Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Hockey by the Bay: SeaGoal Cup and the art of team building

Thanks to PSSC
Summer 2014 officially arrived at 6:51 AM on Saturday, June 21.

As the sun began its early arcing ascent above the horizon, 10 hockey-crazed souls -- men and women alike -- were in the final stages of a night's rest, nestled in their beds among three levels in the palatial digs along the ocean block of 84th Street in Sea Isle City.

In a few hours, they'd have to rouse themselves, don the gear and the attitude of presumptive victors, and step onto the court for a winner-take-all tournament against rivals they've seen dozens of times before.

No matter what the calendar says, or how high the mercury soars, the game of hockey is alive and well in the Delaware Valley, long after the Flyers season ends and shortly after the National Hockey League crowns its champion.

It happens at a time when those not inclined to escape the urban heat island and those who could care less or can't afford to get away are regurgitating endless chatter on social media about Vinny Lecavalier's value in trade to other clubs, lack of value to his own, or the mystery behind Scott Hartnell to Columbus. Eighty miles away, the few, the proud and the dedicated have shut that all out, paid their hard-earned money and decided to use time usually spent in relaxation to pursue one goal: the SeaGoal Cup.

Begun in 2007 under the guidance of PSSC hockey commissioner Brian Groth, SeaGoal has been an open competition for teams in the five-county area which draw from places like Springfield, King of Prussia and points beyond, though this season there are only four teams in contention, from the same PSSC league, all known to each other, and not exactly on good terms with each other.

No laptops allowed except for the one operating the scoreboard. The phones are used to contact teammates, friends and relatives.  All that matters is what happens inside the boards, between the lines and on the final stat sheet. 

In the hockey world, superstition and ritual play the same part no matter where you are.

Some of the team sleep in a certain room, in a certain position and perform certain tasks while rising from bed and gearing up for the day. Others have the same game-day meals or pre-game energizers.  Donuts and beer? Check. Granola and OJ? Check. Clif bar and water? Check. Getting up early and driving down from Philly to arrive a half hour before the tournament begins? Check. Kissing your stick blades for good luck...that's also an option. The goal is the same -- performing at one's peak -- but the methods differ from person to person given that our squad age differential ranges from 26 to 42.

It can be easy to take advantage of the season, the location and the freedom from responsibility a rental by the sea affords. Still, alcohol's generally a no-no the night before the tournament commences because performing at optimal pace and skill is necessary, but that doesn't mean a glass of the house wine the night before is out of the question. Sinking cans of Miller Lite and playing games until the wee hours is pushing the limits.

Most of the club consisted of players from my primary team, D5 (yep, just like District 5 in the original Mighty Ducks movie), with the roster filled out by guys and gals from other clubs who reach across the aisle and routinely socialize once the games are over.

With the average age of our team drifting north of 30, the majority of our team bonding consisted of a
Sea Gulls, courtesy of PSSC
night out at Sea Isle's foremost Italian restaurant, on Landis Avenue, just south of the bustling business district. There, in the muted light, surrounded by frescoes and friezes, windows and mirrors, and all the wonderful aromas of Mediterranean cooking, 12 people began to truly get to know each other, their often weaving conversations over several hours enhanced by the fruit of the vine and not skewed by pitchers of beer.

Here's Sea Gulls and D5 team captain, 4who4whatsports, on how he came to realize that playing competitive games with people he knows and likes, can positively impact the tournament experience:

"Originally building this team (D5), I only had my friends to fill up a roster. Well I didn’t want to go winless the next season so it was time to add to our solid core, but I didn’t know too many people throughout the league. Luckily my teammates had a few friends of their own that were brought in. Problem is their lack of team play outweighed their talent, so sure we got a few more W’s but there was still something missing.

"That lasted for a couple of seasons until my team needed a change in direction. I was now dealing with my own version of the arrogant showboats. I started to understand that talent can only get you so far without teammates that are willing to leave it all out on the court for each other. Add to this epiphany that my team needed to cut out some bad seeds, my goalie decides to tear his ACL snowboarding. Fortunately this turned out to be the best thing to happen in my team’s history. 

"I had to reach out to the commissioner of the league and see if he knew any goalie that could come in and save us. Not only did I find that goalie, but I found a new friend. This new goalie opened the door to making new friends throughout the league. Before, my team was closed off from the rest of the league. This also added a new requirement for ay additions on the team -- can I get along with this person? That is how I've built my teams ever since. 

"It doesn’t work all the time. We are not running through the schedule going undefeated but I’m willing to go through the rough patches with people I call my friends rather than some cold mercenary I use for their talent. There is a thin line one must tip toe across when building a successful squad and there is not perfected ratio between teamwork and talent. What I can say though is you will know when you’re in that perfect situation and it doesn’t get much better than that."

Three years running, and we haven't quite clicked on all cylinders. Despite fielding what appeared to be the cream of the on-court and social crop this year, the Sea Gulls ended up losing twice in overtime and tying during the round robin, then dropping our first playoff game in regulation. The grand total of offense was five goals in four games. Make no mistake, frustrations ran high on the bench, but 99 percent of the encouragement was positive. That stood in stark contrast from 2013, when a now ex-member of the D5 and Sea Isle teams adopted a more dictatorial stance, going above the captain to berate and direct teammates, and ended up turning things into a roiling mess. 

With only a four-team field, there was nowhere to hide once the first ball dropped at 9:30 AM, and no easy early-round matchups in which we could fine-tune our lines and coverage. We got burned at inopportune times, and never lifted ourselves out of the funk. Each pairing brought something to the table, but something different based on whichever team they played for regularly, and the true consensus of what the Sea Gulls were as a team wasn't evident.

In a strange twist of events, a team in our league which routinely sits in the lower middle of each
Thanks to PSSC
year's standings and in the lower end of the top playoff bracket, brought in some extra players not on their usual roster and ended up winning it all.

The OC, usually clad in orange, forgot their yearly Sea Isle blues, called themselves Shore Thing, and trampled last year's champions Cobra Kai on the way to victory.

In that case, only adding a few extra elements proved to be the right move with a restricted field of participants. Would it be right next year?

Any future captain of the Sea Gulls has to weigh the benefit of bringing in only those who are geared towards winning at all costs, against those who are known to each other, and won't think it's the end of the world in defeat and can go off together and be social afterwards. Discussion about changes and positional adjustments line-to-line and amongst line mates and defensive pairings are one thing. Arguments about who's not passing enough, or shooting too much, who's not living up to their defensive commitments, or only using their favored players when moving the ball around the court are expensive ones win or lose.

It would be nice to have it all, distractions limited to who gets to the condo early enough to snag the best bedroom, who gets the last piece of garlic bread, drinking on the patio before and after the tournament is over, taking sips from that trophy while laughing at our good fortune. Our group settled for all of that minus the trophy, and it was a needed two-day break from the norm.

I don't know if there was anyone on the team that didn't hear the waves lapping against the sand half a block away as the sun completed its arc in the opposite direction and still thought about that shot or pass they missed. All talk, all night after the tourney centered around better and lighter topics.

But the carousel continues, and the auditions for next year's Sea Gulls are ongoing, on the court, off the court and in the bar. Some time in May, the decisions have to be made and the scales tipped to one side or the other: winning or enjoyment of the experience? Communication is key, before winning or fun.

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