The Unexpected, Valuable Life Lessons Learned From Being a 13-Year-Old Hockey Champion

By: Jesse Johnstone, President at Fibrenew

For many Canadian kids, hockey is akin to religion. We eat, sleep, and breathe the sport.

When I was 13, my team won the provincial title (aka: we were State Champs). It was a big deal. We felt like we had won the Stanley Cup. The feeling of being the best U14 team in a province that produced hockey greats Gordie Howe, Wendel Clarke, and Theo Fleury put us in the company of hockey royalty, or so it felt to our young egos at the time.

Our Coach, Ron Kielo, transformed a group of boys into young men through the experience. I was 12 years old at the start of the season and was lucky enough to be added to the lineup. I felt out of my element playing with guys older than me. I had to do a lot of catch-up at the beginning of the year to keep pace, but I loved it. Coach Ron took a bet on me, and I felt obligated to repay him. It was an early lesson for me in trust and reciprocity.

Teamwork makes dreams work

We were a rag-tag bunch of misfits – as most sports teams are at the beginning of any season. But we were shown systems that led us to play together as a unit. If you missed your pass in a breakout, it affected the entire play. If you didn’t block a shot headed toward our net, it could mean a game-winning goal for the opposition. No one wanted to break the chain and that forced us to stay sharp and pull our weight for the sake of the team.

If someone was late to a practice, everyone skated laps. If you took a dumb penalty that cost us a game, the whole team would pay the price at the next practice. Your actions affected the entire outfit. This taught us the true meaning of team play – something that has stuck with me since.

Playing with bigger, stronger, and smarter teammates

As mentioned earlier, I was in the younger cohort of players on the team. Half of my team and half the players we played against were a year older. When you’re 12 years old, that one-year difference is huge in terms of physical strength and mental development. Playing with and against skaters who were bigger, stronger, and had an extra year of playing experience meant I had to push myself to keep up, and I loved the challenge.

This taught me that talent and experience have nothing on heart and effort. It showed me that surrounding yourself with people who are better than you will bring you up to their level – if you’re up for the test. I now build my teams and choose my friends with this same philosophy. Whether at work or in social settings, I prefer feeling like the underdog in the room. It keeps me sharp and helps me grow.

Playing through pain and mind over matter 

Hockey is a rough sport. It’s getting crushed into the boards with high-speed full-body contact. It’s blocking 80mph slap shots with your body. It’s getting slashed and cross-checked in the back. Inevitably, every game would produce a new injury. Playing 60+ games a year meant a growing collection of bruises, sprains, and cuts. These were worn as a badge of honor as proof that we were giving it our all every game. It also meant learning to play through pain.

If your foot was bruised black and blue from blocking a slap shot in the previous game, tough luck. If your wrist was sprained from getting slammed into the boards, too bad. You had to keep playing. It taught me grit and taught me the skill of practicing mind over matter.

Leaving the world a better place. One dressing room at a time

Early in the season, I remember being at another team’s rink for a game. When we walked into the dressing room, we were greeted by strewn water bottles, crumpled-up balls of used tape, and granola bar wrappers. The last team to use the dressing room had left it a mess.

At the end of the game, as we were packing our bags and about to leave the room, coach Ron stopped us. “Guys,” he said, “why are you leaving the room a mess?” Referring to the trash that remained from the previous team. Our collective answer was, “well, it was here when we got here.”

To this day, I’ll never forget his response. “That’s true, but we’re better than that. Starting today, we will leave every dressing room in better shape than we found it. Now get to work.”

Our troop of pre-pubescent boys moaned and then got to cleaning up the room. We left that dressing room in tip-top shape – as we did every other dressing room for the rest of the season.

Today, I think of it as ‘leaving the world a better place every day.’ My friend and author Dr. Delatorro McNeal describes this concept as the rearview mirror of your life and that it matters what you see in it. What we do and say every day as a partner, a parent, a company leader, an employee, a teammate, a bandmate, a neighbor, friend, child or sibling – it all matters. How you leave the state of a room when you walk out matters. How you make someone feel through your actions and words matters, whether stranger, friend, or foe.

A championship game fit for a movie script

In the final game of the final series of the year, we were tied with our opponent. The game was at our home arena, and the stands were packed. It was a winner-takes-all scenario wrapped within 60 minutes. The stakes were high, and the energy that night was palpable.

At the end of the first period, we were tied 1-1. During the second period, one of our best players took a major penalty which meant we were shorthanded for five straight minutes. It rattled us, and as a result, we let in four goals. We were now down 5-1 heading into the final frame.

During that intermission, none of the players talked in the dressing room. We sat in silence and reflection. Just before we were to head to the ice for the most important 20 minutes of the season, coach Ron said to us, “fellas, there is nothing I can say now that you guys don’t already realize. You know what to do, now go out there and do it.”

His words, coupled with our desire to win, worked. We wanted it. We could taste it. So we went out and got it. We battled back to tie the game. Then, with just 8 seconds left in the period, Ron’s son, Jeff, potted the winning goal that crowned us champs. Final score, 6-5.

Being part of a championship team at 13 years of age shapes you in profound ways. Being part of excellence at such a tender age was a monumentally positive experience – one that I’m so grateful for. Of all the lessons learned through that hockey season, the idea of leaving the dressing room in better shape than you found it has served as one of the most impactful.

To show that you care – and to have your actions exemplify that you care is something I strive to do every day. It’s often the small things that can have the biggest impact over time. Who knew that being taught to pick up someone else’s crumpled-up tape balls would have stuck with me all these years later?

Thank you for all the life lessons, coach Ron. I am still repaying my debt to you today. One day at a time, and one crumpled-up tape ball at a time.

Have you shared a similar life-shaping experience? If so, leave a comment below on what it was and what you learned. Take care, thanks for reading, and cheers.


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