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Buccigross: Emotion Key Component To Success


The following column by John Buccigross discusses Army hockey, its players and a recent game against Air Force. The story originally appeared on ESPN.com on February 19.



Emotion makes everything purposeful and possible. Nothing depresses or fills a classroom, home or dressing room/locker room/clubhouse-* with more hopelessness than a lack of emotion.

(*-Football and basketball players put on their uniforms in a locker room; hockey players do it in a dressing room, and baseball players do it in a clubhouse.)

This lack of emotion can be seen at various times, whether it's a hockey team or a waitress or a DMV worker, a personal relationship, or a child.

Emotion is the rocket-booster to get things done, and done well. Emotion provides energy, creativity, sympathy and, most importantly, action. Its byproducts include tears, laughter, art, teamwork, discipline, motion pictures, vaccines, violence and unimaginable feats of sacrifice, charity and selflessness. Yes, for many, it starts with an emotion and not reason. It sounds inverted, but everything else is secondary, especially in sports.

Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard and Mario Lemieux were among the greatest to ever play because they were often the most emotional. Their emotion fanned the flame of their incendiary talent.

So, where does emotion come from? It's best when it is organic, not manufactured or forced. Individually, we can eat well, sleep well and consistently exercise our bodies and minds. That boosts our energy level, which helps us live life with emotion, live life better. Emotion is often hereditary, as well.

The three things that probably make me most emotional require and reveal so much emotion -- children, sports and the military.

Parenting (and coaching) is so difficult because it demands and triggers so much emotion, sometimes too much, with a house or roster full of varied emotional states. Therefore, sometimes, you have emotional people parenting emotional children in an emotional environment. Some parents have too little emotion, sometimes resulting in a rudderless and numb child who lacks drive, discipline and dreams. Some parents have too much emotion, resulting in a child who is sometimes smothered, angry, apathetic and sometimes mentally scarred for life.

I wrote the "emotion is most effective when organic" thought last week when I began constructing this blogumn. What I had in mind then was the issue we talked about in this space a few weeks back -- offering your children monetary incentive to score goals in youth hockey ($5 a goal). I told a reader that while I understand a parent's desire to motivate his or her kids to success out of love, I don't like it and it has no upside. I probably could have written a column on it.

Daniel Pink wrote a book on it called "Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us." I picked it up this past weekend. You can imagine how I felt when in I saw this sentence in the book, written by someone who conducted a human motivation experiment:

"When money is used as an external award for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for the activity."

And "subjects lose intrinsic interest" is another way of saying, they have lost emotion. And a lack of emotion sometimes feels like the beginning of death. Emotion is not just extroverted gyrations like Robin Williams displayed as Mork and in his stand-up routines. Emotion is more about the care and concentration that taciturn Pavel Datsyuk shows when he plays hockey.

Sports, especially the difficult and physical ones like hockey, require emotion to prepare, perform, improve and overcome obstacles. When the body is your primary instrument, emotion is the turbo-booster to increase horsepower in time of need. It is why you and I played, play and now watch sports. It makes us emotional.

And that emotion starts in the brain. When we say a player has "heart," what we really mean is a player has a particular type of "brain," a brain that can be trained and manipulated for good or evil. Some studies have revealed terrorist acts are often first constructed by someone manipulating impressionable brains, usually using a combination of religion and emotion. Of course, religion is another emotional part of life for many. (We would need more bandwidth if we went there today.)

So, again, brain-fueled emotion needs discipline in order to excel. An NHL fighter needs emotion to fight, but he also has to have some clarity of mind in order not to put himself in danger. If we could see our brains as gas gauges measuring brain fuel, I would suspect a fighter's brain fuel would move the needle most visibly. NHL fighters have to be crazy and clear at the same time. That is exhausting.

Some people have the ability in an intense, chippy, physical hockey game to play amidst the chaos and still make a sick pass to an open teammate. Again, that is really playing with emotion. Yes, Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom play well with lots of emotion.

Those unable to play in an elevated emotional state or to deal with the elevated emotional state of others and the game appear to include Alexei Yashin (then) and Joe Thornton (now). Both have poor playoff records. It will be interesting to see Thornton in the Olympics and its two-month Stanley Cup tournament rolled into two weeks. This is the best team he has ever played on, so perhaps that will help his production. Also, we have seen more emotional play out of Thornton this regular season at times, moments when he puts out more of an outward, max effort.

It's not Thornton's nature in life to be a jerk, but he should be more of a controlled jerk on the ice because he is big and it would make his team better. When he was younger, Thornton had moments of quick, retaliatory emotion that hurt him and his team. He needs to consistently play just shy of a boil, like that moment prior to when a kettle begins to whistle on a stove. Maybe he is learning to do that. It's important because it helps his team win and inspires others to play better. It's leadership.

I think one reason why passing is less accurate in a lot of today's NHL games is because regular-season games are played with more emotional players. Players took longer shifts 20 to 30 years ago, thus spreading out their intensity over a longer period of time. The game was slower and the brain was a little calmer, so making accurate passes was easier.

In today's game, most players come off the bench with a heightened heartbeat and understanding they are to play all out for 35 to 50 seconds. What Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby achieve at top speeds today was unthinkable just two decades ago.

The third thing that makes me most emotional is the military. From the grungy minutemen that George Washington somehow coached to America's "Miracle on Dirt" victory from 1775-1781, to the sophisticated soldier of today, the military continues to be the country's enforcer, fighting the difficult fights mostly in faraway places most of us will never visit. The military is big, impressive and somber. Controversial and complex political and moral issues arise when discussing the military and war. It is, yes, an emotional issue.

A couple of weekends ago, I combined these three emotional things. I took my hockey-playing boys, Brett, 17, and Jackson, 10, to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to see Army and Air Force play a hockey game. That's a lot of emotion wrapped up in one late afternoon.

We arrived late in the afternoon on Jan. 30 on a frigid and gray day. We were met by hockey fan Ryan Yanoshak, who was in his fourth year with the athletic communications staff at West Point. Ryan had arranged for us to be shown around the grounds by Zach McKelvie, who finished up his Army hockey career last season as captain.

McKelvie had signed a one-year, free-agent contract with the Boston Bruins, but knew he wasn't guaranteed to begin his pro career. The Army decided to follow the Department of Defense rules and not allow the speedy defenseman a chance to play this season (the Army ruled McKelvie must first serve for two years). He will report to Fort Benning in April. This will not help the Army's recruitment, or any of the Armed Forces' recruitment, of high-level athletes. But I'm sure their decision was thought out and debated for long hours.

One would think something could have been worked out that would have been good for the Army and McKelvie, an exceedingly polite and decent human being out of Irondale High School in Minnesota. After Zach had showed us around the haunting and impressive grounds, which included statues of Washington, Jefferson and Patton, he was set to park his car back in the spot from where we left.

A guard questioned Zach's parking spot even though he'll be working with the hockey team until he heads to Georgia in April. Zach was patient until the guy realized Zach was good to park there. McKelvie didn't play the "Do you know who I am?" card or even seem to raise his heartbeat. He just waited for the OK. He is the kind of hockey player who would rip out one of your organs on the ice (slight exaggeration) and donate one off of it (probably not an exaggeration).

Zach showed us around Army's very impressive hockey facilities -- modern, pristine and state-of-the-art, yet measured and proportionate to the mission of West Point. We met coach Brian Riley, a 1983 graduate of Brown University. He is just the third Army hockey coach over the past 59 years. Riley followed his older brother Rob; before Rob, their father Jack was the Black Knights' coach for 38 seasons. Jack was also the coach of the 1960 U.S. men's Olympic gold-medal team. He turns 88 in June and held court with some great stories before the game.

The night's opponent for Army (currently tied for sixth in the Atlantic Conference with Holy Cross at 9-11-4) was Air Force (third at 12-6-6). Tate Rink is one of the best kinds of venues to watch a game because it's smaller (200x90). Every seat in the rink (capacity 2,746) is a great one, and the intimacy of the place keeps the game a community affair. It's a trip back in time. I would pay hundreds to watch the Penguins play the Capitals or the Red Wings play the Blackhawks in the seat I was sitting in.

The pace of the game was extraordinarily fast, NHL fast. Both teams were absolutely flying. These guys could really skate. Referees Ryan Sweeney and Jay Durfee had a great game, basically just calling a penalty every 10 minutes; they did not interrupt the pace and both teams were, of course, disciplined.

Army came out flat in the first period and was outshot 21-6. Blake Page and Derrick Burnett both beat Army goalie Jay Clark to make it 2-0 after one period. Army responded by outshooting Air Force 14-11 in the second and scoring the period's only goal, a Black Knight tally by Andy Starczewski.

That set up a wild third period. Army's Kyle Maggard tied the score with 5:23 left in the game. Air Force regained the lead with 2:35 left on a goal by Matt Fairchild. Army appeared to be headed for a loss until Eric Sefchik, a senior from the Cleveland, Ohio, suburb of Brooklyn, frantically tied it up amid the chaos of a pulled-goalie situation with 11 seconds to go. Sefchik is the team captain. Leadership.

Neither team scored in overtime. This battle ended in a draw. Army 3, Air Force 3. The end of an emotional day. We faced the bitter cold one more time, hopped in the car and headed for home. Lessons learned: Emotion + discipline + effort + teamwork + sacrifice + selflessness = victory. Even when you tie.

You wonder why every talented and hard-working young man and woman wouldn't want to live, learn, grow and play hockey in this environment. You wonder what kind of strong men and women we would produce if they did.

It makes one emotional thinking about the possibilities.
ITT Knight Vision

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