How I overcame adversity after an 0-16 start to my coaching career

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is an assistant coach with the Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League and is the founder of the Niagara Hockey Coaches Seminar.

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It’s what comes out of the struggle that matters most.

The following article was written by Wes Wolfe, the current assistant coach of the OHL’s Erie Otters.

I want my pancake mix back.

I was a mere 12 hours away from being let go from my very first junior hockey head coaching job (no more than six months into the gig), and all I could keep thinking was, I want my pancake mix back.

This isn’t a scathing piece about all the pitfalls and challenges of coaching a low-budget Junior B hockey team. Or a poor-me piece that tells you all of the wild and zany stories coming from a team that uses a temporary trailer as a dressing room (and believe me, there are many).

It’s also not a rags-to-riches tale.

No, instead I’m writing today about mindset. About facing adversity and making it work for you and not against you. About not just believing everything happens for a reason – but going out and making the reason for why things happened.

I’ve wanted to be a hockey coach since I was 13 years old. Whether it was seeing the selflessness of my dad, who at one time coached four hockey teams in one season (two travel teams and two house-league teams, one for each of me and my three siblings), or just the early realization that my future in the game playing was going to be limited – it’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do with my life.

Things started early – a Hockey Canada certification class, pushing pucks at my younger brother’s house league practices and demonstrating drills at hockey schools. From that point on, I was hooked. Sure, I continued to play up until I was 20 at the Junior C level, but I always maintained a keen interest in coaching. From those early days at 13 to now at 27 years old, I’ve been either a head or assistant coach at the House League, Select, A, AAA, Jr. C, Jr. B levels (from ages 8-20) in addition to dozens of camps, clinics and programs. To say I’ve taken the road less travelled to get to where I am today is probably an understatement, but in my experience a keen interest in learning, strong work ethic and willingness to adapt will open up doors to opportunities you never could have imagined in the first place.

Which brings me closer to the pancakes.

Bench boss at 24

You can imagine my excitement being named the head coach of a Junior B hockey team at 24 years old (having never actually played at that level aside from some training camp exhibitions). It’s not like I didn’t realize what many people on the outside looking in had thought when it was announced.

Who the heck is this kid? What does he know about coaching? There’s no way this is going to work.

And you know what – they weren’t completely wrong. Sure, I had paid my dues for years, gone to countless clinics and open houses, asked questions – been a student of the game — but to be given that responsibility at such a young age was a true leap of faith that I will always be grateful for. The truth is, had I not been offered and accepted the position, there are doors that never would have been opened regardless of how things worked out.

It became very clear from the time that I accepted that position that things weren’t exactly as I thought they’d be. The team I was joining had sputtered to the finish the previous year, losing 20 consecutive games to end the season – that much I knew. But despite almost 15 players being eligible to return a year older and more ready to play – none were returning. Eventually, my co-coach Nick Denhaan and I were able to convince ONE player (thanks for the leap of faith, Ack).

One of the positives was that the team was slated to play out of a brand-new state of the art facility but a month before the season was scheduled to start, we were moved to a different community altogether – one with the oldest standing arena in the region and no dressing room to accommodate our team. That uncertainty led to some uncomfortable conversations and eventually de-commitments from a few prospects. During a stormy night in training camp, a lightning bolt singed a hole in the roof of our arena. The aforementioned trailer that was going to substitute as our dressing room arrived late. When it did, it was smaller than we had been told and players had to walk 100 feet outdoors just to get from the room to inside the rink…rain or shine. The coaches’ office was a picnic bench outside (pre-game meetings starting at 5:30pm, weather permitting!).

And then to top it all off, we went 0-16 to start the regular season.

Yes. I was 16 games into my Junior B head coaching career and was 0-16. A big fat oh-fer.

Don’t get me wrong, we knew it was going to be a struggle. But even with our record as bad as it was, I truly felt optimistic. We had some emerging talent and it’s not like we weren’t in games. Process is a real buzz-word these days, but the message was always take care of the details, do things our way, stay committed and eventually results will start to show. Control what we can control and trust the process.

We were setting weekly and monthly objectives, preparing the same way for games at 0-16 as we were from day 1. And you know what? We won our next game by a score of 8-4. My first win as a head coach. Here’s the picture when it was all done. Look at how…errr…excited I am.

Wes Wolfe

What I do remember is getting a phone call on the way to that game from a friend of mine who works at the Beer Store in Niagara Falls asking if I had been fired yet. Laughing, thinking he was just busting me up for our record I told him I was on my way to the game – but he was dead serious! Someone had just been in the store from another team and said word was out that I was out. I brushed it off thinking it was all just part of the rumour mill – if you want to coach, get used to the rumours – but what I didn’t know was that word was out.

Three days after our win, our team had a road game at the Jack Gatecliff Arena to take on the St. Catharines Falcons. Perennial GOJHL powerhouse – and a team that had already beaten us in the two previous games by scores of 6-0 and 7-0. On top of that, it was Halloween night and a day after my 25th birthday. And you know what we did? We had all of our players wear costumes to the game instead of the traditional suits. Coaching staff included.

That’s right – I came to the game dressed in full-on pirate gear. Like Captain Jack Sparrow. I brought a suit for game time but there we were an hour before warmups looking like the world’s worst costume party. That’s me in the back row.

Did I mention our team name was the Pirates?

Wes Wolfe

We lost that night 9-2. And it was the very last game I coached as a Pirate.

Wanting to keep spirits high, I had the boys assemble at our rink the next morning for a pancake breakfast. I figured the best way to move forward was to leave what happened behind us. Do some team building and get everyone out of bed. So I went out and bought a bunch of pancake mix and maple syrup on my dime, and the boys ate.

Little did I know, this would be the last time we were together as a team.

A day later (on Sunday), I got a text from our general manager who had been in Florida on vacation. We need to talk. Can you meet us at Tim Hortons in the morning?

I knew what that meant.

The rumblings had started and I couldn’t escape them anymore. After confirming I’d meet up, I did the only thing I could think of. Text the GM and head coach of the St. Catharines Falcons GOJHL powerhouse team that had just beaten us 9-2 two nights previous. Why? I’m not exactly sure. We didn’t know each other that well, but he had a couple of players on his team that I had coached in Midget AAA the year before and we had a spoken a few times here and there at the rink…but honestly – I was just throwing a dart at the board and caution to the wind.

Hey Frank – it’s Wes Wolfe. I think I’m a dead man walking. Can I call you in the morning?

No word of a lie – that’s the exact text I sent. He gave me the green light to do so and then I walked up to the closest watering hole near by my house and had myself a drink. I was reflecting on the previous six months wondering where it all went wrong, why we had been dealt such a bad hand and feeling really, really sorry for myself. And then, out of some desperate depths of my minds, the thought:

I want my pancake mix back.

That’s right. There I was, going down in flames at my first foray into Junior Hockey as a head coach – all of the doubters been proven right – and all I could focus on was getting back whatever remnants there were in a few opened boxes of Aunt Jemima’s Quick Mix Pancakes. Petty? Yes. Immature? Probably. But I couldn’t stop this fixation.

It was like a madness growing in me. I know now that the pancake mix was really just a symbol for all things I had felt hard done by. Wanting it back just a silly notion that by getting it back I’d feel vindicated. It’s not a healthy way to live.

The next morning, I went to the meeting with our GM and owner and was given the news I already knew was coming. We parted ways (sans pancake mix) and I immediately called Frank. And you know what he told me?

Practice is at 5.

You can either be bitter or get better

In a matter of 72 hours, I had gone from Captain Jack Sparrow on the wrong side of a 9-2 defeat…to Aunt Jemima-wanting soul suck…to Assistant Coach of the St. Catharines Falcons. At that time, a team with three consecutive appearances in the Golden Horseshoe Finals (now that number is 6) including a Sutherland Cup championship in 2012.

I’ll never forget the first meeting I had with Frank and his brother Rick – two of the most honest, selfless, incredible men I’ve met in my entire life. We talked about their team, their values, what they were looking for – and then about what they had heard about me and what my background was. About how they knew from the outside looking in at what was going on and how Rick was really pushing Frank to give me a chance. About how they both saw potential in me. And then Rick left me with a quote, something that’s stuck with me ever since.

“There’s a reason why the windshield is bigger than the rear-view mirror. Where you’re going is so much better than what you’re leaving behind.”

It was at that moment I realized I had to let the pancake mix go. Why worry about pancakes when there was still lunch, dinner and dessert?

I’ve never really believed that everything happens for a reason – that there’s some “divine destiny” for all of us. No, things happen – and then you make the reason for them. It’s inevitable we’re all going to face adversity in our lives. Hardships. Struggle. But it’s what comes out of the struggle that matters most.

You can either be bitter or get better. And you always have the ability to choose. And the power of staying positive is so important. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel – and if there isn’t, dig yourself one and find a way.

I’ll never forget the day that Kris Knoblauch called to offer me the job as an assistant coach with the Erie Otters. I was in Washago, Ontario at the cottage surrounded by my best friends. Little did I know what would be in store. Less than a year later, we’re OHL Champions headed to the Memorial Cup tournament in Windsor. I can’t thank Kris, Dave Brown and BJ Adams enough for the opportunity they’ve provided. To learn and grow and be a part of something so special.

Wes Wolfe

There have and always will be doubters out there – but now I know they’re wrong. Whether it was in the Golden Horseshoe Finals or the OHL championship series, we were still talking about the same things from my days as an 0-16 Pirate. Doing things the right way. Staying committed. Taking care of details. Letting the results take care of themselves. Control the controllables.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last two years, it’s expect nothing but the unexpected. There’s no way of knowing what turns your life will take, good or bad. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter. Because whatever happens, you have a choice to make. Will you let it work for you or against you? You can only control the things you can control: your effort and your attitude. And you know what? Both will dictate what you see in that windshield.

And when you look back in the rear-view mirror, you know what you’ll see?

Pancake mix. And all you’ll be able to do is shake your head, laugh and keep moving forward.

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