In 1979, at age twenty-two, I coached my first team to a state tournament. It was the WAHA Midget B tournament and our Rice Lake team took home the third place trophy. My only hard wired memory was one of my defenseman intentionally turning and blasting a slap shot into the opposing team’s bench. That first trophy was what I had anticipated would be one of many throughout my career.
Over the next forty some years my coaching journey took many twists and turns. From Rice Lake to Spooner, to Wausau to Waupaca to Marshfield, where I was born, hockey was my life. Twenty-six of those years behind the bench as a WIAA head coach on both the boys and girls sides. It would include seven sectional final appearances and four trips to the state tournament. Season after season there was heartbreak and failure to get to that final game in Madison.
The hardware remained elusive; the trophies never followed, until Saturday.
With our team clearly focused on being the last team standing and a comfortable lead, the clock painlessly ticked down to the final horn. After decades of disappointment, the tears welling up in my eyes were familiar, but my mind seemed unprepared for the emotions I was about to feel. A dream that started subconsciously in my youth when I wanted to be Vince Lombardi, not Bart Starr and had consumed me for years as a head coach, was about to become reality. My fellow assistant coach, Claire Tomzcek, who played with my twin daughters years ago, was fittingly my first hug as the celebration began. And for the first time I got to experience those championship tears of pure joy. All the years I sat in Section 308 and watched that trophy get handed out melted away and my eyes that have always been drawn to the heartbreak of the losing team, never once looked at the other end of the ice. I wanted no distractions to disrupt the elation of this moment.
I could write a book on last game lockeroom speeches. I have delivered them through the tears, anger and helplessness that a crushing season ending loss delivers. As I stood before them and began to speak on Saturday, I failed miserably in telling them what this meant to me. How do you sum up in a few minutes the realization of a dream you have been chasing your whole life? I quickly discovered you can’t. So with tears on temporary hold, I will try to do it now.
When I first began coaching I chased the trophy and defined myself as a coach solely on my won-loss record. I too often took victory for granted, loathed defeat and punished myself and those around me when I lost. I preached that the journey was the prize, but deep down I wanted that trophy more than anything else. Being a part of the team picture with the trophy and knowing I had a part in bringing it home is truly a special feeling I will always cherish. Finally I had secured that elusive grail. As the AEC staff hustled us off the ice, my fears were realized. I had the trophy, the dream was achieved, but our journey was over.
I had discovered many years ago thanks to a kaleidoscope of factors including an assistant coach named “Raz”, a book titled “Season of Life” and a 3D Coaching course that caused me to reevaluate my philosophy and my purpose that I needed to walk the talk that the journey truly is the prize. As I looked at those tears of joy in our lockeroom, I knew all of this was about them, our journey and the relationships we had forged as a team. I thanked them for helping this old coach make his dream come true, but I should have thanked them for the appreciation, respect and trust they demonstrated since the first day I stepped onto the ice. The Storm pedigree and expectations are always high, along with the constant criticism from the outside. But this group brought no attitude, ignored the noise and soaked in any and all coaching advice. Their desire to improve was ferocious and when February hit they were ready to make their run.
The unbridled joy of the on ice celebration was tempered by the thoughts that our five seniors would not be back next year. I tried to block it out, but it is the heartbreaking reality that we face at the end of every season. They believed in the plan and believed in each other and never allowed the big stage of the state tournament to divide their attention from the task at hand. They literally “Stormed” through the competition.
Each of our seniors put the team first and provided leadership in their own way. None was more important than senior goalie Kaia Abbuzzahad, who started just one game, and demonstrated first-hand how to be a great teammate despite her limited playing role. It was hard to look them in the eye in the lockeroom because each senior carved out a unique space in my heart. Sami Federici, who set the Coliseum on fire with her offensive output, sent me one of those messages late in the year that makes me want to coach forever. Logan Crawford, one of the nicest young ladies I have ever coached was our perpetual momentum creator. Energizer Bunny step aside. And watching Gab du Vair, who sacrificed her body game after game, hug her father at center ice was an emotional snapshot I won’t ever forget. When I got to hug our fiery red head, Dru Sabatke, the best defenseman in the state, we completed a promise we made at Christmas to finish this journey with a state championship. I couldn’t be more proud of the leadership and effort these five provided. Years from now when we see that trophy or the banner hanging from the rafters, it will be a reminder, a trigger that will immediately take us back to that special season. But the memories will be less about goals and saves and more about Chick-fil-A, International Harvester and pig stickers.
As great as that trophy was to hold, (no truth to the rumor that I held it all the way home) it would mean nothing to me without the relationships I have established with these players and coaches. I truly see the players as my adopted daughters and want them to know they help fill an important void in my life that came when my nest emptied out at home. To be able to help them build some confidence, or minimize some emotional baggage, or get their backhand under the crossbar or just pass them one-timers before practice is just part of a perfect day. Yet every day is far from perfect, because every day brings new challenges and that is what I love the most. Young people today are so focused on their financial planning and moving up their retirement date; my solution is find a job you love and won’t ever want to retire.
I could be convicted of negligence if I failed to mention my friend Jacques du Vair who was the captain of this ship. He convinced me last summer that he would be a great head coach to work with; he was right. He exceeded even my wildest dreams in allowing me the responsibility, input and partnership that I could not have anticipated. The relationship we built and his words at our welcome home rally mean more to me than he will ever understand. In one sentence he wiped away decades of doubt and the haunting weight of hundreds of past losses. That beautiful trophy didn’t possess the power to do that, but his words did.
Three times I stood in the basement of the AEC and tried to console my twin daughters as our dream to win a title together came up short and four times I consoled my son as our SWS Rails failed to get to Madison. When I walked through that curtain on Saturday, and my grandson came running toward me with so many smiling faces behind him, the dream was complete. None of this happens without them. Hockey has always been an enormous part of the fabric of our family. Through the good, the bad and ugly my wife has always been in my corner and for forty-two years has let me unconditionally chase this dream. All of them made sacrifices along the way to this moment. It was truly a family accomplishment.
I could literally list every player, coach, parent, friend and administrator through the years because all had a part in my development as a coach. Whether you loved me, hated me, supported me or wanted me fired, you influenced my coaching growth. From the days of the flying fish, a closed rink and forty-nine straight road games, to a school record twenty wins as a Lumberjack, to three consecutive heartbreaking losses at state, to nine player practices in Waupaca, to the WVU “Sisterhood” and now finally a state championship; I wouldn’t change a thing. Thanks to all of you!
My pride in this team and our state championship is irrepressible. The trophy confirms and protects our place in history. But that trophy is a moment, just a blink of an eye in this season long journey. Don’t ever let anyone convince you it is all about the trophy. John Wooden was right, “How you run the race is more important than winning the race”. And whether you are the last team standing or the first team out, cherish this annual journey and never take it for granted. Because when it is over it is the relationships and memories you created that are the real prize, the true hardware for the heart!
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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