Home > Educational Leadership, Teamwork > Hockey/School


Some people skate to the puck.  I skate to where the puck is going to be. ~Wayne Gretzky~

Hockey, for many of  us north of the 49th parallel, serves as both a passion and a pastime. My 14 year old son is one of those who counts hockey as both, and I, ever the proud father (and chauffeur)  spend many weekends and evenings at ice rinks all over Southern Ontario. My son plays on a competitive level team (we call it Rep level) with a group of lively, talented teammates. They are a fun bunch of kids to watch when they are playing well, they are a fast team, not too big, and fairly skilled, last year they lost only 8 times over a 40 game season. In tournaments, they usually make to the championship round, sometimes reaching the final.

This past weekend we enjoyed some hockey hospitality in beautiful Orillia, Ontario at their annual Bantam Fall Tournament.  After a disappointing semi-final loss to a stronger team from Oakville, Ont, I had the chance to reflect and connect on the drive home (my son was in no mood to talk on this drive).  My colleague, George Couros (@gcouros), often uses sports metaphors as part of  his leadership practice and his writings; the connections between sports and life are a rich and meaningful context for discussing learning and leading.

As I drove, I found my reflections centered on the similarities between my son’s hockey team and the typical school.  Both possess talent, enthusiasm and passion and both, when certain conditions exist, struggle to accomplish their desired goal. I was able to arrive at two simple reflections based upon my observations at the rink this weekend:

Pressure Preempts Planning

In order to generate a transition out of the defensive zone to create an offensive attack, my son’s team employs a break out plan or system that requires each player be in a specific area of the ice to ensure that the puck can be moved safely and quickly up the ice, good teams do this really well. In order to disrupt this process, teams apply pressure (called forechecking) on the player with the puck. My son’s team struggles when this pressure is applied usually defaulting to the simple strategy of shooting the puck along the side boards, often to an opposing player. We see this often in schools, where the accumulated and daily pressures of teaching often prompt us to abandon new practices in favour of what we know (regardless of whether it is actually working). How do we, as leaders respond to this?

Total Team Target

Hockey has a clear goal, so clear it is actually called a ‘goal’. The nets at either end of the rink are the targets that each team aims for with the puck. The scoring of a goal requires coordination, persistence, skill and teamwork. Sometimes on my son’s team, as 14 year old’s are want to do, these are not evident. Players hog the puck, don’t skate hard enough, ignore the  system, or, allow their emotions to get the best of them, leading to a penalty. In each case, the lack of buy in from each member leads to a break down that keeps them team from succeeding. We see this often in schools, where the diverse experiences and philosophies of the teaching staff often keep us from the common practices that would lead to sustained improvements in learning for each student. How do we, as leaders respond to this?

I like how hockey (and other team sports) demonstrates that there is a fundamental difference between a group engaged in a common task and a team engaged in the pursuit of a common goal. How do we, as school leaders, ensure that we are creating the conditions that enable our schools to operate like a team, using collaboration, knowledge and coordination to achieve a goal.

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