The Penguins hope to build a strong sense of team cohesiveness as well as leadership during training camp on the ice.
To do that, Penguins coach Michel Therrien and his staff knows the players must come together off the ice as well.
That’s why the Penguins are scheduled for a four-day visit to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Although, the Penguins won’t be there just to sightsee – they will be put through various classroom sessions and field exercises that stress team building as well as leadership training.
“I am a real believer in trying to build a team and trying to be a family. I think this is the start of the success of a hockey team,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “I think it’s going to be a phenomenal just before the season starts to be able to get the chance to go there with the quality of the people who will be at West Point to surround our players. I think it’s really important that we’re going to go through different experiences out there.
“We wanted to do a team bonding. We had different scenarios, but when we saw we had the opportunity to go there – we took it pretty quickly.”
First Sergeant J.B. Spisso, a former Army Ranger and current member of the New York National Guard, is a co-founder of Elite Leadership Training, LLC. In addition, he is a West Point employee and will oversee the Penguins’ training.
“They are going to be a doing combination of team building and leadership training. That is what I specialize in,” he said. “The players will work through both mental and physical problems based on military principals. Normally, we’ll put them in a military-style environment – out in the woods, on uneven terrain.”
Sounds tough, but it’s not supposed to be easy.
“They are going to be wet, cold and hungry; it’s going to be difficult,” Spisso said. “If they don’t work together, it’s going to be even more difficult.”
But, there are definite, long-lasting rewards.
“It builds trust, teamwork and forms alliances,” Spisso said. “It lets people get over any type of social boundaries like language barriers. What happens is, it doesn’t matter who you are on the ice – when you do this, you are all equal. That is where leadership really, really comes into effect. What I have noticed over the years is that the people I thought were leaders of a team always showed to really be leaders of the team.”
This sort of unique experience is catching on for professional as well as collegiate sports teams. The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers went through similar – and very successful – experiences at West Point in the past.
Now, it’s the Penguins’ turn.
“Without a doubt,” Spisso said. “I do this both for the military, professional teams, collegiate teams and also businesses. I ramp it up and ramp it down depending on my clientele because 20 IBM executives can’t really do what 20 professional athletes can do.”
Feedback for the training sessions has been overwhelmingly positive from the players who endure the activities and the coaching staffs and front office members who observe.
“I was extremely, extremely impressed at what all of them had done especially for a team like the Rangers [last year],” Spisso said. “They came in it with not a lot of core players and newer players. They were looking at it to try to organize groups into one. It worked for them. It was amazing to see them all work so hard. Nobody expected them to do well last year, but they ended up having a pretty good season.”
Spisso is eager to see how it helps the Penguins.
“For a team like Pittsburgh with such a young team and a few veterans who have been leaders, this is great,” he said. “It will teach them to work together.”
Leadership emerges during the training.
“I remember one time when a group of Flyers wasn’t doing too well and Keith Primeau, their captain, said, ‘let’s go, pick it up!’ and really got on the guys. Keith really stepped it up there and took charge,” Spisso said. “It’s good. Coach [Ken] Hitchcock was standing in the background smiling. I am sure that’s what every coach wants to see.”
Every player’s contribution is vital during the exercises.
“There are probably some athletes on the bubble. Maybe this is their shot at staying or going back,” Spisso said. “Maybe some guys will make the club or not make it by way they have given effort or not given effort.”
The trip is not all military exercises, though. The Penguins will have those as well as classroom sessions scheduled around team meetings, on-ice practice and weight lifting sessions. The team will train on the ice at the Army collegiate hockey team’s facilities and dine with the cadets.
“We work around all that, but there will be one major exercise one day that will last more than several hours,” Spisso said. “That will be dependant on how they do, of course. I have literally had a program that could last four hours or less, but have had it last double that or more because of the way a team is working together or not working together.”
Spisso and his staff are eager to work with the Penguins.
“I have a pretty talented staff – they are all guys and gals on the cutting edge,” Spisso said. “Most of them are NYPD officers and I gave them the alert a couple days ago about the team coming here. There are excited. It’s going to be a fun time. It really goes a long way in producing leaders and teamwork.”
Therrien knows the short amount of time spent at West Point will benefit the Penguins for the whole year.
“After the trip, we’re going to benefit for the entire season,” he said. “I am a true believer in those kinds of things.”