Good coaches

Quiet Integrity: Youth Hockey Done Right

Coach Steve Wills, Woodbury Hockey Peewee B2 Royal Head Coach

The story I am about to tell you is not a story you will find in national media. It’s not the kind of story that gets attention from the loudest tv or radio hosts. This is the kind of quiet story that reminds me why I’m glad our kids play team sports.  It’s why we encourage them to fight through those tougher moments, and it gives us all hope that it won’t take much to make youth sports exactly what all our kids need.

On January 15, 2012, two Peewee B2 teams faced off for third place of a tournament in Hermantown, Minnesota. The teams represented Woodbury (a bustling suburb of the twin cities-with over 62,000 residents) and Brainerd (a small northern Minnesota town- population 13,590)

Anyone who has watched much hockey history in Minnesota, knows that there is often no love lost between the city teams and the teams from up north. What happened in Hermantown should be a reminder to all of us that doing the right thing is easier than we think.

The story started even before the two teams took the ice. Just after dryland warm-up, and as the boys headed into their locker room to get ready, Coach Steve Wills, first-year head coach of the Woodbury squad, noticed a lone gentleman sitting in the stands.

Wills could see that the 74-year-old man was wearing a hat with military insignia, but he couldn’t read the specifics. James A. Hodge, a third class petty officer from the USS Chivo from 1955-1958, was wearing the 50th anniversary hat for his three years of service aboard a naval submarine.

Wills thought to himself, “I cannot just walk by this guy” without doing something. So, he followed the boys into the locker room and then asked them, “Hey guys, did anyone notice that gentleman sitting in the stands?”

A couple of the boys nodded that they had, but they hadn’t noticed what their coach had.

Steven Tharalson remembers, “Coach Wills told us there was a veteran out there and we should all go up and thank him and shake his hand.”

So they did.

The boys filed back out of the room, one by one, and headed over toward Mr. Hodge.

As they lined up thanking him, and shaking his hand, an idea popped into the head of one of the boys.

Max Gates, an older player on the team, shook the man’s hand and then stood waiting for his teammates.  He thought it would be nice to salute him too.

“I just thought it would be kinda cool,” Max said.

So with the confidence that comes when a team agrees to do something as a group, the boys all turned and saluted the gentleman for his service.

Woodbury Peewee B2 Royal

Coaches from left– Jim Hanson, Jeff Heinrich, Steve Wills and Brian Nerison
Standing players from left– Tanner Nerison, Nathan Julius, Andrew Pape, Jared Hanke, Steven Tharalson
Kneeling players from left- Logan Davis, Justin Hanson, David Heinrich, Thomas Young, Jayce Schorn-Pedro, Brody Wills, Alex Samuelson
Laying from left- Chase Wills and Max Gates
*not pictured: Sean Wood

When asked why it wasn’t hard to pay tribute to a stranger, Alex Samuelson said, “It’s really nice that man served and fought for our freedom.”

The seemingly small moment of gratitude and honor was a private one among the players and Mr. Hodge, but thankfully it didn’t stay that way.

What the boys could not have known, and what Coach Wills didn’t know either, was that Mr. Hodge was not only the grandfather of a player on the Brainerd team…he was also the father of the opposing head coach.

The story could have been that Coach Hodge learned of the tribute and sent a letter of gratitude, but there was something more to this story. There was that game to play, after all.

Tournament games for a trophy are too often the stage for less than desirable behavior from players, coaches and/or parents.

What Coach Hodge noticed was that this game felt different. There was really something special about this Woodbury team.

Teaching instruction before a drill

“I was listening to their coach, and it was all positive. He pushed them, but the way those kids responded to him… they played so hard the whole game,” Hodge said. He was impressed by the effort of the Woodbury boys, by the class they showed playing the game, and he appreciated the personality of the opposing bench.

“Teams take on the personality of their coach,” he explained, and it was refreshing to see such a vivid example of sportsmanship.

The Brainerd team won the game 4-0, but Coach Hodge admits that they would not win every contest against that Woodbury team.

Unknowingly, the Woodbury boys were going to have a chance to shake hands with another member of the Hodge family… while going through the handshake line.

“Every boy made eye contact with me, and told me good game,” said Hodge. He was impressed too, by the fact that the Woodbury boys took a respectful knee and clapped for the Brainerd team while they received their awards. There is an unwritten rule that such sportsmanship should exist, but, too often, teams forget to be that respectful of their opponents.

It was only after the game that Coach Hodge learned about the pre-game tribute to his father, and he just knew he had to do something to point out the positive things going on for the Woodbury Peewee B2 team.

“We (coaches) work really hard to win, but all the other things we do are more important,” Hodge said.

Coach Hodge sent out letters to local media outlets, and the link to his original letter is here.

A scene like this does not just happen. It is a combination of the right coaches, the right players, and the right kind of guiding parents who all come together at the right place… at the right time.

It took the extra effort of Coach Wills to pay tribute to a military vet he didn’t know.  It took extra effort for the son of that man, Coach Hodge, to then pay tribute to the team that behaved the way teams should behave. Both of these men go above and beyond the x’s and o’s.

Coach Hodge told me he coaches, “to influence kids to be better kids.” And Coach Wills echoed that sentiment almost exactly when he said, “I just enjoy finding out what makes these kids tick and trying to make them better young men; not just better hockey players.”

It was a chance collision of these two good coaches that made this story possible.

After I read the letter,  I too was compelled to do something in honor of all that is right about these teams. I had a chance to observe a recent practice, and afterward the boys were gracious enough to answer some of my questions. I asked them what makes Coach Wills a good coach.

Brody Wills, one of Coach Wills’ sons, told me, “He knows what each one of us can do and he expects from us all that we can do.”

Other answers varied, like, “He teaches us.” “We have fun.” “He doesn’t yell.” “He’s really nice.” and “He knows what to talk about.” But what I heard several times can be summed up in what Logan Davis said. “When we mess up a drill,” he told me, ” he teaches us and encourages us to get it right.”

It is, after all, about doing things right. Coach Wills shared with me the mantra he has for his boys. He regularly instructs them to, “do the next right thing.” It is completely apparent that Coach Wills doesn’t just coach that…he lives it.

Meagan Frank is a freelance writer and author living in Woodbury, MN. She is currently working on a book about youth sports, and you can learn more about her and the book project at her website:

Copyright 2012    Choosing to Grow                              Meagan Frank

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