Last week, when I saw the YouTube video of Scott Hartnell making his then-famous now-forgotten – nothing personal, Scottie, that’s just the way things go these days – Hulk Hogan impersonation, I thought of a friend of mine who did the same thing 20 years ago.
Only, he wasn’t doing it in front of 15 000 people, or to a guy dressed up as Hulk Hogan. He did it in an ice cold hockey rink 50 kilometers west of Helsinki, Finland, in front of 200 people, and purely out of frustration and to get back at every single one of those 150 people in the stands.
He skated from the goal line to the blueline, then lifted his hand behind his ear, and did the Hulk Hogan pose. The crowd was silent. Nobody was chirping at him, not anymore. And he was going fast between those bluelines. I know it, because I was chasing him, trying to catch up so we could celebrate the goal. My friend had just scored the game winner, with four seconds remaining in the game – the real reason for the crowd’s silence.
Now, on the global hierarchy of different hockey leagues, the fourth-highest – or, depending on your point of view, the third-lowest – division in Finland probably doesn’t rank very high, not in the Top 40, but for the 150 spectators, plus the 44 players, and the three coaches, and the two trainers, the three (homer) on-ice officials and the two guys working the clock and the game protocol, that goal was huge.
It was so big that my friend and I are still talking about it. Judging by the fact that another former teammate of ours liked my Facebook post about it, a couple of other people also remember it.
We talk about that celebration, and how he really shut the nasty home crowd up, and then we talk about the goal, and how we rallied back to win the game. And then we almost always talk about another game against the same team, a top team that we beat on our home ice.
That was a game we weren’t supposed to win. We were a lower-half team, they were leading the league. Somehow, our playing coach got us all on the same page, and the page only had two words on it: “Defend” and “Believe.”
“Belief is the ingredient that makes a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior; belief is easier when it occurs within a community,” writes Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habits”.
When one guy on our team threw himself on the ice to block a shot, it was easier for the second guy to do it. When the first guy iced the puck, we all started to ice it. And when we scored a goal, we all knew we could win.
The reason we still talk about a beer league game is because we learned something.
We learned that systems matter but what matters even more is that the players on the team believe in it, and each other. We see it every year, this time of the year. We saw it in 1994 when Mark Messier guaranteed a win, and we saw it in 1980 when the US beat the Soviets in Lake Placid.
Herb Brooks made sure his players knew what was expected, he made sure they worked harder than anybody else, and he made sure they came together as a team.
“If we play ‘em 10 times, [the Soviets] might win nine. But NOT this game,” he said.
And that’s why Al Michaels got a chance to say his famous line: “Do you believe in miracles?”
The keyword in the sentence is not miracle. It’s “believe”.