Andy Prest / North Shore News
April 1, 2016
One year ago the North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association’s juvenile A1 Storm team suffered a disappointing early playoff loss, leaving their graduating third-year players feeling adrift in what was for many of them their last chance at glory in an elite, organized league setting.
One year later, however, three of those players – Sam Mok, Cole Blight and John Dickie – are celebrating a championship win after coming back as very unlikely coaches guiding their friends and former teammates to a provincial title.
This year’s team, with the three 21-year-olds each coaching for the first time in their lives, claimed the B.C. juvenile championship – for players age 18-20 – with an 8-3 win over the host Ridge Meadow Moose in front of 400 fans at Planet Ice in Maple Ridge March 20.
“We as coaches just felt extremely proud of the players themselves, so proud of what they had accomplished,” said head coach Sam Mok. “(When the final buzzer sounded) we were just having a good time with guys that we grew up playing with and guys that we were close with on and off the ice. I think it was just a very proud moment for all of us.”
The championship celebration was a time to let loose with old friends but the three coaches – Mok said he was the head coach on paper only, as they all shared duties equally – took their roles very seriously throughout the season.
All three volunteered to jump behind the bench when they found out that last year’s coach wouldn’t be back this season, leaving the team in an uncertain situation.
“We played on the team last year and our playoffs were very disappointing for a lot of us third-year players,” he said. “We knew how much these guys wanted to win going into this year. We took it on because we knew how important it was to them.”
The young coaches received a lot of support from North Van Minor – particularly association director Dan Cioffi who shared his extensive coaching knowledge with them and encouraged them to take coaching courses – but it was still a very steep learning curve that began when they hit the ice for their first practice.
“We definitely learned in the first couple of weeks that you’ve got to come to practice prepared, you’ve got to have a plan,” said Mok. “Dan Cioffi was very important in our development. He was a huge mentor for us this year. He’s coached junior hockey, he’s been around the block. His experience was invaluable to our success this year.”
Mok, Blight and Dickie also had to navigate the murky waters of coaching players who were their teammates just one year before and were still their very good friends.
“It was a very unique situation to say the least,” said Mok, adding that the most important thing was getting everybody on the same page in understanding their roles. “We gave (the players) a lot of leadership (responsibility). … They really took the reins, and after that we were just there to remind them of what they needed to do to be successful.”
At provincials the Storm suffered an early loss against the Moose and were faced with do-or-die games the rest of the way. It was almost “die” in their third game against Langley when they raced out to a 5-1 lead only to give up four unanswered goals to find themselves in a dangerous deadlock. The team, however, responded to the challenge, nabbing the game-winning power play goal with 30 seconds left in the third period.
“It’s a credit to their desire to win and their work ethic that they came out on top in that game,” said Mok. “The guys just collectively made a decision as a team. ‘Do we want to win? Yes, we want to win. So let’s start playing like it.’ Credit to them, the leaders on our team really took initiative on that and were very vocal on the bench during that game. Everyone just kind of bought into that mindset.”
By the time they reached the final the players were ready to unleash a career’s worth of hockey knowledge.
“We were always told growing up excellence is a habit, excellence is a way of being,” said Mok. “I think by that point the players had just gotten into the habit of doing the things that make them successful. I think that’s what really played a huge role in that game. … By that point they knew what they needed to do, they had been talking about that game for the entire year. For them it was just a matter of they were 60 minutes away from winning a provincial title. They went out and got it because they wanted it.”
As time ticked down in the third period the Storm built a comfortable lead but there was no relaxing on the bench.
“Anything can happen in the game of hockey,” said Mok. “I think the last 10 minutes of the game were probably the most mentally challenging for both us as coaches and the players as well. But they didn’t stop. That’s another thing that I’ll give them credit for. Even though we were up 8-3, they didn’t deviate from the plan.”
The coaches then had the unique experience of celebrating their win with all their buddies.
“It was a very interesting dynamic and it was something we had to manage throughout the year,” said Mok. “We have to maintain our professionalism as coaches but I think that different bond that we had with the players definitely added a little more significance to the title win.”
For many players, juvenile is the last hockey hurrah, and so this year’s graduating Storm players get to go out as champions.
“Those third-year players really took on leadership of the team,” said Mok, adding that every player on the team played a role in the title win. “This was very much a team effort on the part of the coaches and the players. … Every time we reached a crossroads we asked ourselves as a team, ‘what is our motto this year?’ Our motto was ‘Provies or Bust.’ Anytime we asked the players what our goal was this year, instantly they’d answer ‘Provies or Bust.’”