Claude Noel’s pre-game interview on Sunday was music to my ears. He avoided most of the hockey euphemisms about his team needing to “play 60 minutes”, “get in on the fore-check”, “get pucks to the net”, and all the other nonsense that coaches routinely toss out to the media, which spares them the effort of forming unique thoughts. Instead, he said very simply, that his team’s success did not depend on wins and losses, but rather on the quality of their play. It was a subtle comment, but it really stuck with me because it was reminiscent of John Wooden – the legendary college basketball coach known for his immaculate record and infinite wisdom.
One of Wooden’s biggest contentions was that individuals and teams must direct their efforts towards that which is within their control. There is no way for an individual or a team to dictate the final score; all they can do is put forth their absolute best effort. For Wooden, this applied even more to preparation than to the contest itself. He pushed his players to put forth 100% of their energy and intensity each and every practice, because if you gave anything less, it was impossible to make up for it the next day. (He scoffed at the notion of giving “110%” – not only because it’s impossible, but since people rarely give 100% to begin with). Unlike most other coaches, he didn’t use complicated in-game strategies, or do much scouting of other teams. Instead he focused his energies on the physical and mental preparation of his players. His practices became legendary because they were run at such a relentless pace, which made games seem light by comparison. And he gave his players all the time, attention, and respect they deserved. By following this simple philosophy, he guided UCLA to an unprecedented 10 national championships in 12 years, including 7 in a row. Despite his incredible success, Wooden would tell you that he didn’t worry much about his team’s record. His only concern was the process that generates results, not the result itself.
But management does worry about results. And if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that the team we saw on Sunday is not a winner. The Jets are a very young team that is below average both offensively and defensively, with a talented but inexperienced guy tending goal. The playoffs are a fleeting hope for this season, and the short-term outlook doesn’t look much better. Forgive me if I’m not painting a rosy picture so far, but I assure you that I have great hopes for this team – I’m just using a far different time-line than most. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll refer you to this article which describes how I felt about the team in early July. (Aside from minor additions of Wellwood and MacLean took place after that piece was written, the team is essentially unchanged). Though I won’t elaborate further, I haven’t changed my opinion in the least. I believe in the management group, and know that this team can become a winner given enough hard work and patience. The slow and steady approach isn’t very appealing for the bandwagon fan, but the alternate approach is the quick fix, and it will only bring pain. (See Toronto 2005-2009.)
Based on their transactions thus far, I think Cheveldayoff, Noel, and the management group know exactly where this team is at. They didn’t try to spend in free agency in order to climb from 25th place to 20th place, because that would not only be wasteful, but counterproductive. Instead they plugged holes with affordable options like Wellwood and Fehr so that young players like Cormier, Gregoire, and Klingberg were forced to develop in the minors. Then they signed a veteran goalie (Aebischer) to help provide a winning environment for their AHL prospects. (The Ice Caps are off to a 2-0 start). With the exception of Mark Scheifele (who I fervently believe should play in junior, and may still), management has done all the right things to prepare for the future. But even so, I’d guess the playoffs are 3-4 years away, with serious contention another 5 beyond that. Though that may seem like a long time, consider the story of the Detroit Red Wings. When Mike Ilitch purchased the team in 1982, they were as far from a winner as you could get. But they gradually became a model franchise, and won the Stanley Cup 15 short years later; all it took was exceptional drafting, patience, and hard work.
Many years after his retirement in 1975, Wooden was asked an intriguing question: “When did you consider yourself successful?” Was it the first national championship? The 3rd consecutive? The 10th and last? The answer was typical of Wooden: “I had succeeded long before I was ever called a success.” That’s because Wooden had his own barometer for success – defined as nothing more, and nothing less than the best effort of which one is capable. He admired perseverance over talent, intelligence, or any other inherent trait, because only through effort and persistence can a person maximize their potential. And in striving to work as hard as possible, he achieved an unparalleled level of success.
If he’d read it, I’d send Claude Noel, (every Jet in fact), a copy of “Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations…”. Can anyone from True North hook that up?