vs. the 2 defenders; our defenders that passed the puck out of our zone have now joined us. It’s 5-on-2.

This is an impossible situation, as the minimum number of skaters allowed on the ice for any given team is 3, even if you get 10 players in the penalty box. That means that the offensive team should have no difficulty scoring, let alone retrieving the puck from the defense. It should be the type of scenario where the defensive team is so over-matched, that they just want to start hitting people out of frustration.

That wasn’t the case for us. For the first 5-10 attempts, the defense cleared the puck successfully, and that’s when we got the puck into the zone properly. What this signified was that they weren’t skating hard. They weren’t giving 100% of their energy and effort, because if they were, that puck would be taken away within seconds of it going into the zone.

We ended up doing this drill for over 45 minutes, executing it properly less than 5 times in total. For a bunch of guys that weren’t basic, they sure weren’t understanding or executing an essential component to the game, breaking out of the defensive zone, and attacking the offensive zone.

At this point, I was traveling independently of the team. I had arrived to the rink earlier than the team to watch some of the other teams practice, which proved to be irrelevant, as scouting the opposition wouldn’t help us in any way. I spoke with the guys, and then let them go on their merry way.

For me, I had to stay at the rink for a meeting with all of the team officials. It was actually pretty interesting, as we reviewed the basic rules of the tournament, discussed some jersey colors, and checked the passports to make sure all players were proper citizens of their respective teams. I had to check Thailand, which if you didn’t know, they have one of the most complex languages in the world, and one of the hardest to pronunciate, especially for language-stunted Americans.

Some Examples (these are not any of the players’ last names): Nathabhakdi, Punyaratabandhu, Sadhanabongse, Simnkim

$5 to anyone that pronounces all of these properly and submits them to me through email

Interesting fact: Thais do not have the same last name, the way Americans/Canadians/British have Smith, Brown, Jones; Chinese have Wang, Li, Yi; the Indians have Kumar, Patel, Gandhi. It is actually part of recent Thai law (1913, I believe), that each family must have a unique surname, which can be registered with a bureaucracy that handles allocation. The newer immigrants tend to have longer names, as the shorter ones have already been claimed.

Snap back to reality.

The most interesting point came from the gentleman (originally from New Jersey) running/coaching/managing the Singapore association (their ice rink closed, the team had to practice through inline hockey), requesting that the Challenge Cup of Asia become a qualifying tournament for IIHF Division III (lowest level) World Championships. As of now, it’s nothing more than a development tournament, and this would increase legitimacy to the tournament, and provide it with greater strength for future success. I thought it was a great idea, and I hope it gets ratified.

Once the meeting was over, I left for the hotel on my own, leaving the manager in charge of the team. There were cars available for officials and coaches, and buses for the teams, and staying consistent with my philosophy, I wanted the team to be independent minded.

Still, later that evening in the hotel, the players asked me if they could go out to dinner that night. “You’re adults,” I responded with a chuckle, “of course you can, do whatever you want!”

“Make sure you’re all up early for breakfast, we have the first game tomorrow.”

There is no more that I can talk about leading up to the puck drop, so I guarantee you, the next post will be about the games!