Justin Bourne has played parts of three ECHL season with Alaska, Utah, Reading andIdaho. (Photo by Allen Picard)
As a hockey player, every winter you get handed 20 new friends. I usually got along with about 19, genuinely liked five and found one gem.
But what happens when there isn’t that one gem? Or even five you genuinely like? What happens when you only get along with 16 of your teammates? Does it affect your performance?
Talent is what it is, you’re either good or you aren’t. When you get the puck, you make good plays or you don’t. Confidence plays a small part in these decisions, but it comes from successes and failures. False confidence, like your Mom’s “great game” after playing like a donkey for 60 minutes, means as much as “Mission Accomplished” from George W. Bush.
Obviously that same comment holds more weight from a teammate than a parent, but can that little bit of feel-good translate to better play?
My first year out of college, I played for the ECHL’s Utah Grizzlies, an immensely fun group of average hockey players, led by fan (and team) favorite Travis Rycroft.
Talk about passion for the game. Ryks lived and breathed this stuff. A Dave Matthews die hard, Trav wrote and played his own music at team parties. He was a motivator. He never quit. But most of all, everybody liked him. I mean everybody. And that doesn’t mean he liked everybody. In fact, if I had to guess I’d say my team-liking figures of 19-5-1 would be a little high for him (minus the 19 part, he probably got along with 21 of every 20 guys). He literally says “you betcha” when he agrees and isn’t being the slightest bit facetious.
So I got to thinking…how important is team chemistry? Our team in Utah was about an “OK” out of ten on the talent scale, but managed to go deep into playoffs as a scrappy, hard-working team. We had a great leader and liked each other.
There has to be a certain level where talent trumps chemistry. I’ve never been a big believer in team chemistry, believing that a talented team with a good coach could hate each other and it wouldn’t matter; they’d still find success. But the more I think about it, the more skeptical I’ve become of this idea.
Rycroft was the team captain for four years and never got his chance at the next level, but he had to have been close. Character isn’t something that can be measured and put on a scouting report, but its value is tangible in the dressing room.
Ryks missed some playoff games with torn knee ligaments (after being an iron man the previous season, never missing a game) and called the team in for a meeting without coaches to talk about that night’s game. He cried. He was so busted up he couldn’t play, he cared that much. You don’t think that motivates a group of people who like him? Of course it does. Some guys were playing for contracts, but the focus shifts a bit when you see something like that. Something about it just sets you straight.
The Dallas Cowboys have been the picture of the team I had been thinking of, all talent and no chemistry. They were a huge disappointment last season. I’m starting to take this theory a little more seriously.
All I know is when I leave this game, I can take something from Ryks. For one, he’s a good friend, but two, that this sort of stuff matters in any job. No matter what it is you do, if you dread seeing your boss or co-worker, it’s miserable. But if you’re pumped to see them, any day can be decent, and your job can be a treat. I know I didn’t enjoy everything about being in Utah, but Trav made it fun. I know which co-worker I wanna be. And for that little tidbit that should have been picked up in grade school, I say thanks to Trav.
So when the NHL analysts spout their genius and lay down their playoff predictions like gospel, don’t bet the house on their words; who knows which team has a Rycroft. It’s those unmeasureables that create winning teams.
Justin Bourne plays for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four cups with the Islanders. He will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com.