When you play in a short tournament, like the World Junior Championship, there isn’t much time to build trust with each other. NHL.com’s Adam Kimelman has a great piece on the 2005 U.S. National Junior Team that came in as the favorites on home soil and ended up without a medal. The tournament was a wild one in Grand Forks, N.D., and Thief River Falls, Minn. Kimelman interviewed a few current NHLers that were on that team to find out why they struggled so much. Jake Dowell, now of the Chicago Blackhawks, probably hit the nail on the head:
“We don’t get a whole lot of time together before the tournament, so some guys didn’t know each other that well and sometimes it takes longer than you expect to form a little chemistry and trust each other,” Dowell told NHL.com. “To me, that is the biggest thing. If we don’t have that, then we struggle a little bit.”
This U.S. team has been made well aware of the 2005 U.S. National Junior Team that Kimelman writes about. Befalling the same fate would be a tough pill to swallow with a team that has such high expectations. Keith Allain stressed on the conference call yesterday that the next few days would focus on team building, unity and finding the team’s identity. They wasted no time in getting started after the roster was announced.
Not long after the announcement was made, Team USA had a vigorous strength and conditioning session, according to Alex Clark, who also tweeted that the U.S. players got an inspirational talk from former Army Ranger Joe Dames.
I’ve sat in on some of those inspirational meetings before and they are always a motivating experience for the players, the staff and anyone within an ear shot. It’s really important to put things into perspective for these guys. Being able to listen to a person that has gone to actual battle, had to sacrifice for his fellow soldiers, and had to have real courage, helps get the mindset for the players. They won’t go through something as nearly as difficult or scary as Dames did, but they can put his words to good use in their own minds.
According to Emerson Etem and Jerry D’Amigo‘s Twitter feeds, the team also had a spirited game of laser tag. This may seem like something small and goofy, but its actually really helpful. Hockey players are competitive in nature, so give them something competitive, but fun, to get to know each other better. Light-hearted competition brings out the best in people, usually. Unless you’re the guy who takes everything waaaay too seriously and someone ends up with a bloody nose. I’m sure that didn’t happen during Team USA’s fun outing yesterday. Sounds like the guys had a blast.
UPDATE: Here’s the USA Hockey blog post about yesterday’s festivities. With the new team photo… in laser-tag gear.
Etem also mentioned the team had a “Secret Santa” event coming up. That’s another great way to really build that camaraderie. For some of these guys, its the first time they’ve spent Christmas away from home. That can be tough for some young guys. However, when you get to spend the holidays with your hockey family, it softens the blow and it also brings the team closer together.
It’s always important to have trust within a team. Players have to be willing to make sacrifices for each other and know that the guy next to him is going to do the same thing.
The coaches also have to find that trust in these guys. Which is why tonight’s exhibition game against Norway is so important. Coming up a little later today, we’ll highlight what to watch for in tonight’s game and why its going to be extra important for Team USA.