School of hockey

Dear class of 2016,

Let me start by saying that it’s a great honor for me to be the one that sends you off to the big, wild world with these few words of wisdom. Sure, it would have been even a bigger honor to get invited to a school to deliver them in person, but hey, it’s 2010, who does anything in person anymore? In fact, send me your phone number and I’ll text the words of wisdom to you. There’s only five of them, six tops. Maybe seven.

But, alas, you’re there and I’m here and we need to get this done.

Good luck, be careful out there

Usually, the people giving these speeches are celebrities, people who have done something important. So that, just when they walk into the room, you’ll be on your feet, giving them a standing ovation. I know, I’ve seen Conan O’Brien’s speech on YouTube. I doubt that you’d give me a standing ovation if I entered your school’s auditorium and I’m 100 percent sure that you’re not standing up right now.

I’m afraid I may have already lost you, so let me get started. Instead of simply bragging about my own “achievements”, I thought I would share with you the key to success and beyond that, to happiness. I will give you something that will be your moral compass in years to come, a clear way of getting back on track, and a place to look for guidance in those days of doubt and misery.

Here it comes.

Think hockey.

I understand that some of you may be surprised. I hear you say that the only people that care about hockey are hockey players and let’s face it, how many of those will be graduating this year? I know, I know. Hockey players aren’t known for the sophistication.

You probably take that as a sign of their weakness, a sign of inferior intellect, but I say to you, those boys and girls are not here today because they already know. They’re way ahead of you. They haven’t studied the word or the world, but they have been living it, playing hockey.

They have found a way to take their body and soul to the next level, to find harmony in the universe, and to give and take and take and give. They know how to hook when the referee is looking the other way, how to send a saucer pass to the tape of a teammate waiting at the crease, and where the five-hole is.

In hockey, there is place for everyone, big or small, slow or fast, as long as the team works well together. Different kinds of players come together, and play against another team of individuals. Inside the game, they have to move the puck fast, from one another – because “the puck is faster than any player” – to get it past the opponents. They have to play defense together, block shots, endure pain.

Over a course of a season, they’ll win and lose, and the team will grow, and hopefully improve. They will do all that together, and they’ll bond as they carry each other onward.

Win or lose, they will always have each other. Win, and they will also have endorsement deals and anniversary dinners.

The individuals, while individuals within the team, each of them having specific roles and jobs to do, turn into numbered pawns in a game where “the name on the front of the sweater is more important than the one on the back.” We all kind of like collectives, we admire people who work together to reach their goal.

Of course, there are superstars, but come playoff time, we look to the grinders to get a big goal – because, let’s face it, most of us are grinders in the game of life.

There, I said it, didn’t I. “The game of life.”

Sorry. I know, “it’s just a game.”

Anyway, hockey teaches us many valuable lessons about team work, rebellion, stardom, discipline, drinking enough, not drinking enough, and getting a reward.

Below is what I think you should know when you venture out, dreaming of making it to The Show, afraid that an open-ice hit is waiting for you in each shift. And you’re right, it probably is. But with my guidance, you can park in front of the net and wait for the rebound to fall right onto your feet.

Not everything works for every one, and not every one of you will get it. Life’s not fair that way. But if you stare long enough, and watch enough hockey games, and talk to hockey players and basically just talk and dream hockey, you will find all the answers. One game probably won’t do it, so you need to watch some more hockey. Then some more, until all you do is sit at home and watch hockey all day, which has probably taken care of what ever problems you originally had.

Think hockey.

There’s no “I” in “team”.

Nor is there one in farm team, coach, goal, Stanley Cup, backhand pass, forecheck, paycheck, neutral-zone trap, Hockey Hall of Fame, bonus, agent, teammate, playoffs, goaltender, faceoff, defenceman, forward, bench, sweater, sweat, skate, Wayne Gretzky, or, yes, hockey.

There is one in offside, icing, hooking, assist, interference, and assistant coach.

Just a random fact and I have to say that I haven’t found any correlation between words that have an “i”. Seems to me the “i’s” have been randomly distributed into words, but I may be wrong.

Anyway, the point is that it’s a team sport. Right?

You have your 20-plus teammates around you, the coaching staff, the equipment managers, and so on, and you’ll depend on them. Even the management, all the way to the owners.

Without owners, there’s no hockey club, without a hockey club there are no hockey teams, without hockey teams, there’s no hockey game. And, like it or not, you’ll have to rely on your teammates and find the ones you like to play with, because that’s when it’s most fun. And when it’s fun, you’ll also do a good job.

According to studies, humans have, on average, 150 people in their social network, but a core of just five close friends. These are real, academic studies in real universities, not universities of life or hockey, so take the conclusions with a grain of salt. I know I do.

However, five close friends also happens to be who you need on the ice with you. Is that a coincidence? Of course not. It’s one of the universal truths that hockey prepares you for. The human brain can only handle five close relationships at the same time so take care of your five-man unit, and it will take care of you.

Chances are, one of those four will also come up with a nickname that you’ll have to live with the rest of your life. In a hockey locker room, people cut to the core and your very existence will get summed up in an often one-syllable nickname.

That’s called branding, and in the 21st century, we’re all brands.

So, Dany Heatley becomes “Heater”, Tomas Holmstrom “Homer”, Shane Doan “Do(a)ner”, and Mark Messier “Mess”. Steve Yzerman is “Stevie-Y”, Alexander Ovechkin is known as “Ovie”, and even Wayne Gretzky, the greatest of the greats, is just “Gretz”.

And like in life, you can’t really choose your brand, the people around you make that choice for you. You can only enhance the image that people already have. Don’t fight it, and instead embrace the brand and give it a meaning.

Of course, if you’re one of the ginger-haired ones, it doesn’t matter what you do and what your name is. You’ll be “Red”. But I’m sure you’ve learned to deal with it.

Let’s move on.

Superstition works.

Always eat the same thing on a game day, drive the same route to the rink, always put on your left shoe/skate/sock first, insist on sitting in the same seat on the bus every time, never wash your underwear during a winning streak, always drink coffee exactly 7 minutes before game time, always be the 11th person through the door, and never, ever touch the Stanley Cup before you win it.

Get superstitious. Use it. Get focused.

Let that superstitious mumbo jumbo be the framework of your life. Use all the rigid rules to build a box for yourself. Talk yourself into believing that breaking any of your self-imposed rules will result in bad luck, jinxing your possibilities of winning because inside your box, you can do anything you want.

Besides, you can always create new rules.

And most importantly, nothing makes you more focused than not shaving for weeks, or months.

Keep your head up.

About those open-ice hits that I mentioned earlier: You’ll get one, that much we know. Everybody gets flattened at one point, and what matters is whether you can get up or not.

Of all the pointers that I’m dishing out here, this may be the one you can start to apply the easiest. This is a very good tip to all of you especially when you consider that “keep your head up” is more of a metaphor to “be aware of your surroundings”, boys and girls, always looking and knowing where the puck and the other players are. Take traffic as a for instance. Keep your head up, and you can make swift lane changes on a highway.

What about just walking down a crowded street where tourists keep making sudden stops? You know the annoyed man walking behind them, who then has to stop, make a really fast sideways turn, a flip, and a 360, just to avoid a collision with you – without the stoppers ever noticing him?

You should. That’s me.

I don’t want to make a big deal of it, using the acrobatic skills I’ve learned in hockey is simply what I do in situations like that, but I’m just saying that if everybody kept their heads up, we’d have less collisions.

The person who first stands on the left side of the escalator, gets off and stand in front of it – not realizing the escalator feeds more people to the same spot all the time? The one who gets flattened by the next person?

That’s a non-hockey person. With his or her head down. Don’t be one of them. It may seem like a minor detail in the scheme of things, but I hate bumping into other people. Don’t you?

Not only is it important when you start to play the real man’s game, it’s also key to learning to skate. You can’t skate when you’re looking at your laces.


Sometimes you have to play for an idiot coach.

Enough about this. If he is a true idiot, he’ll be gone soon. If not, just do your job and get your agent working on a trade.

People wearing masks at work are often a little “special”.

Yes, that’s special as in strange, odd, people who march to the beat of a drummer that’s only inside their heads and that nobody else can hear. They’re often loners but they don’t interfere with your work and they can be funny with their little oddities. Most importantly, they can still be invaluable to you and your “team”, and according to some estimates, their importance to the team’s success can vary from 50 percent to 100 percent.

And if you are one of those people … well, I love you, man.

Taking credit is important.

Talking that second assist to yourself is perfectly OK, just as long as you’re not claiming an assist that actually belongs to somebody else. But if the ref only hands out one assist, you can help him by pointing out that you actually did set the whole play in motion by just being there – even if you were on the bench.

Stand up and take responsibility.

When there’s two minutes remaining in the game, and the score is tied, the key to getting some ice time is to make sure the coach notices you. Help him make the right call – which is to play you, of course – and stand up, make him pay attention to you. Out of sight, out of mind. You can even jump over the boards, and get on the ice during a stoppage of play. It’s easier for the coach to let you stay than to drag you out.

Of course, it can backfire, and the coach does come out and drag you out of the ice. But are you any worse off then, really? You may want get in touch with your agent, though.

Finally: Wisdom delivered by famous people

Wayne Gretzky’s father, Walter, famously taught him to not go where the puck is, but to go where the puck was going to be. Wayne Gretzky has said that he missed 100 percent of the shots he didn’t take.

Of course, that means that you should anticipate the play, and always try to score a goal, how ever desperate it may seem at the time. That sounds like a great advice and I’m not going to argue with the Gretzkys, and neither should you.

There you have it. I’m sure you feel elated already. I assume you’re bursting to get out and play some hockey, and I congratulate you for that. I hope you’ll find your team, your role on it, and that your nickname won’t be anything too obscene.

In closing, in the words of Joe Sakic who congratulated former teammate Teemu Selanne after Sakic’s Avalanche was ousted from the playoffs in 2007: “Go get your ring.”

Thank you.


Originally published here in 2009. You knew it. (Here’s a pdf, to print out and read on the train/bus/hammock).

6 thoughts on “School of hockey

  1. In a series of brilliant pieces, this is pure brilliance. What a great post. You should write for a living! Hahaha.
    I wish you spoke at my graduation hockey man.

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