Hockey is a beautiful sport. Like many younglings who were born in Western Canada, I was raised in part by hockey rinks. Not long after becoming sufficient in tippy baby-walking, I was outside in the deep cold of an Albertan winter with blades strapped to my feet. Little did I know that the sport of hockey would teach me some of the most valuable life lessons and become an integral aspect of my character and contribute to my successes in technical teams.
In hockey, there are 6 players from each team on the ice at once. Each side has a goaltender, two defensemen and three forwards. Among the forwards two of them are wingers and one of them is a centreman. Among the pairs of wingers and defenders, each contains a left-side and right-side.
A team hosts three pairings of defenders, four lines of forwards, two goaltenders - a starter and a backup - and an extra player, either a seventh defensemen or 13th forward. A hockey team, then, consists of 21 players plus three coaches, trainers and equipment staff.
Within this 21-person unit, there are two flavours of special teams. Special teams are the penalty kill or the power-play. When someone takes a penalty, they are banished from the ice into the penalty box where they watch their team play short-handed and feel shame. When a team is short-handed the penalty killers are dispatched to thwart the other team’s power play; their most gifted offensive players.
The power play is where the most goals per minute are generated. Nothing heals like a goal. Nothing gets the adrenaline going or the confidence flaring like putting the rubber biscuit in the basket. A goal is the sweetest point. Everyone wants to score the goal. Everyone wants points. Everyone wants to be on the powerplay.
In your 21-person team you will have two power-play units, each containing five players. Unit 1 is the paycheque. Unit 1 is the marquee. The good, young Western Canadian kid with rickety blades tied to his feet would never play on Unit 1. He wouldn’t be the one filling the net, rifling pucks into the top-shelf where mother kept the peanut butter.
At the dawn of the tween years, the hockey world forks: will you take the full-contact, competitive, focused, disciplined ‘rep’ path or the less-competitive, more casual - but still demanding - ‘house’ track? The boy would choose rep hockey. In rep, your best players play the most. High performance, good behaviour, and impeccable fitness are expected. It is within rep hockey that you experience the forming of a hierarchy and learn to play a role. You will learn that not everyone will score goals and play on the power play.
As you develop, you learn which position you will play and what type of player you are. Are you a goal-scoring forward, able to pounce with opportunism on scoring chances? A play maker who can thread the needle and set-up crafty plays in the offensive zone? A two-way forward, proficient at both ends of the rink? Or, perhaps a grinder, wearing down the opponents with physical punishment, bringing speed, energy and grit but probably not sailing too many pucks into the net?
While we all fixate on goals, someone still needs to protect the house. Enter the defender. When the offensive players bring the puck into the defensive zone, the defenders need to reclaim it and break it out with haste. The forwards curl low, the centreman supports the corners and covers the opposing teams defenders. The defenders either flick the puck off the glass and out - the safe play - or head-man the puck to one of the forwards.
If you’re joining the offense and stretching out the opposition with long-reaching passes to your forwards, you might be an offensive-defensemen. If you’re strong and steady, choosing to make the safe play and keeping the crease clean, you sound like a defensive-defensemen. You won’t score many goals but everyone will love it when you do.
In the professional ranks, you need a balanced roster with various player types or you will never succeed. You cannot win with a team of goal-scorers just as you cannot win with a team of defensive-defenders! Each role is needed. Each role is essential.
Even though the boy loved to skate, he didn’t have the best ‘hands’ - which is to say, he lacked the finesse, grace, and awareness required to be an effective offensive player. “If only your hands moved as fast as your brain!”, the coach would chortle. As the boy witnessed others succumb to the intoxicating, confidence ballooning impact of point-production, it was clear he’d need to carve out a different niche.
He could skate well: “faster than lightning”. He wasn’t afraid of getting into tussles and throwing his modest weight around. He wasn’t afraid of injuries, or at least he didn’t show it. He was a positive force, always yapping at opponents and encouraging his team mates. The life of a grinding forward, then. He would spend his time on the third of fourth line, getting ten-to-fourteen minutes a game – the goal scorers between sixteen-to-twenty-two.
He learned tenacity. He would always stand up for his team mates, his gloves would become well familiar with flailing off in a flurry of fists. He prided himself on shutting down the other teams best players and killing penalties. In the defensive zone, he’d do anything to put his body in-front of the puck to prevent it from hitting the goalie. The goalie was more padded and better suited, but that didn’t seem to matter. His team mates loved him. They and the coaches respected him, if the scoresheet did not.
If you work in an organization that develops software, then you are part of a team. In order for your team to be successful, you’ll need a variety of roles. In the same way that not everyone is cut-out to score goals, a winning organization needs more than merging-home the sweet pucks of a fruitful pull request.
In technology, we get hung-up on result. Hyper-optimized ideas by hyper-rational people deliver a false narrative that all that matters is the raw code that you ship. “Soft” skills and roles are denigrated and often disrespected. Entire groups of people, trades, and schools of thought are labelled sub-optimal because they appear to not provide an immediately apparent code-level benefit. Most disappointing is that it happens internally. There is no tradition of organizational solidarity within software. There is no honour.
In this life, we all get humbled. The world needs grinders, defensive-defenders, goal-scorers, and play-makers alike. While the accolades, the social value, and the rewards will distribute unevenly, a team is a living, breathing, dynamic entity.
The boy lacked skill and talent but learned to apply speed, defense and physicality, doubling down on his strengths, mitigating his weaknesses, becoming a leader and someone who made those around him feel better and those opposed to him feel worse. He didn’t score goals. He left his ego at the door and his heart on the ice. In hockey, he was respected for it.