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Off-ice team building critical in creating a champion

by Mike G. Morreale

Before individual accolades and team championships at any level of organized hockey, coaches and parents have a responsibility to help instill some sense of unity and pride within the group.

Only when that foundation is achieved can a team take their goals to even greater heights. Part of building that foundation is becoming acquainted, not only via team drills on the ice, but through various exercises off the playing surface.

"One thing we always try and do is build that trust factor by doing some type of teamwork off the ice," said Jon Greenwood, the director of hockey development at the Maritime Hockey Academy in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Hockey mom gets team building

Christie Casciano Burns not only is a proud hockey mom, but author of two books based on her experiences as a hockey parent.

Her most recent children's book, titled "Haunted Hockey in Lake Placid, The Puck Hog Volume 2," is currently out on bookshelves. The stories, according to the mother of two, are based on her accounts as a hockey mom in the trenches and falling in love with the sport. Additionally, Burns writes a monthly advice column for USA Hockey Magazine. caught up with Burns, who also serves as a news anchor for WSYR-TV in Syracuse, for her opinion on the importance of team-building exercises off the ice for young players.

"We had a bottle and can drive campaign to help raise money for trips, so we picked neighborhoods and knocked on doors and asked people for spare bottles and cans that we might be able to recycle and earn money," Burns told "Not only did we raise $700, but it was great having the kids earn something, too. They need to know that things aren't just handed to them.

"Kids learn skills like how to approach people, how to address them, politeness and how to organize a project," she continued. "It's cool to watch them strategize."

-- Mike G. Morreale

"Whether it's relay races or making the human pyramid, any type of thing working in a team environment is essential to building that trust and that foundation," he said. "The business world is doing a lot more of that, too. You always hear of these retreats that companies conduct outside the office. It has gone from the sports world into the business world and is extremely important."

Former NHL forward Steve Webb is well aware of the impact team building exercises might have on a team. Last year, Webb served as an assistant coach under Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine for the Long Island Royals' Under-16 Tier I National championship team.

He recalls one of the special moments his team shared following that championship season.

"One going-away thing we did was a food drive," Webb told "We went to three shopping centers, and kids wore their jerseys. Here they were, just having won a national championship, and two weeks later they're standing there asking people to donate.

"They would later bring the items to a food shelter in Huntington Station [N.Y.], and I think that was one of the greatest things we did during the season. It put a stamp on how far we had come as a team and the respect we had for each other."

P.K. O'Handley, the head coach and general manager of the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League, can't stress enough the importance of team-building exercises at any age of development.

"Team building is an ongoing thing," O'Handley told "We immerse our guys in our community and that doesn't sound like team-building, per se, but it is. It forces smaller groups to go out to people they don't know and communicate about themselves, about our program. Those are great experiences for young guys that we mandate they do. It helps our team understand the sense of pride in what they do, day in and day out, for the city of Waterloo and the community here in the Cedar Valley and the Black Hawks."

O'Handley said the coaching staff enjoys breaking the monotony of a long hockey season by having the players indulge in other activities, including paintball, meals at a teammates' house and frequent team meals at local restaurants.

"Those are things that we try to do to really give the team cohesion, but it's also good for our players to understand that this is just a stop in their career … they need to invest of themselves and in each other and rely on each other to learn to communicate, be a pro, and be a good citizen," O'Handley said. "To do all those things that are important and hopefully can come together and put you in a good spot at the end of the year."

Similar to Webb's experience with the Long Island Royals, Greenwood has also made it a habit to conduct plenty of team-building exercises for his youth teams.

"The major midget team I coach here at home had a weekend off, so we went paddling," he said. "We took the team out onto the water and had two teams of 10 with coaches on each team -- it was a paddling race.

"Team building is an ongoing thing," O'Handley told "We immerse our guys in our community and that doesn't sound like team-building, per se, but it is." -- P.K. O'Handley, head coach and general manager of the Waterloo Black Hawks

"It's good because you get to see guys in their comfort zone and out of their comfort zone, and generally it's not the top hockey player who becomes the top paddler. You get to see different leaders step up as well. Who's going to step up in this boat where no one knows what they're doing? Who's going to say, 'Guys, let me call out the strokes' and take charge of that boat. It was fun, but you also see the competitiveness really shine."

Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations, was a part of team-building exercises as a youngster growing up in Rochester, Minn.

"I recall how coaches taught you how you had to be in line with how you carried yourself," Johannson told "In Rochester, I remember feeling like you feared the coach, but I never had a coach who raised his voice or really screamed or yelled. They were firm, direct coaches who reminded me of my dad. I never wanted to cross my dad, but he never yelled at me. They taught you respect and to respect others while having an appreciation of all your achievements."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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