Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Hockey Team Dynamics

Detroit Red Wings vs Nashville Predators (Dec. 15, 2011) Photo: Patricia Teter. All Rights Reserved.
Detroit Red Wings vs Nashville Predators (Dec. 15, 2011) Photo: Patricia Teter. All Rights Reserved.

Games are often won and lost before a team steps on the ice Barry Smith, Director of Player Development with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Team Dynamics – definition: The behavioral relationship between members of a group that are assigned connected tasks within an organization. Dynamics are affected by roles, responsibilities and interaction, and have a direct result on productivity – i.e. how a team reacts, behaves and performs.


Every game night we sit on our cold perches inside arenas, or in the comfort of our own homes in armchairs, recliners or couches and critique the games we watch – a coterie of Armchair GMs or Armchair Coaches. It always seems so easy. As a group, Armchair Coaches can be a delusional lot — over estimating, over emphasizing any credit or penalties to our own teams. This seems fairly easy, but let’s be honest with ourselves – in reality, professional hockey is a complex dynamic.

Teams can falter, and often do, on their way through a season – and sadly for many fans not all teams make it into the playoffs. It is the nebulous and ever changing elements that confound us, amaze us and make us fall into the depths of despair; and teams themselves fall into this same trap. It’s human nature. That is why team dynamics are fascinating and that is also why it is sometimes difficult to judge a particular player’s performance on only one team.

Team dynamics are influenced by numerous factors – the team’s management, the entire organization itself, the individuals on any given team, their roles and interaction, as well as the identity of a team, both current and historical. The other day a coach talked about his team after a particularly bad game – he said he knew the team was probably in for a rough night when the team was so quiet in the locker room prior to the game. Were there signs of this in practice earlier in the day? Did this just suddenly appear, or had it been brewing for some time. It is interesting how a team can as a group either fall or rise to the same level.

Fine tuning team dynamics is a delicate balance and what works for one team, will not necessarily work for another. It is all in the tinkering; the evaluation and looking thoroughly at each piece in the multidimensional puzzle. Sometimes it is perfectly obvious, other times it is a complete mystery until that element is either eliminated or changed in some manner.

Many elements can go wrong or askew within a team’s dynamics. A number of teams this season fall into that category and there have been games where players sit on the bench waiting for the game to begin, clearly wishing they were elsewhere, anywhere else, and the pain, humiliation and defeat clearly evident in their eyes even before the first puck is dropped. It is truly disheartening to see a team in this conundrum.

How does a team turnaround from such an ominous cloud? How does a team revitalize itself? Sometimes all it takes is something new tossed into the mix – a bit of inspiration, a kick in the butt, a new player or two, a new line change here and there, or a new coach. All of these changes have made huge impacts on teams in the past. Sometimes all a particular game requires is a goal, a line mix-up, a goalie being pulled, or even a fight to change the downward spiral. Other times, the problem is far too complex to be cured so quickly and easily.

A particular team I follow – who has experienced a horribly rough season — had lately lost all of their spirit and enjoyment of the game. Their last game was one of heartbreaking despair – a crushing defeat that seemed to be the final straw. The turnover of coaches and players had been rampant throughout the season, and it seemed as if there was no team identity left to salvage. You could see this with every game as the season advanced into December and then January. There was a general feeling of “what’s the point?” which can swoop in and sting any team given the opportunity, but the other night something miraculous happened.

As they came out onto the ice there was a bounce in their step, a rejuvenation of energy and spirit. The first period was astonishing. This team played with a sense of pride I had not seen since the early days of the season. And why? A new coach had been tossed into the mix – yes another! – a coach who was able to provide the team with a new vision, a new plan of battle, a new sense of energy to rebuild their individual self-esteem and respect for each other – and the team bought into those plans! You could clearly see all of those elements out on the ice.  And yes, that team, with their newly rediscovered swagger, won that night. I hope they celebrated with as much vivacity and joy as Nail Yakupov did on his game tying goal the other night in Edmonton. They truly deserved it.

As we watch the remainder of this season, keep in mind Barry Smith’s quote — Games are often won and lost before a team steps on the ice. Most of us do not even consider this as a possibility. We are far too focused on whether the defense is doing their job, whether the goaltenders are making those basic saves, wondering if the 3rd line will step up and score, and planning the next team trade. But we also need to remember that the game of hockey – a team sport – is far, far more complex than that. It is an evolving, living, breathing beast – it is all in the dynamics.