There’s no need to be ashamed, depressed, even, when your coach calls you into his office and gently informs you that you will be joining the NHL club’s minor league affiliate or, Heavens forbid, return to your junior club.
Thus said Kevin Lowe, Rexall Sports’ president of hockey operations, in the most recent installment of TV documentary Oil Change, a.k.a. Overdrive.
This segment, by the way, airs Sunday, at 11 p.m. on Sportsnet West.
A player who is told to go to the farm team (or return to his junior club) should accept this as a challenge. Basically, the NHL team tells him, we like you, love you, even, otherwise, we wouldn’t have kept you. But we think you need to learn this and master that, to make yourself really indispensible for the top club.
That’s the gist of the train of thought behind Lowe’s statement.
Of course, this is playing with words.
Imagine you’re at school. Your teacher tells you you’ve had unsatisfactory marks in, say, math and you will have to repeat the year. What the teacher is telling you is simple: you’ve failed in math. If you have any ambition left in your mind and/or body, you will be livid. The teacher will be the first culprit. She or he doesn’t know how to teach math in the first place, how was I supposed to understand? The fact that the rest of the class understood with admirable ease doesn’t become part of the equation. Not yet.
Your next step would be that the teacher doesn’t like you. Never liked you, anyway. Why? Because of your strong personality? Whatever, your failure is a sign of the teacher’s personal animosity towards your wonderfully bright and talented persona. And, besides, Albert Einstein failed his high school math, too. So there.
If you’re lucky, but only if you’re lucky, you’ll figure out you’ve failed because you didn’t work hard enough, or you were not talented enough, or both. Now, you’ll have two options: sulk or start working. Hard work, by the way, is more often than you imagine more important than talent. In any case, if you do apply yourself, and if you do succeed eventually, you’ll be looking at that year of repetition as the best thing that could have happened to you: you’ve learned how to work. That should count for something special.
This is exactly what Kevin Lowe would like his players to understand.
Of course, it’s easy for him to say. One of the original NHL Oilers, the guy who scored their first NHL goal (shocking indeed: no, it wasn’t Wayne Gretzky, it had to be Kevin Lowe, of all people, to perform the feat for the new NHL franchise!), former player, captain, coach and general manager, he’s got it made. Never ever sent to the minors, now he can dispense advice as an elder … ooops, more mature statesman, right?
The question is not whether Kevin Lowe is right. The question is whether Oilers’ players think he’s right.
Based on conversations with many who had the misfortune befell them throughout the years, the consensus opinion would be: Oh, yeah?
Here’s the issue: hockey players (just as players in all team sports) have been trained to know that there’s no I in team. Except, to be able to make the team, especially in the rarefied top-notch leagues’ air, athletes have to concentrate on themselves. Without individual skills, nobody will bother to give them a look, or a second look, even. What does it mean? It means there is a certain level of egocentrism and egotism involved. You’ve got to push yourself. No need to push the others.
After all, there is a certain level of egocentrism and egoism in all of us. We all think of ourselves as the standard by which we measure the rest of the world. It has nothing to do with whether we’re right or not. It’s just the way it is, that’s all, and nobody can blame you (or me, or her, or him, or anybody else).
A hockey player who’s trying to become an NHL club’s member knows perfectly well that there are four vacancies on right wing, four at centre, four at left wing, there are so many spots on the blue line, and there can be only one goalie in the net at a time, with another to back him up, and having three goalies on an active rosters more often than not spells trouble.
Will a particular, say, centre, sigh and say, aaaaaaah, this is perfectly rotten, there are four better centres than I am on the team already, and now what’s a guy to do? I can either ask for a trade to a team that is short on good centres, and God knows I am one, or I can accept a demotion and work hard to become better than those four centres ahead of me. I’ll compete with them, and I’ll win.
You see, it’s not always about money. Much more often, it’s about pride. And you cannot become the top dog in anything without at least a certain amount of pride.
After all, it’s even the dictionary that defines it. You’re cut. You’re demoted. You’re sent down. You’re returned. Does any of these words have any positive connotations?
Kevin Lowe meant well, obviously. What Kevin Lowe meant was there’s no need to succumb to negative thinking because THAT gets you nowhere. Positive thinking has become a cliché, but it still exists. It may help get you closer to your goal. Then again, it mightn’t.
But even if you lose at the proverbial numbers game and it’s Oklahoma City or bust for you, at least, you’ll fly there with a smile on your face.