Two words that have significant meaning as the high school hockey’s process of attrition grinds on. It is playoff time, a time like none other. It can take you to a high like none you have experienced and to a low that haunts you like a childhood nightmare. Even without our loyal fans pounding on the glass, emotions are at a fever pitch and the enthusiasm is so real it gives you more chills than the air inside the rink. The rivalries are intense and built on the unlikely combination of respect and hatred.
I can still vividly remember standing in a lockeroom in Rice Lake minutes before delivering my pre-game speech in my first sectional final and doing everything in my power to keep from breaking down. The dream I had worked so hard, seemingly every day of every month, to achieve was right there in front of me. One more win. The pride I felt in that group of young men was overwhelming. We had gone further than anyone expected, anyone except us. Two hours and a 3-1 loss later, that same lump in my throat returned.
The playoffs bring out the best in you as you dance on the edge of the cliff of no return.
As the horn blows, a few seconds at best, a season, a career and a dream come crashing down. Another season comes to an end. Every coach will have to deliver that season ending speech. Only one will do it under happy circumstances. The rest of us look out and see those twenty pair of eyes staring ahead looking for answers. There are tears, frustration, anger, disbelief and disappointment. We preached that their dream could come true. Work hard, be disciplined and play smart… all the cliches we coaches depend on. You tell them that life isn’t always fair, they can somehow understand that right now. You tell them it isn’t just about the winning, but it feels like it is. There are no adequate words to console, no explanations that seem acceptable. For the underclassmen there is next year, but for the seniors there is a finality that is as stark, real and sudden as an overtime loss.
That senior year is a special year. The light at the end of the tunnel comes into clear focus as the season winds down. Most seniors rise to the occasion. It is their time to shine. After three years of grooming them they emerge into the players and more importantly the people you are so proud to have coached. The learning curve is steep, tough life lessons to be learned along the way like work ethic, discipline, perseverance, unselfishness, commitment, mutual respect and teamwork. I always kid with them, “just when you get it all figured out, then you leave”. Seniors are most often the gas that fuels successful teams.
I have been in many of these very lockerooms, some more difficult than others. The season ending playoff loss comes in all shapes and sizes. There are some seasons when you realize as a coach that this group didn’t work hard enough and didn’t give enough of themselves to earn that playoff run. In others, a playoff run was never a realistic option, but the players before you made up for their shortcomings with their over-abundance of heart. For some their expectations will consume them. Sometimes it is literally the bounce of a puck. Each final lockeroom is unique, yet so eerie with dismal familiarity.
The most difficult lockerooms I have stood in were the ones that ended my son and my twin daughter’s high school careers. The duality of being a coach and a father magnifies the sudden and stunning impact. As a senior, when that game clock hit zero it is much more than the end of a game. For most it is the end of a way of life you and your family have enjoyed for decades. That finality feels like a gut punch, and honestly like a death in the family. A heart wrenching grieving process begins. Those who have never traveled that path won’t understand.
You don’t have to be a coach or player to feel this, for most parents it is equally devastating. Looking back you have regrets, I should have got to more games when he was a youth, we should have had more talks and maybe fewer post-game interrogations, we should have gone to the outdoor rink more often, spent more time passing in the garage, the list appears endless. Then you realize that if you had done everything perfect, it still wouldn’t be enough right now. There is no turning back, no rewind, heartbreakingly it’s over. It is one of those defining moments in life, reality strikes you like a blindside check in the neutral zone. You’ve had years to prepare for this moment, but you feel totally helpless.
Eventually we all move on, but for now stand with your seniors, allow them their time and space to cry, mourn and be angry. Support them with the empathy they have most certainly earned.
ABC sports made the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” famous many decades ago. It still holds true today. In the playoffs every win is a thrill and the one defeat you’re allowed is agony often beyond words. Every new season begins with the full knowledge of what awaits all but one team. And despite that unyielding fact, we can’t wait for each new season to begin. That will to compete, that will to succeed is what brings us back, until that last grain of sand in the hourglass drops. That is what makes athletics so special, there is no promise of equality, no compromise, no special treatment, no government subsidies, and in the playoffs, no second chances. Just do or die, win or go home.
Another decade has passed, but the playoffs still remain the best and worst of times.