Three Ingredients For A Great Team Culture — By Ryan Walter

My wife, Jenn, and I really enjoyed the 19 seasons of minor hockey that our three boys played. Our oldest son, Ben, who now plays professional hockey, was a Novice player during the last season that I played in the NHL. So, while I was having my first experience coaching minor hockey, I was finishing off my 15-season NHL playing career playing for the Vancouver Canucks. All three of our boys played at all levels of minor hockey, and it was my great pleasure to coach each of them from house hockey all the way through to Bantam AAA.

I am 54 years old and have played on, coached for or participated on hockey teams in some capacity since I was four years old. My good friend and former agent, Herb Pinder, once told me: “After a while, all teams take on the personality (energy and attitude) of the coach.” I think to a certain extent that is true. The first key to a great, fun season in minor hockey comes from the leadership skills of the head coach. The second key to having a great season in minor sport is what I now call “Team Feel.”

Many times, when I am walking through a mall or down a local street, players that I coached in the past come up to me (all grown up) and say, “Hi coach! Remember our Peewee team? It was such a great team to be part of — such a fun experience.” Very few of those players that I now meet talk about their individual achievements or even the tournaments that we won; they all focus on the way they felt about their team.

Why is that? It’s simple — people remember people, not process. And what do we call the way that people feel about their team? Culture!

So, how do coaches, players and parents create an amazing team culture — one that they will remember positively? Let’s flesh out the three important ingredients of a great minor hockey culture, which you can participate in creating:

1. Setting the tone

The first few meetings amongst coaches, parents and players usually centre on what will be prioritized throughout the season. Players and parents need a schedule and structure, but in order to be fun, cultures need more. Cultures need a belief system, and everyone needs to understand what that is.

My final time through minor hockey with our third son was easier in some ways, because I had a little practice to fall back on. For our second early-season meeting with our Bantam AAA team I did something novel. We sat together as parents, players and coaches, and I asked them for input on who we should be and how we should act as a team for the upcoming season. In other words, we shaped our common values and promised to live them out together as our team played hockey. 

You might be thinking, “Ryan, this is a little out there!” Actually, it was very practical. For example, we talked about how we, as a group, wanted to treat the referee. We agreed never to yell or scream at refs and it was a value (or standard) we held each other to. Setting the tone early in the season is really just “getting on the same page” and, if you do it successfully, it will pay off.

2. Communication

A recent statistic shows that 86 per cent of a coach’s perceived ability to lead comes from his or her ability to communicate. Building channels of communication is paramount to a great culture. 

Many coaches that I talk to, as I conduct coaching seminars across North America and Europe, set up a structure that requires the manager to deal with parents while the coach takes care of the team. I disagree with this structure. Parents want to know what is happening to their little “Johnny” or “Suzie,” and they want access to the person who is leading their child. I believe that the head coach should conduct parent meetings early in the season to communicate the team philosophy and system. A note to coaches: Always offer to find solutions with your parents. Communicate directly with them and you will create an “open” culture that has a chance to be highly functional.

3. Leadership

The Stanford Research Institute and Harvard University jointly conducted a five-year research study — at a cost of over one million dollars — to discover why some people succeed. They concluded that 15 per cent of a person’s success is determined by his or her technical skills and knowledge, regardless of the profession. Just 15 per cent! 

The study further concluded that the majority of people’s success — a whopping 85 per cent — is directly related to the “people skills” of the leaders in the culture. Working with people, communicating effectively in managing ourselves and others, therefore, must be a high priority! A note to parents: Minor hockey teams put a lot of pressure on coaches. Please get involved and help carry some of the load.

When it comes to creating culture, you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. Over my NHL career and my coaching career, I recognized that there are two types of players and two types of parents:

  • Those that supply energy to the culture. 
  • Those that suck energy from the culture. 

As you head into this season, I encourage you to use these three simple techniques to help your team develop a great culture versus a crushing one. If you do, your players will experience an amazing season that they will remember for the rest of their lives!

About The Author

Ryan Walter played more than 1000 games over 15 NHL seasons. Drafted second overall by the Washington Capitals (where he became the NHL’s youngest captain), Ryan won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens before finishing his playing career as a Vancouver Canuck...CONTINUE.