|Tyler Stilling's superb prep school career didn't translate to |
college, but that didn't stop him from being a great teammate.
If there was ever the perfect example of the importance of having a quality back-up, Super Bowl 52 was it.
Yes, I was rooting for my hometown New England Patriots, but there's no denying that the Philadelphia Eagles and their MVP quarterback, Nick Foles (yes, a back -up to Carson Wentz) were deserving champions.
All too often we get hung up on a team's stars, forgetting that it's still a "team" game. There's only one QB, just like there's only one goaltender, that plays at any given time. But everyone on the team plays a critical role. My friend Tyler Stillings is proof. Let me know what you think ...
Being a back-up isn't the end of the world
I come today to praise that time-honored and often under-appreciated teammate – the back-up goaltender.
Talk about a thankless job. The back-up goalie's chief responsibility, during games, is opening and closing the bench door. Or being chief cheerleader while teammates are gasping for air. You've got to be ready to play, at your best, even though you rarely know if you're actually getting into the game.
In practice, the back-up is typically the pin cushion, the target who absorbs all the extra shots after the starter calls off the dogs. Yet no one embodies the bedrock truths of this remarkable game – hard work, teamwork, perseverance, humility, and sacrifice – more than the back-up goalie.
Almost nobody sets out to be the second-string goalie. I say "almost," because I've met players who are more than content to be on the team, without worrying about the requisite pressures of being a starter. This column isn't about them.
Instead, I'm writing to those kids who have every intention of grabbing the crease, but fall short due to any number of circumstances. They're an inch too small, a second too slow, a year too young. No matter what the reason – whether timing or talent – these goalies don't become starters. But they're members of the team nonetheless.
I recently read an article in a national hockey magazine about "non-stars." The author contended that every player – even the kids on the end of the bench – has an important role in a team's success. And parents need to appreciate that their son and/or daughter, no matter whether they're a stud or fourth-line winger, is "an integral part of the hockey team," he wrote.
The irony is that the article's author owns a development program that's Exhibit No. 1 in a youth hockey culture that deifies these pre-teen "stars." The program's ads – in print and on television – are specifically designed to feed the parental mindset that, if you want your kids to be great, they need the extra edge that the program offers.
Of course, the author isn't alone. Plenty of camps and skills programs do this, as do "select" teams. I see it over and over and over again. God forbid your child isn't on a particular program's "Tier I" team; you'll quickly discover what it's like to be a second-class skater despite paying a first-class fee. But that's another column. The point is that all these organization fuel "the dream." I get it. It's a business.
(To be fair, the author does mention several great attributes of those "non-stars," such as being vocal and supportive on the bench and in the locker room, being a leader regardless of playing time, being the first on the ice and the last off during practices, and always putting the team goals before individual accolades. I'm on board with all of those.)
For goaltenders, there's definitely merit to playing. All things being equal, game experience is the single biggest delineation between "good" and "great" players. The prevailing wisdom is, find the highest level of play that guarantees your child plenty of game time. Which leads to this crazy contest of musical chairs, with goalies constantly changing teams and programs to find the "right fit."
Now, I'm Old School. I'm OK with the high school model where you earn your starting spot. That means, unless you're a freshman with all-world talent (in reality, not just your parents' minds), you pay your dues. All things being equal, I'm giving the starting nod to the upperclassmen. They've been in the trenches for two-plus years. They deserve that shot.
A few years back, I had a very promising young goalie try out for his school team as a freshman. Ahead of him were two solid netminders, a junior and a senior, who were virtually interchangeable in the coach's mind. On any given day, any of the goalies could have been the best at practice. But the freshman never got a start, and he chafed at that snub. I counseled patience, pointing out that he was steadily improving, and the coaches could see that. His time would come.
But after his first year, this goalie realized he'd still be sharing the job with the junior, who would now be a senior. So he bolted for a prep school, and got the playing time he craved. I hope it works out. It's a solid school, in a decent league with good academics.
Still, part of me worries this young man may one day regret not playing with his childhood buddies. And he better hope he's always "the man." Prep schools recruit, and the coaching staff won't think twice about bringing in a younger, better goaltender.
Conversely, I really hope coaches make the effort to let their second- and third-string goalies know how valuable they are. That's important for several reasons. One, the coaching staff is just an injury away from having to rely on that back-up goalie (a big reason why I'm a proponent of finding game time for all goalies, any time you can).
Two, coaches can't forget that their raison d'être (literally "reason for being") is not simply winning games, but developing young men and women. That brings me to Tyler Stillings. For the past five years, I've had the pleasure of working with Tyler, who played at the Brooks School in Massachusetts before moving on to Assumption College. But Tyler's career with the Greyhounds didn't go as planned. Injuries and poor play limited his game time.
During our Stop It summer camps, Tyler was one of my favorites. He was never the most talented player on the ice, but he worked his tail off. He could get frustrated, and sometimes "over thought" the position. But Tyler played with heart, and almost always a smile. It was impossible not to root for him.
After his senior year, when he again rode the pine, Tyler wrote about his experiences. He acknowledged that he lived and breathed hockey as a teenager, but eventually learned, like 98 percent of youth players, there was more to life than the game. At Assumption, he became an orientation leader, an alumni ambassador and a tutor in the academic support center.
"Hockey will always be a large part of who I am," wrote Tyler. "But it is just that: part of a complicated human being. At the end of this weird journey, Tyler Stillings the college hockey player may be considered a failure. But Tyler Stillings the person certainly won't be. I’m excited to see where he goes next."
I quickly reached out to Tyler, and told him that he wasn't even remotely close to being a failure in my eyes. He responded with a laugh, saying "underachieved is probably more mature diction."
Wrong again. Tyler Stillings was and is a hockey player. Period. He was a great teammate, who led by word and deed. Being a hockey player is not a separate entity. It is part of who Tyler is. That made him a success by any measure. Even as a back-up goalie.