The extraordinary leadership of one player -- captain Brett Hextall -- helped the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League capture the Fred Page Cup in a four-game sweep of the Nanaimo Clippers in 2008.
According to Jan Kascak, the Vees director of player mentorship, Hextall's leadership and the team's subsequent success was a direct result of the Vees' player mentorship program which began in 2004.
"I know for a fact that [Hextall's] leadership attributes and what director of leadership skills Marc Bowles did with mentoring that that team, that's why they won the championship," Kascak told NHL.com. "It was because they believed in each other, they trusted each other, they listened to each other and they went to the wall for each other. It was because of the leadership of Brett and the other captains that they became so cohesive."
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Implementing a player mentorship program is not just about increasing team chemistry and winning games, but about investing in the players as individuals and preparing them for life outside of hockey. Kascak's mentorship program with the Vees focused on four specific categories to accomplish the overall goal of developing life skills: discovery and career planning, leadership,financial planning and public speaking.
"Life skills are so important in this day and age, and we have to make sure that we try to do as much as we can to build the life skills in these young kids," Kascak said. "The sooner we can start to build their life skills, the better off they will be to meet the challenges that they are going to face and be successful all the way down their career path wherever that takes them, whether that's a hockey player or a doctor or a pastor or whatever it is."
In order to implement the program, the Vees located a local expert in each category to gain the respect of the players. It was important that each expert also had a connection to hockey, when possible. At the beginning of each season the Vees have a team meeting where they present the mentorship program. Each expert gives a presentation followed by an interactive discussion with the players and a time of reflection where the players write down their goals. The coaches and mentors then follow up with the players in one-on-one sessions throughout the season to help the players achieve these goals.
In the career planning section, the players are taught to think ahead and to plan for the future by making a one-, two-, three- or four-year plan. They are also asked to set specific goals for the upcoming season, like how many goals they want to score and other things that can be tracked and followed up by a coach.
"If you know you're going to college you need to plan for those four years," Kascak said. "It's all about planning, and if you don't plan, it's not that we don't plan, we fail to plan and we fail to do it because we think it will just work out. But you have to plan and you have to write down that plan."
In the leadership section, the Vees first hold a meeting just with the captains discussing leadership qualities and emphasizing humility, leading by example and listening. This is followed by a team meeting where everyone on the team is asked to brainstorm leadership qualities and the captains help lead this exercise.
The next step requires the players to reflect on themselves in writing. According to Kascak, it's important for each player to have an understanding of who he is in order to achieve personal growth.
"It's important to know who [you are] inside, what are your strengths and what are your weaknesses," Kascak said. "Your weaknesses are only opportunities to grow. There's nothing negative, it's always just an opportunity to succeed."
The final element, team building, can be accomplished by bringing the team to a ropes course and accomplishing some kind of physical task together.
Ultimately, building a successful mentorship program is about relationship building and investing in the players off the ice throughout the course of the season.
"Why we started all of this … well, you want to ground your kids and your players," Kascak said. "Parents try to do that to a certain extent, but when a hockey player hears it from another hockey player who's been there and says, ‘I've been there, I've made those mistakes, I know what it cost me, this is what you need to do to be successful,' that makes a difference."