It’s what you work all season long for. It’s a chance to put all the hard work and lessons learned to the test. There is no better time of year than playoff hockey. This is when teams truly see what they are made of, and when champions rise from the pack! Everyone always says it, and it is so true. It doesn’t matter what level you are at, winning a championship is a priceless experience. The lasting bonds that are formed and all the lessons that are taught & learned in these high-pressure situations are incomparable. It is not always the most talented teams that win, either. In fact, it is often the teams that refuse to surrender or the teams with players competing for their teammates rather than for their own personal accolades.
What separates the regular season hockey from playoff hockey? The game is the same, but the intensity is through the roof! Players finish every check, stop on every puck, and throw their bodies in front of every puck. No one wants to be the player that didn’t do the little things to help their team win. I had the privilege of playing in the playoffs five out of six years during my professional hockey career, my last year being the only year of not making the playoffs. It was a tough way to end my career and something I still think about. I can remember how hard it was to score goals in the playoffs. Every game was close and felt like a nail biter. Every team and every player brought their ‘A’ game. You shouldn’t be surprised by this; you should expect it! Those who don’t won’t make it far in the playoffs.
A few years ago, I read an article where Wayne Gretzky shared his opinion on what created the Edmonton Oilers dynasty. He talked about walking out of the rink after just losing to the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Finals. Gretzky said he walked by the Islander dressing room expecting to see them celebrating with champagne flying and a party-like atmosphere. Gretzky said it couldn’t have been more the opposite. They were sitting with ice bags on their bodies in exhaustion. Gretzky went on to say that in that moment, the Edmonton Oilers learned what it took to win. You must give it your all! The Oilers went on to create a dynasty of their own, year after year, leaving it all out on the ice.
Winning a championship is one thing I wish I could have accomplished in my hockey career. For all you Mavericks’ fans, I remember my first year with the team. We rolled through the regular season. I swear we had the regular season title wrapped up by mid-March. That was a special group of players. We swept the first round in convincing fashion. Next up was everyone’s favorite rival, the Allen Americans. A lot of people don’t know this, but I played for the Allen Americans right out of college. I got to see up close the winning tradition that they were creating.
I can remember that playoff series like it was yesterday. We had swept our opponents in Round 1 and had a week off before meeting our next opponents. Would it be Idaho or Allen? Allen won in Game 7 and only had a day of rest before coming to Kansas City. They came in and hit us hard with a huge uppercut. We were not ready. Perhaps we were over confident from our stellar regular season & first round sweep. We did not expect a tired team to attack so hard. They stole Game 1 on our ice. We tried to play catch up, but couldn’t dig ourselves out of the hole. We lost in Game 6, and Allen went on to win the championship.
The Allen Americans won four straight championships between the CHL and ECHL. All their teams were built from the net out and had players who could score big goals. More importantly, they played with a confidence and relentlessness that couldn’t be matched over those years. It’s one of the most impressive accomplishments in all of hockey.
Now let’s focus on youth hockey. Often the playoff format is one and done. You play all season long to get the best possible seed you can. Then, unfortunately, it’s a one game elimination putting your season on the line. In my opinion, it shares a lot of similarities with pro hockey. The team that comes out of the gate strong, throws the first punch, and refuses to let their destiny be controlled by the other team will fare the best. If the higher seed lets the underdog hang around, you know what will happen.
Look no further than the NCAA basketball tournament with all the upsets. The longer the underdog is left standing, the more belief and confidence they gain. Before too long, they will think they belong in the fight. Teams must be ready to start “on time” as Coach Mike Babcock states. If you are not ready from the drop of that first puck, you might find yourself on the outside looking in!
Of course, there will be nerves. Heck, I already have nerves and I’m not even playing. Players must turn those nerves into positive energy by trusting your preparation. Tell yourself “Calm and confident, I play well!” We have a coach and hockey director in our organization, DJ Wiles, that has won three state championships with the Kansas City Mavericks travel program:
“I have to remind myself sometimes that these kids are 11 and 12 years old. They are not always going to have the best game of their season. They are going to make mistakes and have bad outings. But, what I would tell anyone, the teams that win when it counts are the teams that walk, talk, act, and fight like a family. At the end of the day, if they go out there and skate for their family, they are going to come out on top. It’s not about the talent of any one player, it’s about picking up your teammates when they are struggling, coming together and working together. Because that is what a family does. If a team does that, there is nothing stopping them from achieving what they want!”
Players enjoy these moments, because I can tell you from experience, there isn’t anything like it. Everyone always asks me what I miss most about hockey. The answer is simple: I miss competing! I miss lining up next to someone and seeing if what I had in me was good enough. I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of the Kansas City travel organization. We have teams at every level who have had a great regular season. Players, you have put in the work and preparation for the big moments. Trust that and leave it all out there on the ice! Good luck and GO MAVS!!!!
Find out more about Bryce’s Hockey Academy and upcoming schools through his website.