Love the Game

These past few months have shown me a side of youth hockey that went above and beyond crazy.  Which is why it is so fitting that last week Anthony Angello, a player we coached at Cornell, signed his first professional contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins.  And I want to share with everyone a little bit of Anthony’s story.

We first started recruiting Anthony to Cornell when he was a junior in high school.  He was a tall, lanky kid that was just learning to grow into his 6’5” body and fell more times than I care to remember when we went to watch him play.  He was almost like a human zamboni cleaning the ice (Sorry Ang…it’s true).

His skills were rounding into form, but my goodness was he competitive.  My goodness did he have passion for the game.  He was all over the ice (literally and figuratively) and you could tell that this kid loved to play.  He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he made a couple great plays and was the hardest working kid on the ice.  We walked out of the rink really excited about him.

Then we met his parents and you could tell that he was coming from a great place.  His mom and dad were awesome people and Anthony…as an older brother with two little sisters…you could sincerely tell that he cared about them very much. (Yes, kids, we notice those kinds of things…)

Anthony was a straight A student that cared a lot about school.  He was a hockey fanatic that loved the game.  He was a great kid that you could tell cared about his family.  We loved him and his family so we offered him a spot and he accepted.  It was awesome.

Now, at the time we recruited Anthony he was still playing high school hockey as a junior in the Syracuse area.  He was playing a hybrid with AAA as well, but he was playing for his high school and LOVING it.

LOVING it.

At a time when so many kids are being pressured to play for top organizations, told that if they don’t play for this team or that team they won’t get exposed to college and pro scouts…Anthony was playing high school hockey and LOVING IT.

And THAT is why Anthony Angello signed an NHL contract last week.  He was put in an environment by his family, friends, and coaches where he was allowed to LOVE THE GAME.

Coaching Anthony at Cornell, he was a tireless worker.  He was always in watching video, always on the ice working on his game, always taking care of his body.  He was a Rinkrat…the highest compliment a coach could give a player.

Those great work habits, the ones that make him a great player…

Those are a byproduct of how much he loves the game.  They are not a result of the business like, win-at-all-costs approach too many youth organizations are fielding today.

Youth hockey does not, in too many places, put kids in an environment where they are allowed to love the game.  I see kids that have played 60 games by January who are burnt out and don’t want to come to the rink anymore.  I see kids watching coaches babble at whiteboards instead of having fun and working hard at drills.  I see squirt and peewee coaches playing one or two lines because for whatever reason they feel like winning is more important than being conscious of half of their players’ mental well-being.

And oh my goodness, at this time of year, it’s not about development anymore.  It’s all an arms race to see what adults can recruit the parents of the best kids to make the best teams.  From midgets all the way down to the mite level.  I was literally getting phone calls in December, before I even decided to coach midget hockey, asking me what I was doing because teams were being formed.  I was like…What???? Isn’t there four months left in THIS season???

Five Decembers ago as a junior in high school, Anthony Angello was playing high school hockey with his friends and for his town.  Three Decembers after that, he was a Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick and playing for Cornell.  And next December he has a chance to be playing next to Sidney Crosby.

Parents, please listen to me when I say that the guys that I have played with and the kids that I have coached that went the furthest in hockey are the ones that sincerely loved the game.  They loved coming to the rink.  They worked hard and did the extras because that’s what they loved to do.  Their LOVE fueled their DRIVE.  Not the other way around.

So as you embark on your son or daughter’s tryouts…please keep that in mind.  Anthony’s path is not a one-size-fits-all, as every kid that plays a high level of hockey takes their own, unique path.  But understand that his path allowed him to grow as a hockey player and a person because he was doing what he loved to do.

That is what youth hockey is all about.

Right?