August 24, 2009

Chemistry 101: Building A Gold Medal Hockey Team

Canadians are spoiled. Every year we continually churn out great players. When our Olympic or World Cup teams are assembled every four years, there is often huge turn over, as even in that short time period new players emerge as contenders for the 20 or so roster spots.

No other country is like that. Other countries seem to have a core group of players that carry the nation's hopes for a generation or so.

In some ways I actually admire the Americans, the Russians, the Czechs, the Slovaks, the Swedes and the Finns for this. I view it as a huge advantage. These players continually compete for their flag. Each time they do they naturally develop increasing chemistry and togetherness, going through common experiences and bonding battles.

Canada often can struggle with team chemistry. Up until say the mid-1990s, it did not matter at the top level of hockey, the Canada Cups, World Cups and now Olympics. We always could count on that unique Canadian intangible - heart - to bring us together and over come the world's best. With the exception of the Soviets, we were more talented than everyone, and no familiarity advantage could trump us.

Nowadays there is just no time to develop familiarity that other nations may have. The summer orientation camp/golf tournament aside, these players almost change overnight from months of NHL battles against each other to teammates for a couple of weeks.

Amongst the Olympic national teams there is so little choose from. The talent level is basically equal. They all share the same passion for winning. There are seven super powers of hockey now, not one or two. Any of those seven could win it all, with probably five entering the tournament as serious contenders.

The only real major advantage is some teams are tighter than others. In short tournaments like the Olympics, it is the teams that gel the quickest that will medal. Chemistry is absolutely essential.

As Team Canada's GM Steve Yzerman's job is not to pick the 20 best players in Canada. It is to pick the right 23 players. The 23 players who compliment each other, who are great team players and most importantly who are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to win.

Is there a magic formula for determining hockey chemistry? What research has Hockey Canada done along these fronts? With the tight time line, what can the coaching staff do to increase team cohesion?

Establish Leadership Early

All of hockey's great teams had undeniable leadership. Gretzky, Messier, Lemieux...there was no questioning who the leader was. Canada will have the opportunity to hand the leadership to Sidney Crosby. He showed in the 2009 playoffs that he is ready. He can count on veterans Jarome Iginla and Scott Niedermayer for help. Crosby should get the edge though as a leader needs to deliver results on the ice. There is no player more driven than Sidney Crosby.

Leadership also refers to coaching. Picking coaches who are excellent communicators is essential. Credibility is also essential. They need to be vision sellers. Mike Babcock and Lindy Ruff are masters at this, leaving the more technical duties to Jacques Lemaire and Ken Hitchcock.


The biggest challenge to team chemistry is diversity. However, it can also be it's greatest strength. Teams are made up of 23 personalities, and often at this level 23 very strong personalities. Do teams study these personalities? Is there an advantage to bringing in as many players with similar personalities as possible? That strategy certainly worked for the Miracle On Ice 1980 Olympic team.

Perhaps a team would want to establish its leadership base with a specific set of personality traits in order to establish that personality throughout the team from the on set?

Common Goals

Regardless of personalities, all human and even hockey conflicts can be over come as long as the specific goal is always kept in mind. That's easy to identify the goal here: the Olympic gold medal. But with the games in Canada, there will be a million distractions and endless pressure. Canadian coaches have to turn all of that into positives, keeping the focus on the great opportunity given this group, not the great pressure. Articulating the vision and triggering the players' passion is as essential as the x's and o's.

Roles & Team Competency

They also need to establish roles and properly identify players who are a) capable and b) willing to fill those roles. They need to create offensive and defensive systems that everyone will buy into. That means not necessarily bringing the top 20 scorers.

In order for a hockey team to interact constructively, all roles need to be accepted and properly executed. Elite role players should be considered, too. Canada has always done this in the past (think Dave Poulin over Steve Yzerman in the Canada Cups) . These players may be more suited to such roles.

Bottom line - if the grinder roles are being properly adhered to, then the scorers are free to do their thing. It is essential for all hockey teams to create roles and fill those roles with appropriate players. Identifying the right player for the right role is essential.

Promoting Cohesiveness

There are certain things teams can do to increase team chemistry:

Keep the group small - there is so little time to develop a hockey team at the Olympics. Limiting the group to the players and coaches, allowing them to become as tight knit as possible, and eliminating all the distracting hangers on is essential.

Physically Isolate The Team - Canada has always allowed the NHL millionaire players to live in the Olympic Athletes' Village, where they are unquestionably treated with adoration. Canada has always championed the benefits of the full Olympic experience. Perhaps isolating the team in a hotel could allow for better team building and rest given the tight time constraints?

Reward Team, Not Individuals - There is no better way to team build than treat the team itself as the most important organism. This is an easy way to reinforce team goals and roles.

Focus On Success - Success engenders cohesiveness. It's easy to feel attracted to a successful group. Once that feeling of attraction is established, buying into roles is easy.

Team chemistry is difficult--but not impossible--to manage. Key variables to consider include members' competencies, roles, norms, leadership, goals, and cohesiveness. There are roles both leaders and non-leaders can play to promote favorable team chemistry.

Good team chemistry is essential to getting the most out of a team's talent. In a tournament like the Olympics where several teams essentially have equal talent levels, it is team chemistry that will separate the medalists and the also-rans.

Related reads: Yzerman Talks Team Canada

Also See: Did Einstein Play Hockey?

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