A parent’s time to lead: A real life hockey story

 

By Kevin Hartzell
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

After writing a couple of articles on leadership, I thought I would share a personal story of leadership from a parent’s viewpoint. It is a real life story of Marybeth and I with our son, Eric. I believe there are good things to be shared in this story for both players of the game and their parents.

Eric Hartzell is my son, well, really the son of my wife, Marybeth. Eric is our middle child with an older brother Brandon and a younger sister Whitney. I say that Eric is really Marybeth’s son because he looks like my wife’s side of the family and he inherited many of his talents from his mom and his Grandpa Jody Bidinger. 

Eric’s mother was a state scoring wiz in basketball, averaging 32 points a game her senior year of high school to make her a Ms. Minnesota Basketball finalist – one of five candidates as the best female basketball player in the state. She earned a scholarship to the University of Minnesota to play basketball. As good as Marybeth is at shooting a basketball, she says she never beat her dad once. He was a freak athlete also.

Well, Eric inherited all that freakish athletic ability. On top of it all, Eric was blessed with size; six-feet four-inches of it. 

If anything was holding Eric back it was that he was a bit more immature than many of his age. For any young aspiring hockey goaltender, I might argue that maturity is one of the very most important traits.

I was lucky to coach Eric in juniors and as good as he was a times, he also had much room for improvement, especially on the maturity side of things. I had said often that the longer the development process takes for Eric, the more he matures, the more the great athlete will emerge.

By any measure, Eric has already had an outstanding collegiate career. Two years ago, Eric finished his sophomore season at Quinnipiac as the fourth-rated goaltender in the NCAA in save percentage. In that sophomore season he also set a Quinnipiac single season goals-against record, which he broke again in his junior season. This year in his senior season, he has been a NCAA top five rated goalie all year and at this mid-way point of the season, has helped his Quinnipiac team to a great start, first place in the ECAC and a national ranking in the top 10.

This story however is about Eric’s freshmen season at Quinnipiac, a season that took some unexpected twists. It may be that his freshman season will be the season that catapulted his career upward more than any other season. In his own mind, he should have played more and maybe deserved better, but as is often said, through adversity, comes greatness. I love many of the great sayings about adversity, but bottom line, anything worth doing is going to be hard. The hard times are what make us and for Eric, it was a harder freshman year than expected that may have “made” him.

This story is about parenting and leadership. Eric’s freshman year was full of calls home to dad, who is also a hockey coach. The advice Eric received was virtually always from “his father,” not a hockey coach. Being I was a hockey coach, possibly made my fatherly advice a little more credible to his ears, but in any event, I do believe that the leadership my wife and I provided as parents had a positive influence on Eric’s positive mindset and subsequent development.

Leading into that freshman year was Eric’s last year of junior hockey where he was being recruited by a number of college teams, but the two who seemed most serious were North Dakota and Quinnipiac. I think any kid from the Midwest who is recruited by North Dakota is going to take seriously their advances, as their tradition and facilities are as good as any in America.

After Eric’s visit to Quinnipiac, however, he was nothing short of “smitten.” Had North Dakota actually offered Eric a spot on their roster, I don’t know if they would have changed his mind. In Quinnipiac, there were former Stampede players who enjoyed the University and campus and the hockey facilities there in Hamden, Conn., were simply outstanding. He could join his life-long friend Zach Hansen, also from White Bear Lake, and was told he could come in as a freshman and have a very good chance of starting. So Quinnipiac it was.

Eric showed up as a freshman and immediately it appeared he might indeed be their starter. He did start game one at Ohio State. Starting the season’s first game for your team and as a freshman is an accomplishment in itself. At the time, Ohio State was a top 10 team and Quinnipiac went into Columbus and won. If I remember correctly, it was the first time the relatively young Quinnipiac program (as a D-I program) had won a road game against a top 10 team in their school history. Great start!

The following weekend, Eric led off the weekend with a shutout; 2-0 as a freshman starter! One could not ask for a better start to a college career.

The following weekend, I receive a call from Eric on the Friday of a new hockey weekend and I could immediately hear the upper-respiratory “bug” he had contracted loud and clear. He was as sick as could be. It was time to get to bed and get better. He not only missed that weekend, but he missed the following weekend also.  

Adversity comes in many shapes and sizes; Eric’s came in the form of a harsh flu bug and a teammate by the name of Dan Clarke. Clarke was Quinnipiac’s “other goaltender.” Dan had a so-so freshman year and I suspect the coaches thought Eric would come in and take over the duties. 

Clarke had different ideas. Clarke also won his first two games and when Eric went to the bedroom to recover, Clarke led his Quinnipiac team to another four straight wins and the Bobcats were off to their best start ever.

When Eric returned three weeks later, he was sitting squarely on the bench watching Clarke play good hockey and help his team win more games. Quinnipiac rose to a top 10 NCAA rating for the first time in school history. Clarke was establishing himself as a reliable goaltender and Quinnipiac continued to win.

During this time, the phone calls home to dad began. “This sucks,” Eric would say, “I have done everything they have asked of me, I am 2-0 as a starter and I don’t play.” I would tell him to keep his mouth shut, be the hardest worker on the team and that his time was coming.

Eric eventually played again and won; 3-0 and a freshman starter. Then another start; 4-0 as a freshman starter. Then in the very last game before the Christmas break, he lost; 4-1 as a freshman starter … a very nice beginning to a college career for sure. To all of our surprise, after Christmas break, he didn’t play a minute the remainder of the season.

Clarke mostly continued to play and played most every game. The calls would come to me from a young man who did not want to understand. “You say my time is coming,” Eric would say. “But when?” Even in my own mind, I found it odd that a young goaltender with such promise would be left on the bench so completely.  Yet that is what was happening.

My advice on the many phone calls we had, never wavered. Never did either Marybeth or I say to Eric, “You’re getting a raw deal.” We did say it was for none of us to judge that he was being treated unfairly, but only that he had one mission and one mission only – a mission to be ready should he be called upon, a mission of improvement and preparation. 

I told him often, that he had to outwork everyone on the team and to work with purpose as his time would come, but of course one never knows when that time will be. I also told him that his teammates would see his efforts over time as would his coaches. His teammates needed to be happy for him when his time came, so that meant no complaining, being a good teammate and working hard and smart.

So he worked; first one on the ice, last one off. But to him, seemingly no one was noticing. I would reinforce the fact that his No. 1 goal he has had throughout his life is to play in the National Hockey League, and that today’s situation was just that, a situation for today. No matter his current situation, to someday be an NHL player meant there was much room for improvement which meant much work to be done to be ready for that day.

At the end of what he would say was a disappointing freshman season, the coaches told Eric there was no harder worker on the team. In his mind, that was little consolation. 

Eric went to work that summer more determined than ever. Come his first weekend of his sophomore season, he didn’t play again. In his call home, however, I heard a different attitude in his voice. It was a voice of quiet resolve. Quiet resolve in knowing he couldn’t control certain things, he could only control what he could control. “This sucks,” is what I remember hearing him say. “But I can’t control when I play, so I am going back to work Monday (for practice).”

In part what makes great goaltenders, or quarterbacks in football, is the ability to filter out the “stuff” that doesn’t matter and remain focused only on what one can control. That said, at that moment in time, he wondered not just when, but if he would play again. It was his quiet resolve that told me he had learned much from this situation and was more ready than ever for the challenge of becoming a reliable starting college goaltender.

Eric was told he would start the very next weekend in his home state against St. Cloud State, the second weekend of his sophomore season and he knew he had to play well. The good news is he was prepared.  He had arguably prepared more and better than anyone.

Quinnipiac won that game against a solid St. Cloud State team. From there he played regularly, taking over the starting duties and went on to a fourth in the nation save percentage that sophomore season. 

This year, his senior year, he is on pace to shatter the two goals-against records he has already set at Quinnipiac. That is an amazing accomplishment. Along with that, God has blessed him with size, a size that makes him a prototypical NHL goaltender. He has a legitimate chance to realize his dream of becoming a NHL goaltender. I personally believe he will realize that dream, but I am his dad and my opinion doesn’t matter. 

But what does matter, as we all know, is attitude. It is not what happens to us, it is how we handle what happens to us. I believe we did our job as parents throughout his freshman adversity and reminded him of what was important. 

Eric had lots of growing up to do and I might argue he did his most important growing up when he went through a little career adversity that freshman season. He is not only a better goaltender because of it, but a smarter and better person who understands quiet resolve and how to stay focused on what matters.

He takes little for granted now. When the going gets tough, I believe he now more than ever before has the personal tools to better handle whatever life is going to throw at him. He will embrace the hard and he also knows that any adversity that comes his way is just a situation for that moment in time to be attacked with quiet resolve and a focus on what’s really important.