The Hockey MacGuffin
I know this dates me, but when I was 12 years old, I went to see the original Star Wars movie in the theatre seven times. It was simply the best! Everything about it was awesome right down to Luke Skywalker “killing” the Death Star at the end. I couldn’t get enough. So, I was totally into listening to a podcast I downloaded last week called “Inside Star Wars”, about the behind the scenes making of the movie and the struggles writer/director George Lucas had through the process of bringing the script to the big screen. For a Star Wars fan, it was riveting listening.
One of the only people in Hollywood who was totally seeing Lucas’s vision at the time was Steven Spielberg, who had just come off of the success of Jaws (my next podcast “Inside Jaws”) and was working on his own science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg was still four years away from releasing Raiders of the Lost Ark (another personal all-time favourite movie). And this is where the notion of a “MacGuffin” first truly became part of filmmaking lexicon.
A “MacGuffin”, by definition, is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself. In Raiders, the MacGuffin was the lost Ark of the Covenant. It was what drove the characters and the plot but, we didn’t really care about the Ark in as much as we never really saw it until the end of the film. Luke Skywalker became the MacGuffin in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as the new character Rey spent the film searching for him.
I use the notion of a MacGuffin in coaching as well. I often talk about coaching as very much “sales and marketing” and I find MacGuffin’s fit in nicely to that philosophy. I will give you an example:
There is one team in our high school league that has been the best team for many years. They have the best players, they have the nicest rink, they are a little like the “evil Empire” in Star Wars. I would guess that most leagues have a team like this - the one that everyone is trying to beat. So, the goal of beating this team is the “event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the (players)”, but as the definition continues, it’s “insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself.” There are way more important things during our season than beating the very top team but, that notion of actually doing it is what drives us through the season and, although it is not something that I talk about all the time, everyone on the team knows that those two game dates are metaphorically circled on the calendar.
This is very much a “this is where we need to be” kind of thing. When I look at where that program is, as a coach, I can start to piece together the things that we have to do to get to that point. Clearly, we need great players. But, what things do we need to put in place in order to get or develop those players. That becomes the driving force for our coaching staff.
In many ways, coaching through a hockey season is like writing a movie screenplay. You can certainly write most of it before “filming” starts but, you will undoubtedly have re-writes throughout the season. In my original script last year, we got through all of our system play in the month of September - forecheck, backcheck, breakout, offensive zone entry, special teams, etc. My systems are simple so this was something that we could accomplish. But, by mid-October, it was clear that we weren’t a very good passing team - or more to the point, we weren’t a very good receiving team. As a coaching staff, we decided to spend the next two weeks focusing on pass receiving. We didn’t necessarily do anything out of the ordinary but, we communicated to the team that there was a weakness, why being better at receiving would make us a better team, and how we were going to get better. We also made sure that when we gave instruction before each drill, we reinforced that this was our focus. At the end of the two week period, we were markedly improved and not surprisingly, all of our offensive play improved immensely as well.
A big part of the “script writing” process comes in spring and early summer when putting together the game schedule. Obviously, there are many schedule spots that are out of a coach’s control: league schedule, tournament dates, opposition availability for exhibition games. But, interestingly, as the schedule starts to materialize, I am consciously creating a narrative as to how we will approach each game, series and tournament. For instance, we have a two game exhibition series in Quebec in mid-October against a very, very strong team. It will most likely be the first test against the upper echelon of prep school teams we will face and I am already “script writing” dialogue for that series in my head: what does that week of practice look like? How does this experience relate to playing the top teams in our own league? What things do we need to focus on to be successful? How do these two games fit into the rest of the “screenplay”?
Another part of the plot will have us not playing a game for two weeks in November. We can’t just practice for two weeks with not advancing the narrative, so those eight or nine practices will become a meaningful part of the story, maybe even a subplot. This might be installing something new in our system play, or bringing in a skills coach for a series of practices, or taking the team off ice for a few days and working on our overall athleticism. Whatever it might be, we can’t let the movie get boring with a lull in the plot.
I told my graduating players at the end of this past season that when we finally beat that top team in our league, they can be proud that they are part of that victory as well. And in fact, the story of finding our “MacGuffin” will be a multi sequel franchise spanning numerous seasons. Like Indiana Jones, once he has found his original MacGuffin, the next screenplay will reveal another, more valuable one for the team to chase.