Leadership Tips From America's 'Worst' Coach Hockey Team

John Bacon got more satisfaction from coaching a bad hockey team than playing for a good one. In his new book, “Let Them Lead: Unexpect...


John Bacon got more satisfaction from coaching a bad hockey team than playing for a good one. In his new book, “Let Them Lead: Unexpected Lessons in Leadership from America’s Worst High School Hockey Team,” Bacon, journalist and leadership consultant, explores why and what made the difference.

Bacon played on the third and fourth rows for Ann Arbor Huron High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, mostly on penalties. He’s dressed for every game over three seasons and has never scored a goal, even though the River Rats have raced deep through the state championships. When he returned to coach the team in 2000, they had not won a game in over a year.

By empowering his players and instilling a sense of discipline, he made the River Rats one of Michigan’s top hockey teams in just three seasons. He said the experience changed his life.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The language of sport leans towards superlatives. America worse Hockey team? Are you exaggerating a little for a dramatic effect?

I got a pretty good deal. It was “Bad news bear“level. I think we probably would have been ranked last in the country. Definitely the bottom five out of a thousand. That’s pretty good. Or pretty bad.

Years earlier, you actually played on this team.

When I was playing we had a good team. We’ve been in the top 10 all year. We had talented players. I was not one of them.

But while we had a talented team, we had almost no discipline. We have led the state in penalties every three years. We were a little out of control. The manager had to come and talk to us once at the hockey rink, during an away game. It is saying something. When the principal gives your pre-game speech across town, you know you’re in trouble.

The team that I took over was a bit the opposite. They didn’t have any wins, but we put the discipline in from the start, and that’s how it turned around.

Why would you want to coach an awful team?

Although playing was a good experience, it was not a great experience. And one of my main motivations as a coach 20 years later was that I wanted my players to have an experience they could draw on for the rest of their lives. I didn’t have that.

How did you start with a team that hadn’t won a game in over a year?

It wasn’t easy, but we kept going. My first year, we had a 10-game losing streak. We lost a close match against our rival, Pioneer High School. Pioneer had a whole list of alumni: Ken burns, Bob Seger, Jack Lousma – he was an astronaut – Jim Harbaugh. And we had James “Lights Out” Toney, the middleweight champion. We were the other high school in Ann Arbor, just to be clear.

But, I never saw it as a stepping stone to anything. I wasn’t trying to move forward in training. I just wanted to do this thing.

Is talent the most important thing for a winning team?

I did an analysis of NHL All-Star games in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. The Stanley Cup champion used to play for the All-Star team and the Cup champions did better than the All-Stars. which makes no sense on paper. It’s never just talent. This is how all the pieces fit together. Successful teams understand that everyone has a role.

If you have this, you are hard to beat. Same thing in the workplace. If everyone wants the ball, it just won’t work. You need crushers, you need guards.

Do you still have news from the players you have coached?

I probably talk to at least one player every day, and 17 years after the fact, what is striking is how many of them are now leaders themselves. I will say this: when I am dead, they will carry my coffin.

In the movies, there’s always the big motivational talk, whether it’s from the coach or the player, that changes the narrative arc. Was it like that for you?

I like a good pre-game speech. But it’s not that important. I’ve seen great coaches do it without all of that. What’s important is knowing your people, and really the pre-game talk only works if you really know your people and know where those buttons are.

Has handing over control of the team to the players themselves a game-changer?

Bad teams, no one is leading. Good teams, coaches lead. Great teams, everyone leads. That works. It works in ice hockey. It works in newsrooms. It works during Stanley Cup races. It can work in any business. But it’s scary, and it takes courage.

How it works?

You identify what is essential, what is negotiable and what is a deciding factor. A lack of confidence is a breaking factor. In the world of work, once trust is broken, you are not going to get it back.

At first, I only trusted them to stretch and count simultaneously, and they couldn’t do it. It was so bad. But over time, they took responsibility for themselves as a group. We just kept doing it. My belief was that over time we will learn this thing. The cool part was at the end of summer, we were on the pitch stretching and if a parent or the athletic director came up to me I could say, ‘Seniors, you run’, and they would.

Be patient with the results. Don’t be patient with behaviors. If the behaviors are right, you will get there. At the end of third year one night I said, ‘OK, seniors, you’re going to be coaching the whole game. And they went out and smoked the other team.

Which team do you think is doing it well?

Tampa Bay Lightning. You don’t see Jon Cooper behind the bench screaming and screaming. Its players are at the top. And he’s the relatively calm guy behind the bench. This guy has never played hockey at any level. He was a high school hockey coach who went from there to juniors. He paid his membership fee. His players trust him and listen to him. Leaders know it’s not about them. If you can swallow your ego, you’re halfway there. It’s Jon Cooper.

Favorite sports movie?

“Miracle.” Sorry.

There is no need to be sorry!

It’s a true story of players who believed in themselves and went beyond their limits. They did things they shouldn’t have been able to do. And that’s what I wanted. He was a role model for my team.

Is there a movie to make about the rats of the Ann Arbor Huron River?

I’m working on a script with Jim Burnstein. He wrote “D3: Mighty Ducks”, “Renaissance Man”, “Ruffian”, “Love and Honor”. I think there are a lot of promises here. When we’re done, we’ll start shopping around Hollywood. But it’s harder than you might think. It’s haiku. It’s so, so short. You get a hundred pages. Each page has to do so much. It’s harder than a book, but more fun.

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