How Youth Hockey Helped Me Heal
By Mark Baliff
Many coaches wait for their entire career for the perfect team. My perfect team came along fairly early in mine during one of the hardest times in my life.
I am a youth hockey coach in Southwest Michigan. I started coaching when my son Sawyer was 9 years old. He was a natural skater, and I knew he belonged on the ice, but hockey is an expensive sport, and with four kids, time and money was always a little hard to come by. When I saw how hard he worked on his rollerblades at home and how skillfully skating came to him, we decided to make it work. I joined a local hockey club and signed up to coach Sawyer’s team. I coached him for two seasons in our House 10U program, and these seasons hold some of my best memories with my son. We tragically lost Sawyer in an accident that summer. Losing a child is something no parent should ever have to go through, and the pain is unimaginable. Sawyer had brought me to coaching, but after losing him, I didn’t think I could ever do it again, let alone step foot into a hockey arena.
But life sometimes takes an unexpected turn. And in the midst of my lowest time came a tiny gift. One that I was completely unprepared for.
Sawyer’s twin sister approached me one day after the accident. She had asked to play hockey before, but I had always put her off. Sawyer was my only son, and hockey was something special we shared. Again, she asked me if she could play hockey, and this time it was in a tone I could not ignore. Seeing the sincerity in her eyes and understanding that this was something she needed to do to help heal from the loss of her brother, I relented. I agreed to coach as the assistant coach. I was just not sure I was ready to be a head coach.
The first time I stepped back on the ice, I was terrified that I would lose it, but something unexpected happened instead. It felt…well, good. It was the first time that I had felt something positive in months. I coached Elena through two seasons. Her skills quickly developed, and she grew in confidence. Coaching was therapeutic for me, and I stepped back into the role of head coach during Elena’s 12/14U season. There was something special about this season from the start. I was coaching with a good friend who shared a similar coaching philosophy – outwork every team, be unified, and embrace your role. While it was your typical house team of co-ed players with various talent and experience ranging from those who play on outside travel teams to those who have never played hockey before, this group had a different pulse. There was something special about this team.
It all started with a skate snow fight. One of the players simply pulled the snow off of his skate and threw it at a teammate. The next thing you knew, snow was flying everywhere, and then came the water bottles; it was madness, but from that day forward, they were all friends, not just teammates they saw on weekends for an hour or two. I can’t take credit for forming this team into a big group of friends, but I can tell you it made all the difference in our play from that moment forward.
This team learned that success comes when you step outside of yourself and your position and embrace the role the team needs from you. When you care about your teammates more than your playing time, great things happen. With our team philosophy of “Just do what needs to be done,” there was no room for egos. We simply asked them to “outwork” the other team. We would skate harder to the loose puck. We would “back check” so no one would have a free run at our goalie, and we tried to always win the rebound goal. We figured if the team wins those battles, the score will naturally reflect that. It usually did.
The perfect team’s season ended with just one loss and a league championship. Still, more importantly than that, the players learned that the perfect team is one that cares about the team’s success more than individual stats, and when you play this way, great things happen both on and off of the ice.