Wasn’t it Belinda Carlisle in the 80’s who said “heaven is a place on earth”? Finally, in 2012, I think I finally found that place: Vierumaki, Finland. I have spent the last week of my life in a place I could only dream of, until now. However, don’t be fooled. The High Performance Camp is no holiday.
We begin our days very early, sometimes at 5am. A wake up call at 6:45am is a luxury. Ice time after ice time, sometimes 3 per day. We have been given daily focus points for our practices. Then the team staff, which consists of a Mentor Coach, two Team Coaches, a Goalie Coach, a Manager, an Athletic Therapist and a Strength & Conditioning Coach sit down and plan every last detail of practice. In between ice times, we have various activities for our athletes, including fitness testing, team building, dry land training along with seminars on nutrition, anti-doping, and fitness, and the rare treat like team skits and ice cream. Once the athletes are asleep, we meet again to plan the next day.
It is exhausting and draining, but so uplifting. You get to spend your days and nights surrounded by greatness in Olympians like Hayley Wickenheiser, Iya Gavrilova, Danielle Goyette, and women’s hockey legends like Melody Davidson. You get to know people from all over the world who love the game as much as you do and who don’t want to be anywhere else in the world. The language barrier between staff members and between our players is a challenge but forcing us to communicate in other ways is a skill I have never really valued so much, until now. We are lucky if we get to bed by midnight. But there’s no question that the next morning’s wake-up call brings another rewarding day full of laughter, hard work and progress. Our team, Team Olympus, consists of players from everywhere- from Kazakhstan to Japan to Canada. They started out as quiet, scared individuals but are now a floating flock of giggling rambunctious teenagers, lost in the moments of the day. There is just something about the atmosphere created by the IIHF that is fostering the most important values in our sport- friendship, camaraderie, support. It’s not really about who’s better than who and who knows more than who. Nor is High Performance about elitism. It’s about coming together and making ourselves better. We have come together to share our knowledge and learn from one another.
Unfortunately it’s not all good news. Melody Davidson said it best just yesterday when she told us point blank: “Women’s hockey is in trouble.” Anyone familiar with women’s ice hockey knows that there is a major discrepancy between the top 2 countries and the rest, and from there, the top 5 to 6 countries and the rest. Our Mentor Coach Henrik Cedegren from Sweden put it succinctly: “We keep getting better every year but the US and Canada are running ahead, while it feels like we are only walking.”
So what do we do? How do we save the women’s game from a yearly grudge match between two teams? From my experiences here this week, I don’t think there is any one answer. There are so many aspects of the game, everything from administration to resources to player development that it almost feels overwhelming. If I had to pick a few things that I believe are key to a Federation’s success, I’d say: efficient organization and a commitment to coaching education.
In relation to efficient organization, it has been engrained in our minds this week that the only way a group of people can accomplish anything together is through constant communication and clearly defined roles. It is also imperative that people stick to their roles. It is always very tempting to want to do everything but this, we have found, causes confusion, mistakes and breakdowns. For success, everyone must be committed to doing only what they are supposed to do and doing it to the best of their ability.
In relation to coaching education, I have really been impressed by the openness and 2-way learning that has gone on between mentor coaches and team coaches. At no time have I ever been told my ideas, thoughts, drills were outdated, not good, etc. At all times we are reminded that the diversity of our personal experiences and backgrounds is a strength. As much as our mentor coaches guide us, they also constantly tell us how they too are here to learn and become better.
So, a commitment to continuous education and an aversion to complacency is what we, female ice hockey players, coaches, referees, managers, etc., need. As soon as we are happy with our progress and where we stand, we should be worried.
Finnish women’s ice hockey is the prime example. Who would ever think that a country so closely associated with ice hockey excellence had anything to worry about? However, in recent years, they have recommitted themselves to recruitment and growing the game. So much so that they have doubled their number of female ice hockey players in the last 6 years. This refocusing and reassessing their commitment to development brought them the sweet reward of a Bronze Medal in the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and a current #3 World Ranking. This type of progress is inspiring and something I hope can be replicated within the Irish Ice Hockey Association. I have no doubts that my experiences here in Vierumaki combined with those gained by my fellow Vierunaki students Sonya McEneaney, Anne Wipple, Beatty Hosgood, Gabriela Vlasankova and Vytautas Lukosevicius, will be an invaluable resource. All the pieces of the puzzle must be there: from Learn to Play and Recruitment to Refereeing to Fitness to Coaching and Skill Development. Everything we do must be committed to whole heartedly to be successful.
So, as I prepare for Team Olympus’ pre-game skate before a big match tonight versus Team Everest, I am going to focus on the two goaltenders I am coaching and how I can make them even better than they already are. And without a doubt, I too will become better from the experience.