June 23, 2014

The Hockey Mom: 3 youth coaches who truly get it

By April Bowling

I’ve told the story before of Sam’s start in hockey, how, not realizing that hockey would start in (gulp) September, we didn’t even start looking for his first program until December. 

By that time, the cross-ice season was almost halfway through when 5-year-old Sam and I showed up to his first practice with Agawam. I got Sam changed in the warming room, putting him on a bench beside a coach who was tying his skates.

He looked over at Sam with a big smile and said, “Who’s this? We’ve got a new player?”

Sam did what he always does when he’s nervous, excited or feeling shy (in this case all three) — he simply kept grinning and said nothing.

“His name is Sam,” I offered.

“I’m Coach Chris. Come on, Smilin’ Sam. Let’s go meet Coach Rick and Coach Jobie.”

And just like that, Sam waddled out on the ice for his first practice with the three coaches who, as it turns out, have coached him every season since. Three-and-a-half Mite seasons in total.  While Rick was head coach, it was truly a coaching trifecta, and Sam would play his heart out for any one of them.

As I write this, I’m tearing up a little. Sam will have new coaches next year, although there is still a chance Jobie might be one of them. After his last game as a Mite at the end of March, I reflected back on how much Sam had learned from these guys, and how different things could have been if he hadn’t been lucky enough to have them as his coaches for the start of his hockey-playing career. I decided to write this column about them in the hopes that someday, even if they don’t ever coach Sam again, they have a tangible demonstration of how much their time and dedication meant to Sam and his family.

Rick, Chris and Jobie each have really different approaches. From the bench, Chris yelled directions at the kids and met Sam’s enormous water demands between shifts, while Rick was quiet, coaching kids as they sat on the bench. Meanwhile, Jobie managed the defense and nearly lost his mind at some of the refs. Great friends, they sometimes got huffy with each other, but never left the rink mad. I’ve noticed this is something that Sam consciously carries into his own friendships after learning from his coaches.

Rick Clarke played for the same Agawam program when he was a kid before going on to a career with select teams and playing for Wentworth College, but according to his wife, Karen, he never thought about coaching until a neighbor needed players for an Agawam game he was coaching and Rick’s 7-year-old daughter volunteered. Katelyn stepped off the ice after the game and said, “Dad, sign me up!” Rick’s been coaching ever since, not just her teams, but his son Aidan — Sam’s teammate — as well. 

I asked Sam what he liked most about Rick as a coach, and I completely agree with his answer: “Coach Rick is fun, but I learn a lot from him even though he never yells at me.” Still playing hockey a few days a week in the old-man leagues, I’m most grateful for how Rick has set an example for Sam to see how hockey can be a part of your entire life, even if it isn’t your whole  life. Rick’s son Aidan has one more year as a Mite, while Sam moves up to Squirt.  When I told Sam that meant Rick wouldn’t be his coach next year, he was pretty devastated and still holds on to the hope that somehow Aidan will miraculously age twice in the next year and become a Squirt by September.

 According to his wife, Amanda, Robert “Jobie” Jobe’s love of hockey began young. He grew up pond skating with the neighborhood kids playing pickup hockey games. He had no formal hockey training, but with three hockey-mad kids, he jumped right in as a coach, making sure he attended all the training there was available and getting patched to Level 3 coach with USA Hockey in 2012-13.

He already was the head coach of his daughter’s Squirt team when he agreed to be assistant coach for his son Boden’s Mite team as well. Sam knew Boden from pre-school and it was like he knew his dad too, since he immediately took to Jobie. Sam even joked once that Jobie was his favorite coach, because they both like to play more than they like to talk. But I think what Sam really appreciated was that with Coach Jobie, what mattered most was how hard you played, not how well you played. As a kid with more heart than talent, I think that knowledge did a lot to build Sam’s confidence as a player. 

From that first day, though, Sam has connected with no coach more closely than he has with Chris Connors. As his wife, Jessica, says, “I can tell from outside any rink if our team is playing because I can hear Chris yelling.” But he does it with a smile, and just like that first practice, works really hard to connect with the quieter kids and those without the obvious talent. He would feed kids Smarties through their cages, give them silly nicknames like Smilin’ Sam, and patiently listen to their stories about things like video games and vacation trips when all he really wanted to do was explain to the kids why it’s important to play position.

Chris has arrived at many a practice and a few games in dress shoes and a suit, having come right from work. Once he arrived at a playoff game coming right from getting off the red eye.  Like many of us, the pressures of maintaining that work/coaching balance has become harder as his son Coleman advances as a player, and so his wife wrote me, “I don’t know that Chris will coach next year, but I do know he will miss it if he doesn’t.” And Sam will miss him.

It takes an enormous amount of time, effort, organization and patience to teach little kids to play hockey. It takes even more to teach them how to become a team. Most of these kids probably won’t even play in high school, so what they are really learning are the skills to be good people; to be good teammates, to be respectful, to find the joy in hard work, and to pick each other up when they fall down.

So thank you, Rick, Jobie and Chris. You didn’t just lay the foundation for Sam to be a good hockey player. You helped lay the foundation for him to become a good man.

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.

This article originally appeared in the June edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.

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