As a head coach I have been one game away from the state tournament twice. I have never been one good bounce away, until last Friday. When we tied our game with the Eau Claire Stars with six seconds left in regulation, I knew I was as close to the state tournament as I had ever been. As the three minutes ticked away before the start of overtime I knew anything was possible and one good bounce would send us to that ever elusive destination.
Have you ever been that close to a lifelong dream, so close you could literally taste it? It is an exhilarating yet uneasy feeling as a coach, because you personally cannot just make it happen. Your opponent, your own team and the will of the “hockey gods” all have a say in the impending outcome. The next seven minutes each team emptied their emotional and physical gas tanks as the puck danced and bounced dangerously close to its game ending destination—the back of the net.
Then came the fortuitous bounce, followed by the puck rocketing toward our goal like a missile, then dropping like a duck shot out of the sky as it hit the back of the net. With it our hopes of a happy ending. Overtimes are equal parts elation and devastation which are triggered simultaneously. The devastation is an emotional polar plunge of gut wrenching, heartbreaking sadness that momentarily stuns you. Some stand in shock, some emotionally melt down, others find something to break, but we are all forced to deal with it as the winners celebrate the dream they seemingly snatched away from us. Their elation is every bit as evident and powerful.
It is an unmatched divergence of emotions that winning and losing accelerates. On this occasion the pride felt from a valiant effort becomes an inner wrestling match of emotions that is nearly impossible to control. Finding the right words later in the lockeroom becomes a hopeless search, because there are no right words. Missed chances, what-might have-been scenarios only add to the traffic jam of emotions in your head. There seems to be no escape from the tornado of contrasting emotions spinning in your head. Overtime is the both the cruelest and the greatest of finishes.
As a coach you walk out of the rink with the letter you earned, a W or an L, stamped vividly on your forehead. Sometimes it seems unfair, but it is the rules you agree to when you enter the athletic arena. You know better than to evaluate yourself like that, but the reality is achievement by coaches is all too often measured by wins and losses. They write books about coaches who win championships. Yet there have been many great coaches who never reached the top of their particular mountain. Within the coaching fraternity we all know just how difficult it is to be the last team standing. We evaluate each other by our commitment to our players and the good we do for them and the game.
Life, the professor we all learn from has a way of putting things into perspective. As I lamented the end of our season and replayed the bounces of the puck in my mind Professor Life humbled me. I learned in the days following our loss that a former player of mine lost his 39 year old sister to a fight with cancer and that two of my former assistant coaches and best friends had suffered loses, one as his assistant coach collapsed on the bench before a game and passed away later in the hospital. With the swiftness of the delete key, the thoughts of a lost game were wiped from my mind.
The cold, hard reality, like a blast of the arctic temperatures just outside my door, reminded me that my discomfort paled in comparison. With my wife and grandkids sitting next to me at the dinner table, my miserable attitude turned into gratitude and that bounce of the puck, just twenty-four hours ago, seemed pretty insignificant. People I care deeply about were experiencing real grief.
Life is a complicated game we all get to play. Like an overtime game none of us know exactly when it will end. The key is to keep playing to the best of your ability through the good shifts and the bad. Appreciate those on the journey with you and be a good teammate. We can’t all be champions, no matter how hard we work at it; some will unfairly fall short. But we can all be great teammates, or fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, or best friends.
When you sign up to be an athlete or later on a coach, you are enrolling in a life simulation complete with all the pitfalls and peaks. It is an elective choice, but a high level post-graduate class in your pursuit of a degree in Life. Unlike a college education the physical and emotional price you will pay, will far exceed the financial burden. And the debt you incur, a hard drive of life lessons, won’t need to be paid back, but paid forward instead. Failure will be expected and won’t be frowned upon. It will be a prerequisite to your future classes in success. I believe there is no greater pursuit of life’s road map than the athletic journey.
On Friday I asked my players to give me their absolute best and I believe they did. And as unjust as the end result might still seem to us, we pull ourselves together and move forward. Some will simply say we failed and they will be right by their narrow definition. They will also be completely wrong. There is no failure in having the courage to fail, the perseverance to do it all over again and the faith to believe that next good bounce will go your way.
It is all any of us can do, get up and face each new day knowing not all the pucks will bounce our way.
And with a few good bounces, I will be back next season!