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NHL preseason retreats forge friendships that build championships

Montreal Canadiens centre Scott Gomez is congratulated by teammates Andrei Kostitsyn, Raphael Diaz and Chris Campoli during the second period of play of their NHL pre-season game against Tampa Bay Lightning at the Colisee in Quebec City, October 1, 2011.


The missive now seems like a charming artifact from a gentler era in hockey.

The sender, legendary Toronto Maple Leafs coach George (Punch) Imlach, reminds a player to bring sticks of another sort to training camp.

"Golf will be a must in the training camp schedule," Imlach wrote in August of 1962.

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Taking hockey teams away from their home arena for pre-season preparations is nothing new, of course – the Leafs held their camp in Peterborough, Ont., for years – but over the past decade or two the emphasis has shifted from "a minimum of being able to do 20 push-ups, 20 sit ups, 30 knee bends" to being in mid-season physical shape on reporting day.

The atmosphere is less country than corporate off-site retreat.

Some teams, like the Nashville Predators and Ottawa Senators, opt for a more militaristic route to forge their band of brothers – they and several other teams have sent their players to military bases in the past.

This year, the Minnesota Wild hired a former Army Ranger (who has also worked with the Pittsburgh Penguins) to put them through a boot camp in the woods of northern Wisconsin this past weekend. There are perils to this approach: goaltender Josh Harding hurt his ankle, although the team hasn't elaborated on how.

The Edmonton Oilers have spent some quality time in Jasper this week, the Ottawa Senators had an abbreviated one-day bonding session in London, Ont.

Like the Oilers, the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning, opted for resort surroundings. Tampa made a three-day visit to Mont-Tremblant, Que., last week, Montreal was at Blue Mountain in Collingwood, Ont., from Sunday through Wednesday.

Both are destinations favoured by high-powered corporate types.

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Lightning coach Guy Boucher, the exemplar of an emerging generation of NHL coaches, holds a graduate degree in psychology and found his inspiration in management texts, which he reads voraciously.

"I'd say obsessive is probably the right word. It might not be strong enough, I have to build more bookcases to hold them all," he said.

Beyond the obvious virtues of guys getting to know each other – there is an intrinsic value in hanging around together and perhaps hoisting a few glasses of social lubricant, a little-discussed aspect of these things – Boucher said he is trying to accomplish something very specific.

"I'm a bit of a maniac when it comes to working on leadership, I think everything stems from that. So we break the players into small groups, we choose which player to put with what kind of leader, we want to see to if he has developed as a leader," he said. "With time, some guys gain confidence, a fourth-liner has every right to be a leader. Sometimes we assume that because a guy is a veteran or leading the team in scoring that he's a leader, but that's not always the case. You don't want to give responsibilities to people who aren't equipped to manage them. It's about identifying leaders and know what areas they can lead in."

Incorporating the methods of management consultants isn't strictly a new-school thing.

Montreal Canadiens coach Jacques Martin first started holding closed off-site retreats as the Ottawa Senators' bench boss in the mid-1990s.

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"That's where it really started for me. I did a little before but not to same extent, I think there's a real purpose to it now," he said. "A lot of the activities and the consultants that are hired to come in, they all have their purpose and each thing we do requires de-briefing, I think players learn a lot."

Martin, who is also an avid reader of management and coaching books (particularly basketball books), is loath to discuss the specifics of what the three-day session involved, although one player summed it up thusly: "think of it as an executive retreat. It's all the same consultants."

Safe to assume, then, that hockey teams are broadly following the precepts laid out by researchers like Dr. Elton Mayo, an Australian social scientist who elaborated the "team-building" philosophy in the late 1920s and is credited with inventing Human Relations theory, the bedrock of management theory.

In the 1950s, companies like General Foods began experimenting with self-directed teams, and a whole industry has since popped up hawking methods to help companies work as teams.

Broadly speaking, they constitute group exercises and games aimed at setting goals, building trust and communicating more forthrightly.

And in a hockey context, proponents insist they're a key part of success.

"You're building relationships, it's when a lot of things fall into place," Boucher said.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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