Leadership Advice from the Coach of America’s ‘Worst’ Hockey Team

John Bacon got more satisfaction from coaching a bad hockey team than he did playing for a good one. In his new book, “Let Them Lead: Unexpected Lessons in Leadership from America’s Worst High School Hockey Team,” Bacon, a journalist and leadership consultant, explores why and what made the difference.

Bacon played on the third and fourth lines for Ann Arbor Huron High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., mainly killing penalties. He dressed for every game over three seasons and never scored a goal, even as the River Rats made deep runs through the state championships. When he returned to coach the team in 2000, it hadn’t won a game in more than a year.

By empowering his players, and instilling a sense of discipline, he turned the River Rats into one of the top hockey teams in Michigan in just three seasons. He said the experience changed his life.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The language of sports leans to superlatives. America’s worst hockey team? Are you exaggerating a little, for dramatic effect?

I put up a pretty good case.It was “Bad News Bears” level. I think that we probably would have been ranked dead last in the nation. Certainly bottom five out of a thousand. That’s pretty good. Or pretty bad.

Years earlier you actually played on this team.

When I played we had a good team. We ranked in the top 10 all year. We had some talented players. I was not one of them.

But while we had a talented team, we had almost no discipline. We led the state in penalties all three years. We were kind of out of control. The principal had to come in and talk to us at the hockey rink once, at an away game. That’s saying something. When the principal gives your pregame speech across town, you know that you’re in trouble.

The team I took over was kind of the opposite. They had zero wins, but we brought in discipline early on, and that is how it turned around.

The River Rats hockey team running up the bleachers at the University of Michigan’s football stadium in 2002.Credit…Robin Kunkel

Why would you want to coach an awful team?

While playing was a good experience, it wasn’t a great experience. And one of my prime motivators in coaching 20 years later was that I wanted my players to have an experience that they could draw on for the rest of their lives. I didn’t have that.

How did you even start with a team that hadn’t won a game in more than year?

It wasn’t easy, but we just kept going. My first year we had a 10-game losing streak. We lost a close game to our rival, Pioneer High School. Pioneer had quite an alumni list: Ken Burns, Bob Seger, Jack Lousma — he was an astronaut — Jim Harbaugh. And we had James “Lights Out” Toney, the middleweight champion. We were the other high school in Ann Arbor, just to be clear.

But, I never saw this as a steppingstone to something. I wasn’t trying to get ahead in coaching. I just wanted to do this one thing.

Is talent the most important thing for a winning team?

I did a breakdown of the N.H.L. All-Star games in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. The Stanley Cup champion used to play the All-Star team and the Cup champions did better than the All-Stars, which makes no sense on paper. It’s never just talent. It’s how all the pieces fit. Successful teams understand that everybody has a role.

If you have that going on then you’re hard to beat. Same thing in the workplace. If everyone wants the ball, it’s just not going to work. You need grinders, you need guards.

Do you still hear from the players that you coached?

I probably talk to at least one player every day, and 17 years after the fact what’s striking is how many of them are now leaders themselves. I’ll say this: When I’m dead they will carry my casket.

In movies, there’s always the big motivational speech, either from the coach or a player, that changes the narrative arc. Was it like that for you?

I love a good pregame speech. But it’s not that important. I’ve seen great coaches do it without any of that. What is important is knowing your people, and really the pregame speech only works if you really do know your people and know where those buttons are.

Was handing over control of the team to the players themselves what turned things around?

Bad teams, nobody leads. Good teams, coaches lead. Great teams, everybody leads. It works. It works at ice hockey. It works in newsrooms. It works during Stanley Cup runs. It can work in any company. But it’s scary, and it takes courage.

How does it work?

You identify what is essential, what is negotiable, and what is a deal breaker. A lack of trust is a deal breaker. In the work world, once trust is broken, you’re not going to get it back.

At first, I only trusted them to stretch and count simultaneously, and they couldn’t do it. It was that bad. But as time went on, they assumed responsibility for themselves as a group. We just kept doing it. My belief was, over time we’re going to learn this thing. The cool part was by the end of the summer, we were out in the field stretching and if a parent or the athletic director came up to me, I could say, “Seniors, you run it,” and they would.

Be patient with results. Don’t be patient with behaviors. If the behaviors are right, you’ll get there. By the end of the third year, one night I said, “OK, seniors, you are going to coach the entire game.” And they went out and smoked the other team.

Which team is doing it right in your view?

The Tampa Bay Lightning. You don’t see Jon Cooper behind the bench yelling and screaming. His players are sky high. And he is the relatively calm guy behind the bench. That guy never played hockey at any level. He was a high school hockey coach who went from there to juniors. He paid his dues. His players trust him and listen to him. Leaders know it isn’t about them. If you can swallow your ego, you’re halfway home. That’s Jon Cooper.

Favorite sports movie?

“Miracle.” Sorry.

There’s no need to be sorry!

It is a true story about players who believed in themselves and exceeded their limits. They did things they should not have been able to do. And that’s what I wanted. It was a model for my team.

Is there a movie to be made on the Ann Arbor Huron River Rats?

I’m working on a script with Jim Burnstein. He wrote “D3: Mighty Ducks,” “Renaissance Man,” “Ruffian,” “Love and Honor.” I think there’s a lot of promise here. When we finish it we’ll start shopping it around Hollywood. But it’s harder than you think. It’s haiku. It’s so, so short. You get a hundred pages. Every page has to do so much. It’s harder than a book, but more fun.

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