Hockey from different sides of the rink

Feb 17, 2012

I’ve coached high school boy’s hockey teams for almost a decade.  But a few years ago, I spent two years helping out the Michigan women’s hockey team – and I learned a lot more than they did.   

It’s worth noting that I’m comparing only high school boys and college women, based solely on my observations of two hockey teams.  Your mileage may vary. 

My education started on day one.

I dumped a bucket of pucks at center ice, grabbed one for myself, then stickhandled the puck around the rink.  But something seemed strange, and it took me a while to figure it out what it was. 

When I coached boys hockey, I never even finished dumping the pucks before I heard them rocketing around the rink.  They shot as high and hard as they could, trying to break the glass.  So what if it costs a few hundred bucks and ruins practice?  You’re a locker room hero.

But at my first women’s practice, the pucks just sat there at center ice.  The women skatedaround, waiting for me to say it was okay to take the pucks. 

When I blew the whistle to give the boys a new drill, they dove right in – and got it all wrong.  When I told the women what to do, they would huddle to discuss the whole thing, then did it exactly right the first time.

The boys loved showing up the goalies by whizzing slap shots past their heads and making them look foolish.

The women shot the puck right at the goalies’ pads, because it made the goalies happy, and that made the shooters happy – even while it drove us coaches crazy. 

The boys loved shooting the puck, being the star, and dominating anyone they could.  Getting them to pass the puck was the hard part.    

The women loved passing the puck – and passing, and passing, and passing.  And really, just passing.

They didn’t want to be the star.  They just wanted everyone to get along.  And that would have been just lovely – except, if we wanted to win, somebody had to score.  And that meant someone had to shoot!

How many women does it take to shoot the puck?  Five.  One to shoot the puck, and four to say it’s okay to shoot the puck.

We had to convince the women they were better than they thought they were.  We had to convince the boys they were nowhere near as good as they thought. 

When a boy had a birthday, none of his teammates or coaches knew about it, and no one really cared.  But the women all knew each other’s birthdays, and told us. The first time, we surrounded the birthday girl in a circle for a drill, then sang Happy Birthday instead.  We thought we were pretty sensitive coaches.    

Until I got to the locker room, which was decorated with streamers and posters.  They had cake and pop and the birthday girl’s favorite music. 

When they boys had a conflict, one guy might swear at his teammate, and the teammate would swear back – and it was over.

The women never swore at each other – so I gushed to the other assistant coach, a woman who had played at Harvard, about how great they all got along.  She looked at me as if I had two heads.  “Are you kidding?”

She then proceeded to diagram the three major cliques on the team, drawing arrows between players who didn’t get along.

I was flabbergasted, but protested that no one ever argued.

“That’s when they’re really mad,” she said, “and you better watch out!”  I learned to watch out. 

But since then I’ve noticed one thing about my male friends who coach women’s sports: not one of them has ever gone back to coaching the boys.