There is a retired youth coach in Saskatchewan who taught the game of hockey spectacularly.
This coach is a student of the game, and instructed his charges in the fundamental aspects of the sport so well that it prepared them perfectly for the rigors of the more competitive leagues the kids would play in as teenagers.
The instruction was crisp and detailed. The coaching was firm, but comforting – so much so that the coach even spent a good amount of time during rides home from the rink to continue to talk to his players about the nuances of the game that his team just played.
But most importantly, this coach kept hockey fun. Because for kids, sometimes, if your pushed to hard by a parent or coach – and this particular coach happened to be both – you can really begin to dislike the sport you are playing.
But in a nurturing environment, where the sport is portrayed as the game that it is and not presented as a life-or-death struggle, kids can flourish.
This coach is a testament to that as he can now tell anyone that he comes across that he has coached an NHLer… or two.
The coach is Bill Hartnell… and Jeff Schenn.
The stories told by their sons were so strangely identical that when listening to them, one would have thought they were talking about the same guy.
“Even from a real young age we would always talk the game,” said Scott Hartnell, whose father not only coached him but also taught him in elementary school. “That’s where I credit getting my hockey sense from. We would always talk about the game, specifics about certain plays and how to react in certain situations.
“A lot of those little conversations add up to me being the player who I am today.”
Ask the Schenn boys the same thing, and the answer was nearly identical.
“He wasn’t really tough on us,” said Luke Schenn. “If we asked him his opinion, he’d give us his take on it, but he was never pushy or hard on us. That’s where a lot of parents go wrong these days. They’re real pushy and they try to make their kid become something that they are not. It’s got to be the other way around. The parents – even if they’re your coach – have to just be supportive. The kid has to want to keep playing and keep pushing. It can’t be the other way around.”
“He taught me a lot,” Brayden Schenn added. “Still today after games, it’s not that he’s still coaching me, but I call him after games because I like to get feedback from him. I grew up that way and was so used to it. I would always talk to him on the way home from the rink up here in Saskatchewan and there’s no question he’s been a big influence not only on my hockey career but my life too.”
While there are many fathers just like Bill Hartnell and Jeff Schenn across many sports around the world – who coach their kids and have a positive influence on them and other kids as well – not many dads get to enjoy their son’s athletic endeavors to the point where they turn into a professional athlete.
To that end, the journey these dads have been on has been a unique yet incredible ride that they don’t want to see end any time soon.
It all started too when the boys were younger, but showed signs of having elite skill and talent at the youth level that there was an inkling that there might be a chance they could be good enough to take the next step.
Of course, there were never any guarantees. The street the Schenns grew up on in Saskatoon had a dozen kids who went on to play in the WHL. Of the 12, only Brayden and Luke have reached the NHL.
So there is some luck involved with all the hard work and training.
“Scott was the youngest of three boys,” said Bill Hartnell. “ All of them were pretty intense hockey players. They loved the game. They skated every chance they could. They lived it and breathed it.
“Being the youngest, Scott got to spend so much time at the rink watching his older brothers that he really learned a lot about the game that way too. He would see the things the older kids would do, and then try it himself, whether he was just outside skating in the back yard or at practices. He really wanted to learn how to do things that many other kids never really picked up on. He was an eager student for sure.”
Another similarity between Hartnell and the Schenns – and many other Canadian kids – is they had their own backyard rink.
Bill and Jeff did what many parents in rural Canada do – build small little rinks in their yards so their kids can skate outside in the winter time.
Jeff Schenn said there were six outdoor rinks on his block alone. There was also a pond on which many of the houses were situated near that would freeze over and house pickup games on weekends.
“We had some cold Saskatchewan winters,” he said. “But if there weren’t hockey tournaments, the boys would be out on that pond every Saturday from nine in the morning until it got dark.”
And it was because of a love for the game that was instilled in them by their dads.
Each of the three Flyers were quick to mention their moms, who were equally as supportive of their boys desires to pursue hockey as a career, but at the same time it was the dads who had that extra special connection with them because they were living the games right along with their sons.
“It was a great childhood to have him always around the rink,” Scott Hartnell said. “We still pretty much talk after every game. Even if it’s a quick conversation or just talking about a couple pays. Whenever I seem to get in a little funk, he’s the guy I call for help. “
Bill Hartnell’s advice is usually pretty simple – get your butt in front of the net, because that’s where you score most of your goals.
“It always seems that after a conversation like that one of them goes in off my pants or off a skate or something and everything gets rolling in the right direction again,” Hartnell said.
To honor their dads, teams around the NHL have an annual dads trip where the fathers are flown into town and usually get to spend a weekend on the road with their sons to get a glimpse of the NHL lifestyle.
Bill Hartnell called it his favorite trip every year. He’s been on a dozen of them.
Jeff Schenn used to have to go to two each year when Brayden and Luke were playing for different teams.
Now, it’ll just be one trip each season.
Needless to say, it’s a memorable excursion.
“You get to see everything,” Jeff Schenn said. “You fly on their charter plane. You get to spend some time with your sons but you also get to spend time with the other fathers, who might all be from different backgrounds and yet you find a lot of similarities between you anyway.
“As for the players, they are all so humble and very respectful. They may be handsomely paid for what they do, but in reality they are still no different than the boys on my street playing hockey together in a backyard rink. That’s the part I cherish most.”
But on this Father’s Day, it’s the players who are doing all the cherishing.
“When things get tough, you always want to turn to the people who are closest to you,” Luke Schenn said. “Even now, when Brayden and I are driving together to the rink in Philadelphia before a game, we’ll give him a call to see if he has anything to say. After a game we give him a call too to see what his thoughts were. We both respect his opinion because he knows us so well and he still helps us out that way.”
To contact Anthony SanFilippo, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AnthonySan37
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