Boys in My ‘Hood: “Talkin’ ‘Bout TRAINING?”

They’re bigger now, one a freshman starter at McGill, one doing a prep year with D1 aspirations. Good men.

[5-minute read]

I live in an Ottawa neighbourhood called Overbrook, having moved here from southern Ontario in ’02. (I don’t think we chose it because the great Wilt Chamberlain and other NBA players went to Philadelphia’s Overbrook High, but I can’t swear that had nothing to do with it. ) I’ve been a nutbar basketball coach since well before my athletic prime waned, a lover and teacher of “the city game” decades before I flew the coop on my little hometown. I’ve blown whistles in gyms all over Ottawa, from house leagues to its top-shelf club team to three area high schools. Still, though, I like wandering by the Overbrook Community Centre’s outdoor courts – among the best outdoor venues in the city, at least potentially. And there I was, minding my own business and in broad daylight, when suddenly I was swarmed by a group of youth, must’ve been a dozen of ‘em, and they obviously wanted something from me.

Headfake! It’s not what you might have thought. These were shy middle-schoolers, who had asked an older brother (I’ll call him “Izzy”), “Hey, who is that guy you were talking to?” Izzy and his older brother know me as an ol’ ball coach. We had shot the breeze a bit, and then I left him and his younger brother and the rest of the crew that he was coaching and encouraging in a pickup game. I was sporting a ball, gimpy ankles and a spare tire ‘round my middle. I haven’t really played much since we got back from China five years ago (hence the added girth; I actually got back into half-decent has-been shape on the outdoor courts of Dalian). I just wanted to get a few shots up on the one other basket with a net on it, and think about my neighbourhood.

Before long, with Izzy leading the way, the whole group came across the asphalt courts towards me. Izzy, ever polite, did most of the talking.

“These guys want you to train them. I told them you’re a coach.”

“Train?” I answered. “Are you sure?” I told them that a lot of boys think they want to train, but really they just want to play ball because they like it – and there’s nothing wrong with that! But here’s the thing. Kids have heard their NBA heroes talk about training. It *sounds* so cool, but in fact it takes sweat and patience and perseverance and attention. Were they really sure? Listen, I’ve had a lot of guys tell me they wanted to train, or that they were really grinding, but it either didn’t last or it was fake in the first place. And then I stopped with the cautions. What was the point in being Dickie Downer?

Continue Reading >>

Hockey, Russian Style

Did you see the Russians today? Lord, they play a dazzling brand of hockey! The Red Men looked spectacular in a dominating 5-0 win versus Sweden. Gosh, I wish we were paying more attention to how the Russians train their kids to skate and handle. They are sometimes accused of being selfish, but much of that comes from the resentment of the less-skilled. You know: “Oh, so-and-so’s a hot dog. Yeah, he’s good BUT…” You could even see it in the way that Reverend Cherry rumbled and threatened brimstone last year (remember this?) when Sidney Crosby scored with a lacrosse-like high-altitude wraparound goal. Sounds like sour Grapes to me. (Yes, I meant to do that.) (If you missed the pun, please proceed directly to the next paragraph.)

I like to make sweeping diagnoses that lend gravitas and grandeur to things like, oh, hockey. Try this on for size. In Canada, we still have a lingering and rather Puritan suspicion of the arts, and you can see it even in our approach to hockey. We like determination, a workmanlike approach, aw-shucks humility, and straight lines. Up and down the wing. Shoot it out. Dump it in. Keep it simple. Don’t be a smarty-pants, young fella! Who do you think you are? Russia, meanwhile, has a deep tradition of reverence for dance, music, poetry and all forms of expression. They revere (too much in some cases, no argument here) the great ones, the Talents. They are much less likely than we are, it seems from the outside, to routinely cut down their “tall poppies” for being so gosh-darned, well, tall. So skill and speed and creativity and, yes, artistry are all valued and nurtured in their players. So they don’t play in straight lines. Their number one objective is not to throw the puck into the corner and then grub and grunt to get it back…

At a certain point in the history of our great rivalry, the Russians realized that they could learn something from the legendary Canadian “grit” that we all love to talk about. They will dump the puck and chase it now when teams sit back and clog the blueline. They can be tough in the corners (after all, there’s not a long learning curve for those skills — you have to be tough and you have to be willing). They can cycle the puck in those corners, too, because who else can turn so nimbly and accelerate so quickly? But what have Canadians learned from Russians? Not every Russian can dazzle like Alexander Ovechkin — he is a prodigy — but why is it that seemingly every pro-ready Russian can stickhandle at top speed and get that wrong-foot shot away instantly while even the great Canadians can’t? I answered this question more fully in an article you can find here, but basically it comes down to Canadian chauvinism: we think we’re the best, and therefore have nothing to learn from anybody.

Canada still has far more players in the NHL, the world’s best league, than any other country. We still do lots of international winning, and our juniors did it again this year. But if we weren’t so arrogant about it, maybe we’d have more of the showstopping stars and not only the guys in the orchestra pit or the corps de ballet. Sorry for the arts references, but you know what I mean. Maybe football’s a better example: we produce the hockey equivalent of offensive lineman and tight ends, but the QBs and RBs and wideouts are rare. (And this is no mere analogy: ask any CFL roster!) I want the Canadian lads to lead in the skills department as much as they do in the realms of desire and toughness, and I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive. Not, at least, if we’re willing to learn something from the Russian (or Czech or Swedish…) way of developing hockey players. As the saying goes, It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.