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Let them lead: Unexpected lessons in leadership from America’s worst hockey team

A match made in heaven

Leaders too often think their people are robots: they can do what they can do, they can’t do what they can’t do, none of this will ever change, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Let Them Lead Book Cover

(Mariner Books, 2021)

But the truth is the opposite of all that: people can grow, dramatically, and that includes leaders. But if you stick to conventional wisdom, you’ll miss out on a ton of talent sitting dormant in your organization.

This lesson I learned in real time.

Despite being the worst player in the history of the Ann Arbor Huron River Rats hockey team, having played 86 games without scoring a single goal, in 2000 I became head coach of the Rats, which had not won a single game the year before, going 0-22-3. Zero goals, meet zero wins. Now there’s a match made in heaven.

Relying on mentors like Culver Academy’s Al Clark, plus 1980 Olympic coach Herb Brooks and Michigan’s Red Berenson and Bo Schembechler, I decided from the start we’d make it special to play for Huron by making it hard. We conducted a four-month off-season training camp, the toughest in the state, yet not one player quit. Our first year together they won seven games, the most-improved team in Huron history.

We felt we were poised to make a bigger leap our second year, but to get there, we needed a lot of our people to raise their games.

If you build it…

This is when I discovered the good news: Once you’ve built a principle-based culture that sets your people on the right path, you can reap an impressive return on investment, in terms of untapped talent and effort, just by shutting up and getting out of your people’s way.

It turns out your employees’ talent is not fixed – nor is their maturity or leadership ability or just about anything except their height. Further, it’s impossible to predict who’s going to develop and who isn’t. This understanding informs a foundational philosophy: You work with all of your people, you play no favorites, then you see who rises. Let them decide what they can become – and you’ll be amazed who excels, how fast, and how far. Before you know it, the unassuming worker in the middle cubicle is suddenly leading the pack – and you will have a much stronger team because of it.

Great expectations

We had a lot of guys who were underestimated by everyone – sometimes including me – who went on to do far more than expected at their position, or at a new position, or as team leaders. Of the 54 players I coached, I counted at least 30 who fit the description of “major overachiever” in some way or other – more than half. I didn’t “discover” them. They discovered themselves, once they got the chance.

Of the many examples of our players stepping up, Nate Reichwage’s might be the best. My first year coaching the Rats Nate was a sophomore goalie, a shy, unassuming character everyone liked. He also showed up for every workout that off-season, more than 50, and he worked as hard as anyone.

“After some of our workouts I could barely walk upstairs,” he recalls. “I puked twice during workouts – the only times I’ve ever puked working out. I was by no means out of shape either. That is how grueling some of those workouts really were. We may not have been the most talented hockey team in the state, but win or lose, we knew that we had done everything within our power to prepare for the season.”

During my first try-outs, Nate couldn’t stop a beach ball. We already had four goalies ahead of him, one more than teams normally need, but Nate had a few factors going for him: Our two best goalies were both seniors and one of them had broken his ankle right before tryouts. And, I just didn’t have the heart to cut Nate. So we decided to have the freshman goalie and Nate split the fourth goalie spot by alternating practices.

“I was clearly the least-skilled goaltender on the team,” Nate says today. “The most important thing that Coach Bacon taught me was work ethic. I remember working so hard during practice and getting so angry when I let in goals.”

Nate might have ranked last in talent, but no one was more passionate.

“My fondest high school memories revolve around one thing: Huron Hockey,” he says. “Sitting in those tiny desks at school, all I could think about was seeing my teammates and coaches at the rink. I felt part of something.”

‘Just play with an open net’

John Bacon yells at ref during Huron River Rats game

Bacon questions a referee’s eyesight during a game. (Photo credit: Robin Kunkel.)

By the middle of our second season, Nate’s junior year, he was still stuck at third string. Our top two goalies had played great on our off-season teams, but they had started squabbling with each other, which affected their play. During the first half of the season we were outshooting teams two-to-one but had only a 6-5 record to show for it, which was driving everyone crazy. But no one dared say a peep about our goaltending issues for fear of rattling their already fragile confidence.

The night before winter break, we had one more Metro League game, against 7th-ranked Grosse Pointe South – a highly disciplined team that had beaten Huron 5-0, 7-2, and 7-0 our last three meetings. In fact, Huron had never beaten GPS. To add a little more pressure, the Ann Arbor News would be covering the game.

After practice the day before the game I took five assistant coaches to a steakhouse for a free meal, something every unpaid assistant could use. When I asked them which goalie they would start, two said the junior, two said the sophomore, and one said, “Just pull the goalie and play with an open net all night.” (It would have been funnier if he was kidding.) No one picked Nate.

Nonetheless, I was considering starting Nate, if for no other reason than to give him a chance and send a message. I called one of our assistants, Ned Glysson, who often worked with the goalies. “If I start Nate tonight, can you give him everything you’ve got — knowledge, coaching, confidence?”

“Absolutely!” He loved the idea. That helped.

Because I wanted to avoid freaking Nate out, I didn’t tell him he’d be starting until he got to the rink that night. When the players arrived, I pointed to the board and said, “Nate’s starting, and I know you’ve all got his back.”

An actual confidence game

Huron River Rats run the stairs at Michigan Stadium.

Sometimes “making it hard” to play for a team also makes it feel special, Bacon says. (Photo credit: Robin Kunkel.)

But I have to confess two things: First, although I think leaders should almost never chew out their people in public, I was so sick of the goalie drama that I had written a two-page speech to deliver after our inevitable butt-kicking. I planned to take the two starting goalies to task for their selfish feud, which was impacting the whole team.

Second, before everyone got dressed I called the defensemen into the tiny coaches’ room, and told them they needed to play as if we had pulled the goalie, leaving an open net: take every shooter, block every shot they could. Then I called in our 12 starting forwards – an even tighter squeeze – and gave them the same instructions. They understood.

Coach Ned, God bless him, gave Nate all the confidence he could, plus some basic tips. Then Ned sat right behind Nate’s net with a notebook, so Nate could see Coach Ned give him thumbs-up after every stop in play.

Despite all our precautions, when the puck dropped, I still expected the worst. Heck, I almost welcomed a blow-out to set up my post-game screed. I just wanted to get the massacre over with, rip our two starting goalies, and start over after the break.

But when Grosse Pointe South’s starting center fired the game’s first shot, Nate Reichwage made the save, then swept the puck into the corner, just like you’re supposed to. After the first whistle Nate looked behind him and saw Coach Ned giving him the thumbs-up. Well, one-for-one. Our players blocked a couple shots themselves. They all liked Nate and wanted to see him survive the night intact. Then Nate made three more saves, and it started looking like he’d been doing it his whole life.

“I was extremely nervous and excited at the same time,” Nate recalls. “I obsessively went through my movements in the crease to make sure I was centered in the net and cutting down the angles.”

Inspired, our guys mounted an unlikely 2-0 first period lead. But I knew the real test would occur after Nate let in a goal, especially if it was a bad one. Once the dam breaks, anything can happen. But after GPS scored late in the first period – on a good shot – Nate’s teammates swarmed him in support, Coach Ned stood up and pointed to his head and heart, and Nate kept his head screwed on straight.

With five minutes left in the game we were down just 3-2, about 10 goals closer than I expected to be at that stage. I couldn’t believe we actually had a chance to beat such a good team, but there we were. With Nate playing well enough to free our forwards, we scored two more goals plus an open-netter to seal a shocking 5-3 upset.

“Coach Bacon gave me a chance,” Nate remembers, “and I tried to make the most of that opportunity.”

‘A disciplined team out there’

The Huron River Rats win the 2001 Turkey Tournament

Nate Reichwage, number 30, is second from far left. (Photo credit: Robin Kunkel.)

The guys were thrilled for the team and for Nate, mobbing him in front of his net, and whooping it up all the way to our locker room. In the Ann Arbor News the Grosse Pointe South coach was generous: “I see a very disciplined team out there. He’s got them believing in the system he wants to play.”

Of course, he gave me far too much credit, not knowing I had gone into the game prepared to get blown out by his great team yet again. But none of it would have worked if it wasn’t for the quiet kid who finally got his chance.

When I walked into our raucous locker room, I ducked into the coaches’ office to pull out my two-page rant about the other goalies, tear it up, and throw it in the trash. No need for that now. Then I high-fived the assistants, and gave Coach Ned a bear hug.

To this day, I cannot tell you for the life of me what the hell happened that night. The same goalie who ranked last for a year-and-a-half had just stonewalled one of the best teams in the state – and it wasn’t because we’d given him some great secret, or a vision came to him in a dream, or a genie had shown up with three wishes. No doubt, Nate’s attention to detail in practice had produced incremental improvements, which I had probably missed due to my obsession with our other goalies. Perhaps Nate also was a gamer, who saved his best performance for the big stage. I honestly don’t know.

But I do know the goalie I saw that night was not to be dismissed. I believed Nate’s debut was for real, and we made him the starter. He removed any doubts when he went on to win 9 games against just 4 losses and two ties. What he  showed us that first night turned out to be who he really was.

“Nate was super-untested, super quiet, just kind of there,” Nate’s teammate Jon Eldredge recalls. “Then he absolutely goes hulk-mode [in his first game] and gives us confidence in our goaltender for the first time all year.”

Making the impossible possible

When you set up a strict meritocracy where everyone gets an honest chance, it motivates everyone. Starters have to work to keep their jobs, and back-ups are motivated to take it. People want to play on a team that’s fair, which inspires them to do their best.

The other two goalies not only accepted it – liking Nate might be the only thing they had in common – they seemed relieved to end their feud. Nate kept the top spot for the rest of his high school career, earning a nice feature story in the Ann Arbor News, the nickname Darth Nater from his teammates, and the team’s Most Improved Player award. Not least, Nate’s team finished 17-4-5 his senior year, the program’s best mark three years after going 0-22-3, and rose to number five in the state rankings. None of that would be possible without Nate stepping up the way he did.

Nate went on to start for U-M’s highly competitive club team, while his teammate, Chris Fragner, played three years for Michigan’s varsity.

For all Nate Reichwage did for us, we did do one thing for Nate, which turned out to be all he needed: We never told him what he couldn’t do.

Your people can and will do amazing things like Nate Reichwage, too, if you just give them a chance, and get out of their way.

(Lead image of the Huron River Rats running the stairs at Michigan Stadium by Robin Kunkel.)

Comments

  1. Barry MacDonald - 1962-'66

    Enjoyable read… Nice story. Will order the book.
    “Them” is the key word…
    Always a Team Effort, with numerous leadership roles, when producing a successful result, however it is defined.
    JBM

    Reply

  2. Clyde McKenzie - 1974

    John U. Bacon is a compellingly readable author. Humor, humility, attention to the details of human strengths and frailties; he catches all of it. Love his stuff.

    Reply

  3. Douglas Levy - 1985

    Ho hum. Just another spectacular article by John U. Bacon. I have read most of them, and all of John’s awesome books. I look forward to enjoying this one about the Huron River Rats. Thank you and GO BLUE!

    Reply

  4. Charles Mason - 1968

    John U knows how to tell a story and make it interesting.

    Still, the moral as it were, “get out of their way”, while truthful, is certainly not the whole truth.

    What would have happened if Coach intervened, and settled the dispute with his top two goalies, so as to have them FOCUS? Perhaps even more wins?

    Yes, one gets better at a task through “work ethic”.

    But it’s usually the case that their are many roads to each promised land. Coaching in particular and teaching in general is suggesting an efficient road, perhaps most efficient road, and then working, putting in the time, practicing if you will, so that you’re prepared to accomplish the task.

    Being prepared is an attribute of success, but no guarantee.

    How many of us could go one on one with Labron James?

    Each of us has physical (as well as mental) limitations.

    Yes, whatever the discipline we can get better through work. But picking the right course is as important.

    As an example, suppose you wanted to learn a foreign language. You’ll need a vocabulary. One way, one path toward achievement is to start learning words beginning with A, proceed to B, etc. A better, more efficient way is to find the 50 most common words, and learn them. Then go to the next 50, etc. I suspect this is a better path in building a vocabulary 0

    The point is, that while hard work is important, it’s not just hard work….

    Reply

  5. Rob DeBrooke - 1978

    Brings back fond memories of Trenton game in their barn. The bus shaking from side to side and the rocks pelting the windows was never so satisfying!

    I got goose bumps reading this! Look forward to the rest of the story.

    Reply

  6. Sue Shand - 1979

    Nate’s statement “…all I could think about was seeing my teammates and coaches at the rink” brought tears to my eyes and is the essence of what high school sports is to so many kids. I think a lot of coaches miss that. Thanks for reminding us, John. Can’t wait to read the book.

    Reply

  7. Scotty Jewett - 2008

    JUB, you’re a humble legend. Another fantastic write-up with an abundance of great lessons.

    Giving a fair shot to those who want to earn a job is a major hallmark of good organizations. The Red Wings built an ethos around the fair shots they gave to members of the Grind Line and that culture was a foundation for greatness for 20+ years. They certainly seem like they’re on that track again and it “feels” different.

    Yes, there’s something to be said for creating your opportunity, but it’s an unfortunate truth that some clubs are too sullied to truly give a fair shake without bias. Those clubs will ultimately get left in the dust.

    There’s nothing you can do to change the talent of your opponent or the teammates ahead of you in the lineup except outwork them shift …after shift …after shift …after shift …after shift. Be disciplined, opportunistic and hope that the team culture is good enough to give you a fair shot.

    For every uber-talented NHLer that didn’t meet their potential, there are at least ten guys in the league with longer careers that punched above their weight class in talent and skill because they were disciplined, opportunistic and got a fair shot with an organization. Saying this with complete respect and admiration, there’s no reason Drew Miller should’ve played almost 600 games in the NHL based on his talent. He did it because he was focused, disciplined, opportunistic and got a shot. Luke Glendenning is another.

    I’d take the All-Disciplined Team over high talent in a best-of-seven every time. It wins the war.

    Reply

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