One of my favorite endeavors/jobs/passions was coaching youth ice hockey. I grew up with the sport in Minnesota, so I guess it’s in my DNA. I loved competing. But most of all I loved my players, who ranged in age over the years from post-toddlers to high school kids.
The last few days, I’ve been remembering one team in particular, my first high school job, in fact. In the fall of 2000, Mansfield High School in suburban Fort Worth, Texas, advertised for a junior varsity hockey coach. That JV team had won just one game the previous season, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to coaching. I applied to the head varsity coach, another native Minnesotan named Brett Westbrook, and got the job.
And whoa. These players made the Mighty Ducks look polished. But it became immediately apparent that they brought an infectious joy to every practice. A willingness to be taught. A desire to work and make the most of whatever meager abilities they might have had. Most importantly, they loved each other. Every time I stepped in the locker room, the bond of this very disparate group of kids was palpable.
And a funny thing happened. We started to win. Even the games we lost were squeakers. One loss in particular stands out. Before that game, I told the team about my younger brother and high school hockey teammate, Steve, who was then in the final stages of terminal lung cancer. In my pregame speech, I talked about Steve’s own passion for the sport. How I would never forget sitting across the locker room from my brother before a game, seeing his eyes absolutely aflame. How Steve became a coach himself, coached youth hockey until he could no longer stand.
But the thing that most struck me was how much Steve loved his young players and how much they loved him. On that night in 2000, I told my own guys that Steve was the reason I became a coach myself.
They went out and played a great game that night but came up just short. A few minutes after we left the ice, two of my older players, Danny Dahr and Jason LePage, came up to me, still in uniform, with tears in their eyes. They told me how bad they felt about losing because the team had decided to dedicate the game to Steve. They had wanted so badly to win it for him and for me. I cried that night, too.
The season went on. We kept winning against teams far more talented, and I began to think I was indeed living in a Disney movie. By the end of the year, we were actually one win away from the championship. Our opponent in the last game was the league’s most talented team, therefore the perfect foil for our little fairytale.
But sometimes the other team is just that much better. By the third period we were down 7-1.
Yet as our season slipped away, not a young shoulder sagged on our bench. Not a negative syllable was uttered. If anything, my guys’ effort and passion intensified as the score mounted against us. I’ve never seen such a display of character and courage in all my years. Which explains why I called timeout with about two minutes to go in our season, an unorthodox move for a coach in those circumstances.
Most players on that end of the score would expect a butt-chewing, I suppose. This is what I told them instead.
“I’m so proud of you guys that I could just spit.”
They are men now, many of them married with children of their own. It had been a long time since I thought of them or that season. Then, a few days ago, I came across something that Jason LePage, now 30 years old, had posted on Facebook.
“The difference between you and me is I’m willing to earn every inch,” he wrote. “And I never quit. Every time I want to quit, I hear Tim Madigan in my head, telling me it’s never okay to quit. Thanks coach.”
No —Jay LePage, and Danny Dahr, Alex Weatherhead (the captain), Matt Taylor, Patrick Gray, Jeff Davis, Patrick Madigan (the 10-year-old stick boy) and the rest. For a season I’ll never forget …