By Doug Abrams
A few years ago, a fellow youth hockey coach told me about an emergency his team faced late in the prior season. The team was scheduled to play at 7:00 one Saturday night at the home rink, and he grew nervous when his starting goalie had not arrived by about 6:30. The coach phoned the goalie at home, and the parents told him that they had not left yet because they thought that game time was 9:00.
The team was in trouble without the starting goalie, but he lived about an hour away and his parents could not drive him to the rink in time. Then the unexpected happened. The Zamboni driver began resurfacing the ice for pre-game warmup, but the vehicle sputtered and stopped near the center red line. The game was delayed for more than an hour as the driver and his maintenance staff huddled before the vehicle restarted, continued resurfacing, and finally left the ice.
This sounds like the story of a typical mechanical malfunction, but actually there was nothing typical about it. The team had always treated the Zamboni driver and other rink staff as friends – bantering with them in the lobby and locker room, asking about their families, inviting them to the team’s holiday party, and regularly extending similar courtesies. With the starting goalie and his parents racing to the rink and certain to arrive late, the Zamboni driver saw an opportunity to repay months of kindness.
The Zamboni had not suffered a mechanical malfunction. The driver simply turned off the engine at center ice to delay the opening faceoff while pretending to make repairs. He and other maintenance staff delivered a performance that would have made a Hollywood director proud. Buying time was the driver’s idea, and not the coach’s.
A “Teachable Moment” For Coaches, Players and Parents
If my team had faced this predicament, I hope I would have done things differently. I believe in full disclosure and I trust the sportsmanlike impulses of opposing youth league coaches, so I would have preferred to ask the other coach for a one-hour delay. From what my friend told me, that accommodation would have been possible because the ice time was available that night and the game attracted no fans beyond the players’ friends and immediate families. I have sometimes granted youth hockey opponents accommodations in the interests of spirited competition, and I have sometimes received accommodations.
Speculating about how I would have sought the one-hour delay is not the point here. This Zamboni story offers a “teachable moment” for coaches and their players and parents. Youth league and high school sports programs usually depend on custodians, maintenance staffs, grounds crews, security guards, grass cutters, and other employees who (like the Zamboni driver) go to work every day but often toil in anonymity, routinely ignored by team members who do not even bother to learn their names. Sometimes these employees even face outright insults and discourtesy from patrons who feel a sense of entitlement, but teams have two reasons to extend the respect and common courtesy that everyone deserves.
Ensuring a Smooth Operation
First of all, custodians and other facility personnel can be the team’s best friend in a pinch, as the Zamboni driver demonstrated. These employees have plenty of discretion about how they do their jobs, and personal relationships count. Life is a two-way street, so the team’s respect and common courtesy can pay rich dividends.
When facility personnel appreciate the coach and players, it is amazing how fast storerooms get opened, fields get dragged, or public address systems get fixed in emergencies. If one of our hockey players would break a skate lace or discover his mouth guard missing moments before a practice or game at our home rink, the rink staff would routinely find the pass key to unlock the equipment shop and provide the needed supplies, knowing that we would pay for them later. Never did we hear that the pass key “can’t be found.” The general public did not normally receive such informal courtesies when the shop was closed.
I wonder how many youth league and high school coaches agonize over Xs and Os at their desks at home, only to be tripped up occasionally because they overlook interpersonal skills that require no special knowledge of the game. Employees appreciate team members who stop to say hello and chat, rather than treat them like pieces of furniture. Someone once said that “sometimes it’s the little things that count most.” That person hit the nail on the head.
Doing the Right Thing
In 1989, Spike Lee earned an Academy Award nomination for his drama, “Do the Right Thing.” Even more important than any expectation of repayment such as the Zamboni driver’s on that game night, coaches should teach their players and parents to show respect because respecting other people is simply the right thing to do.
It does not take much effort for coaches, players and parents to treat service employees with respect, but respect does not come naturally to some people. (Just consider how rudely some people treat waiters and store clerks.) Coaching resembles a game of “follow the leader,” and the coach sets the right example for players and parents alike by treating people with dignity and common courtesy. Call it a lesson in Citizenship 101.
On my teams, the lesson began with the first practice session. We punctuated our requests with “please” and “thank you,” words that can work magic, even to employees who know that they must do what the team asks. At home and on the road, our squirt and high school players alike were also responsible for picking up every piece of tape and other refuse that they dropped on the locker room floor. I said that we would leave the locker rooms clean because “the rink personnel are not your servants, and they are not here to pick up after you.” Even though employees earn a wage for their time, it is disrespectful to require them to clean up after other people’s children who can clean up after themselves.
From top to bottom, rink personnel were always invited to our holiday and year-end parties, where they had the opportunity to socialize with the players and their parents in a relaxed atmosphere. The interchange was a plus for everyone, and it was the right thing to do.
Because local newspapers generously provided youth hockey coverage all season, each sports editor received a year-end thank-you card signed by every player. Editors and staff writers take plenty of criticism from readers, but our local newspapers deserved thank-you’s because they gave the players lasting memories by publishing our press releases. These newspapers would have thrived even without youth hockey news.
Albert Einstein said, “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university.” That is solid advice about right and wrong from a wise source.