Culture is a word that’s thrown around quite often. It seems, though, there’s no distinct meaning of the word. In hockey, culture is something that goes on behind the scenes. It’s an attitude, it’s a mindset, and it’s a feeling amongst those playing together.
In Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) culture is crucial to winning championships. Unlike professional hockey, the CIS lacks ‘superstar’ status. What it lacks in pure talent and ability, it certainly makes up for in hard work and grit. As a result, it makes putting together an abundance of ‘gritty’ players a challenging task. Professional hockey, on the other hand, is more like a game of checkers.
We’ll use the Toronto Maple Leafs as an example. When Brian Burke first arrived in Toronto, he made no secret about “changing the culture” in the dressing room. He might have meant trading, cutting, or releasing certain players we call ‘cancers.’ Excuse me if that’s offensive, but they’re the type of guys who are more into themselves than what the team is ultimately working towards.
Burke could have been referring to his core group of leaders, the guys with long-term contracts and security within the organization. It’s tough to win without a threat to your job security or at least a sense of urgency.
More accurately, Burke might have just been looking to bring some fresh faces into the lineup who appreciated the privilege of playing for a storied franchise and were willing to prove it. After a few phone calls, players began to get shipped out and the culture took a turn in the right direction.
In university, though, we have to treat culture differently. Players are committed to a team until they’ve got their degree, which is longer for some, but generally takes four years. Without the ability to ‘shuffle the deck’ and make roster changes, culture becomes an important feeling that is constructed within the group rather than strategically created by upper management.
Winning teams in the CIS are bound through a strong sense of team and brotherhood. Take the University of Alberta Golden Bears, who’ve won a record 13 national championships. The University of New Brunswick, also an annual powerhouse, has been to the national championship game three consecutive seasons, winning two of them. These teams make the most with the roster they have recruited year after year.
It’s no mistake when the Detroit Red Wings break 100 points each season. There is a certain culture within that team no one else has been able to duplicate. It starts with management. Ken Holland set his standards high when he used Nicklas Lidstrom as a precedent for salary.
Lidstrom was going to be the franchise’s highest paid player, no questions asked. The handful of rising stars within the organization accepted that for the chance to win. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and a group of role players settled for less money and have been with the team for several years now and they remain a threat each season. Funny how that works.
University teams can recruit players and filter others out, but ultimately it's about bonding together and creating something special in the dressing room and on the ice. There’s nowhere to go and no one to impress but the guy sitting across from you. It’s a game of commitment and dedication to common goals. Without that culture, university teams don’t win.
In the Atlantic Division (AUS) there has been speculation surrounding the abrupt resignation of University of Prince Edward Island coach Dylan Taylor. Rumour has it the players were fed up with his coaching methods and had lost confidence in his ability to guide the team.
I’d be surprised to see the truth actually surface, but it demonstrates the importance of culture and winning. When teams lose, they look to their leaders and coaching staff for guidance. In this case, it may not have been there. And when that culture isn’t there, a few simple trades can’t solve the problem to get your team out of a hole.
That’s why hockey is the most fascinating game on Earth. The logic goes far beyond what it should, and we love it.
Jason Cassidy is a right winger for St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He spent four seasons in the Ontario League's with the Brampton Battalion and St. Michaels Majors. He is from Whitby, Ont., and is working towards a degree in journalism and will blog on THN.com about his CIS and OHL career regularly.Read his other blogs HERE.