January 14, 2014

From NEHJ: Leadership lessons on, off ice at Canterbury

By Arielle Aronson

Clockwise from lower left, Canterbury hockey coach Padraic McCarthy, assistant coaches Pete Cotier and Ryan Bailey, and director of admission Matt Mulhern. Located in New Milford, Conn., the school was founded in 1915 and has an average enrollment of about 350 students.

For years, Canterbury School hockey coach Padraic McCarthy treated his team’s captains like any other coach: After the team elects the captains, give the new leaders some advice and hope for the best.

But when McCarthy went back to school to get a master’s degree in coaching education, he realized his captains could do with some more education as well. McCarthy discovered a leadership training program based out of North Carolina as part of his graduate studies and decided to tailor the program to help turn his captains into leaders.

Four years later, that leadership program has become key to Canterbury’s quest to return to the hockey glory it enjoyed in the mid-1990s. 

“What I found through my coaching experience before I started this program is that we had leadership issues,” McCarthy said. “Kids elect captains and then you just expect these really good kids to be able to lead their peers without any training. I said, ‘I have to change this,’ and that led me to start researching and searching. ‘Are there some answers for this?’ ”

The answer is now a 10-week summer course that begins after the team elects the upcoming season’s captains in the spring. Throughout the summer, the captains and Coach McCarthy read a 10-chapter book together that teaches them about leadership, commitment and communication in the hopes of empowering captains as both vocal leaders and leaders by example.

Canterbury’s captains this season, senior goaltender Christian Short and senior defenseman Michael Decker, both said the program has helped them become better leaders on the ice and better people off the ice. Short, who is in his third season playing for Canterbury, said he sees a definite difference in both the team and the leadership program over his three years.

“I think that captains program has grown and grown, and I think that’s what ultimately made the team more successful,” Short said. “I thought when he first introduced it, it was a little bit intimidating at first to read this book and basically go in-depth about it, but we took it section by section and I actually learned a lot about myself and how to approach certain situations.”

Decker credited the program with helping him develop into an effective vocal leader who can understand his teammates better.

“There have already been some situations where stuff we learned through the book and working with Coach over the 10 weeks has already come into play,” Decker said. “I think the biggest has been noticing different emotions through different players, trying to find out more about each player and knowing what causes them to have ups and downs, and how you can work with each different player.”

The team has shown steady improvement in wins and losses since the implementation of the program despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the region. After finishing 6-25-1 in the 2010-11 season, the Saints improved to 10-17-1 the next year. Last season, Canterbury finished above .500 for the first time in years with its 13-11-3 record and was just one win shy of making a New England tournament.

“It’s gotten better and better and the signs are a couple things,” McCarthy said. “One, if you look at our records, our wins-losses have gotten better. Two, I’ve gotten better implementing it. There’s no one way to do it. It’s a program you can mold to the time and interaction you have with the guys. It’s growing on campus. Other coaches are buying in to the idea. It’s being talked amongst the other kids in other sports. They’re interested in it. There’s a buzz about it.”

There is also a growing buzz about the hockey team, which is looking to generate the same excitement as it did 20 years ago when the team won its first of two New England Prep Hockey championships (the second came in 1997). McCarthy was a player on that 1994 championship team, and he said he hopes to instill the same kind of atmosphere in this year’s team as he enjoyed 20 years ago.

“We didn’t have any individuals, we just bought in to the system that was taught,” McCarthy said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do as a coach here. I try to get our guys to buy in to what we’re trying to teach, the systems and responsibilities, while at the same time allowing them creativity and to develop skill.”

McCarthy has his share of skilled players on this Saints team. Senior forward Mark Bowen, who verbally committed to play at Mercyhurst in 2016, finished second on the team with 15 goals last season. Junior forward Shane Sellar is an exciting young player who put up 28 points in 27 games as a sophomore and is fielding attention from several Division 1 schools. Senior Connor Collier leads the way on defense along with Decker, and Short looks to prove he can handle a full season of work in net.

The Saints are also trying a new motivational tactic in the locker room in the form of a symbolic chain. The chain has 28 links, one for each of the 25 players and three coaches at Canterbury, and the team awards the chain after each game to the hardest-working player that day.

Short earned the chain after posting a shutout against Hotchkiss on Dec. 7.

“It’s very symbolic and actually it looks cool when you’re wearing it around the locker room,” Short said. “If one link on the chain falters, then the rest of the chain is useless, so each person has to be the strongest link on the chain.”

Due to injuries and an illness that ran through the locker room, Canterbury has yet to find its groove this season, entering holiday tournament time with a 2-3 record. But with the benefit of the captains program, locker-room chain and a hard-working roster, the Saints are looking forward to taking another step toward a tournament-caliber season.

“From where we’re at, I think we’re on the upward swing,” Decker said. “We’re a team that’s going to be really fast. We’re going to be a tough team to play against when we have everyone going. We’re really deep in our forwards and defensemen, so that always helps to have the depth that we didn’t have last year. I just think that we’re going to be a team that’s going to grind teams down to get wins.”