2006 AND BEYOND!

Ten years ago, in June 2006, the U.S. won its only gold medal in international ball hockey, finishing first at the ISBHF World Junior (under -20) Championships at Aosta, Italy. I was head coach of that team, and I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the anniversary, and offer some thoughts on U.S. ball hockey moving forward.

I coached for almost three decades, and that team functioned better than any I was ever involved with. It had leadership, chemistry and talent.

Leadership and chemistry are mostly mythical, imagined after the fact of winning. You never hear that a rotten team had great leadership and chemistry.

But that team definitely had talent. Out of our 20 regular players (12 forwards, seven defensemen and a goalie), each was a primary choice. We didn’t have to go down our depth chart and “settle” for lesser players.

We also benefited from a narrow focus when it came to player selection. Our first line was entirely from Leominster, MA. Our second line was from Pittsburgh. Our third line was from Leominster. Two of our defense pairs were from Pittsburgh. The other was from Leominster. The only place we had to mix and match was on the fourth line, which had two players from Pittsburgh and one from Leominster.

There was a lot of familiarity. To some degree, everybody but the fourth-liners had played with his linemates, or his partner. That helped immeasurably.

Some might criticize that other areas of the country weren’t represented. But the Pittsburgh and Leominster teams played in the final of almost every big under-20 tournament for the best part of a decade.

More important, we won the gold medal. In international ball hockey, winning is all that matters.

Ten years later, the contributions of those involved still burn brightly. GM Chris Housser and assistant coach Bob Vorse Sr. were invaluable as regards roster assembly. Vorse Sr. was also a motivating influence on the bench. Assistant coach Brian Errigo provided tactical acumen at the highest level.

As for the players, each performed to the best of his capabilities. We won twice and tied three times in the tournament. It was the finest of lines. Had anyone stumbled, we would have come up short. It’s clichéd to say, but it was a total team effort.

The players were:

Goaltenders – Pete Cosentino, Bob Vorse Jr.

Defensemen – Anthony Cornacchia, Joe Hadley, Andrew Hildreth, Don Leishman, Nick Maraldo, Tim Murray, Steve Shaw, Rick Zimmick.

Forwards – Chris Aveni, Nick Caponi, Joe Caveney, Jim Daugherty, Mike DiBenedetto, Brandon Gazzo, Bobby Housser, John Kalichuk, Ryan Jones, Tyson Lajoie, Matt Levesque, Bill Sullivan, Cody Warila.

The players were phenomenal. Coachable, cooperative, focused and – that word again – talented. It was absolutely the time of my life.

No other US team has since won a gold medal. None won before. We stand alone. I don’t rejoice in that fact. Rather, I’m confused.

When I helped run the U.S. ball hockey program, I often heard about lack of a “process.” Tryouts, camps, etc. Well, now that a “process” is in place, shouldn’t the results be better? With the exception of a silver medal at last year’s senior championships, they are not. Brilliant job by that team and staff, BTW.

(No offense to anyone, but the World Ball Hockey Federation doesn’t really offer true “world” championships. I am no fan of the International Street & Ball Hockey Federation’s administration, but their tournament product is vastly superior in terms of quality. It frustrates me, however, that U.S. ball hockey has allowed itself to mirror Canada’s conflict and split into two, attendant with all the resulting problems.)

I am far removed from the situation, having not been part of the U.S. national program since serving as GM for the Junior team in 2012.

But let me offer some advice from afar:

*Choose ball hockey players, not dekhockey players.

*Choose based on current ability, not reputation.

*If special dispensation must be made to get your best players to a tournament, do so. The “process” should be a guideline, not sacred. There’s no substitute for talent.

*In that vein, saying “We only want people who want to be there” is nonsense. You should want the best players, and do what’s needed to get them to participate. If talented players don’t play, it’s not just their loss. It’s the team’s loss, too.

*Tryouts should be held on big indoor rinks with smooth surfaces. That’s what the tournaments are played on. Evaluating in any other setting will be misleading.

*Don’t choose coaches solely based on who won the most domestic tournaments. That often reflects that coach’s available talent pool, and little else. Tactical awareness is paramount. At world championships, lesser coaching is a severe handicap.

*The identity of the GM and/or coach is too often reflected by an imbalance on a U.S. team’s roster. In other words, he mostly picks players from his own area. That’s OK, if it works. But it too often doesn’t.

*At the world championships, there is no reward beyond winning. If there’s a point besides that to be proven, I’d love to know what it is.

I don’t pretend to know everything about international ball hockey. But I was involved for 11 years. I paid attention, and I learned.

I also call upon the American Street Hockey Institute to contribute to street/dek/ball hockey in ways that go beyond administrating the national team.

I live in Pittsburgh, and I worked with the NHL Penguins on a project that saw 12 dekhockey rinks built, free of charge, for local communities, with more to come. That gets a ton of kids playing, makes the sport healthier and builds the game at a grass-roots level. Of my street/dek/ball hockey accomplishments, I may be proudest of that.

Why hasn’t ASHI come up with a tournament calendar to regulate and publicize dates, and to police scheduling conflicts?

Why hasn’t ASHI come up with a suspension policy that prevents offenders in one tournament from playing in the next tournament?

Why hasn’t ASHI come up with a certification process for referees?

Why isn’t there a common set of rules? Things change from rink to rink, league to league, tournament to tournament. You don’t see such lack of continuity in other “big-time” amateur sports. (We’ve also left behind our game and our rules to largely adhere to Canada’s game and Canada’s rules. I’m not a big fan of that.)

Affecting these changes would take work, time and plenty of conversation and negotiation. It wouldn’t be smooth, or easy.

But that’s what a “governing body” does. I don’t see much governing. Things are just like they used to be, only with different people doing the same things (i.e., not enough, and with a very narrow focus). Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

If ASHI can’t galvanize the street/dek/ball hockey community regarding issues that affect the greater good, then ASHI only helps when it comes to the game’s supposedly elite players, the one-percenters. That’s contributing at a minimal level.

Thanks for reading. Thanks especially to those who shared that great adventure in 2006. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about it. I especially think of the late Tyson Lajoie, who was a joy to coach and to be around. I miss Tyson.

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