Courtney Kennedy loves her job. Every day, she loves her job. She loves developing players. Even at Boston College, where the two-time Olympian arrived in 2007 as the top assistant to Katie King and has served as associate head coach since 2012, Kennedy is developing players. And people. That’s why, when she ponders the thought of what to tell young women who are eager to succeed at the next level or want to be noticed on the road their dreams, the messages look a whole lot like life lessons.
“The kid should never come home and think, ‘I’m not as good as Sally,” says Kennedy of a typical 7-year-old player. “She should not care. It should be hockey and playing.”
Of course, she also understands that, particularly in her unique position with one of the top colleges in the country, where scholarships can literally change lives, there’s a natural and national fascination with trying to find a silver bullet to landing one of those scholarships. It’s simply not that simple.
“A good player will be a good player,” says the Woburn native. “I don’t think a certain drink or regimen will get a player to a certain status – and that if you don’t do it then it’s over and you ruined it. I think there’s a million different ways to do it. I picture it like it open forest. And we all have a shovel and a paver and someone says, ‘Go.’ I might pick another route, but we can all get to the end. I think everybody can get there.’”
What is a good lesson for parents who have kids who are eager to be noticed?
If the kid is loving (playing hockey) and having fun, remember that. Because all of us who are coaching, we will find a kid who’s really good. We want to find your kid who’s really good. But if your kid is just average? Who cares? What’s wrong with that?
Sometimes I wish it was like they get in the car and it’s, like, “Hey, great job out there. What do you want for lunch? Whatdoyougot?” I’d rather have that conversation than, “What you were thinking about on the third shift in the second period?”
I feel like the best way to [get noticed] is to allow them to play and not be caught up in whether it’s the right place to play. The good players out there will be found. Word travels like crazy. If you’re playing boys’ hockey in upstate New York and I’m getting phone calls about you, you’re going to be found. Don’t be overly panicked about making a misstep on your kid. I know it’s a hard thing to answer, but, if your kid is having fun and they love going to hockey, I think that’s an answer. You want your kid to want to go and have opportunity. I’d rather my kid where she’s playing every other shift than not playing on one team. At a young age, I don’t know how you get better when you’re not playing and learning and making mistakes and falling down.
I feel like we’ve eliminated coping from everything that we do when they are little kids now. We need to fix everything. “If they’re not going to be great at hockey, let’s try swimming.” Wait a minute. I thought we play sports because we love the sport.
Did someone already sell her skates because she wasn’t good enough in eighth grade? Heaven forbid you’re not good enough when you’re in fifth grade.
But is there anything wrong with playing a sport and being just OK at it? Maybe you play high school hockey and that’s it. It’s February and it’s over. But you made great friends. And you had a great time. And you play the sport you loved.
Is there something specific you’re watching for when you’re looking at a player?
You might see a player who’s young but, like 6-foot. And you might see a player who is 5-3, and maybe the 5-3 player has good edges and no one can get the puck from her, but the 6-foot player can sometimes look really awkward. Or like the best defenseman. But that’s why I don’t want to pick U14. Get through your awkwardness. U16 is when you can really start to see someone coming into their own.
When we watch these kids, there are so many different things we’re looking at. I love watching the kid at a young age who is sprinting full speed to an open seam. That kid has a great hockey sense. It’s a future play. And there may be no one on the ice who can get her the puck, because they’re 7, but you see the advanced skill from a hockey sense standpoint
What’s funny is, it’s not necessarily the best player I take at a young age – because, usually, your best player is either the biggest one, or they have more confidence than another kid, or they may be more mature or they have older brothers and sisters. But when I watch a young player, I look for hockey sense. I think, “This kid over here is so smart. What is smart hockey player.” That’s someone who is very intriguing to me. It’s not the top two players over the boards. Some players might be selfish or rush the puck. Someone might throw her hands in the air when a penalty is called. So I watch the bench.
When you’re looking at young kids you’re looking at work ethic. I actually like to know who their parents are. Do they have to do homework when I get home from school? Do they go to the beach? Do they swim? Do they play other sports?
What do you think about playing multiple sports?
We love it. We will look for it. In general, there’s way too much stress put on the same muscles. I think it’s nice for kids to condition their bodies in different ways. I think it’s healthy for your brain and healthy for your body to switch up what you see and do every day. I understand doing more hockey, but I think it’s so important to cross-train. Plus, maybe you’re not the best at another sport. You might not be the clutch player on the lacrosse team, so you have to learn skills that are now teaching you to be a better leader and teammate down the road. You get to see all these different situations, and it could be good for you to learn how to handle that without throwing a temper tantrum because the coach didn’t play you.
What should players be working on, no matter what?
Skating is a non-negotiable, fundamental need to be working on all the time. And stickhandling clean always be worked on. But, on the ice, there’s a time to over-handle it and a time to under-handle it. So when you’re doing a drill, you can work on both. You may want to work on quick touches for one, and another where we ask you to carry the puck, twist and turn and spin-o-rama, and ohbytheway, keep your head up because another kid is coming at you. With passing, be a good passer and a good receiver. We need to work on passing and receiving at every age group. And I know some of those passing drills aren’t that much fun, but I’d rather you fight so hard to receive it then extend with one arm. Coaches have to hold themselves accountable there, constantly watching for fundamentals in the drill.
The better you can be on your edges, too. And practice being uncomfortable on the ice. The more uncomfortable you are when you’re learning to use your edges, the better you will develop that skill. And if you can do that, you can be calm and composed with the puck.
Are there messages for coaches, too?
We’re always doing games that make us think about two passes ahead. We create drills all the time and make them up based off of USA Hockey’s stuff. We try to change their brain and make them uncomfortable.
USA hockey has books on mini games and how to make it fun, too. And everyone should have those books. Everyone should have to be designing a practice that hits on all the development for that age. The better players will sort themselves out. But I think this gives kids a longer time to decide if they should really quit a sport because they aren’t good enough. My goodness, I wasn’t the best one of my team when I was a squirt.
The ADM to me is phenomenal because it was like a re-surfacing of what was important. Sometimes coaches are just coaching to their systems and to win games. That stuff should be total illegal. They should be playing small games with lots of puck touches. Players should be laughing, laughing their heads off. Have some fun with and be kids. You’ll learn the rules as you go.
How does living with failure work its way into the equation?
Learn from your mistakes. Look, I was a defenseman. I wasn’t going down putting pucks between my legs at full speed. But I would try it. I would have fun with it. I would do it and nobody told me that didn’t make any sense.
You can’t be afraid to fail. It’s a good line and everyone says it. But it’s so true. And you don’t have to have all the answers. Stop trying to have them all. And, if you fail, I will high five you. If you try to be the same player and don’t leave your comfort zone, you’re not going to go anywhere.
Does thinking about a team dynamic also factor in, too?
Nobody wants to take a fourth line pain. Is she good kid? I’m going to be with you for four years. I’m going to see you at your worst and I’m going see you at your best. And I’m going to love you just the same. I don’t care even if you do something wrong. This is a learning environment. If you come to college and do everything perfectly, I think that’s weird. I think that weirder. Now, if that kid makes the same mistake five more times, yes, we’ll have a problem. But if you make a mistake and you work and you learn from it, I say congratulations, because you just got a little bit older and you made us all stronger.
There is no way you’re going to cruise through to a championship because you have wicked talented hockey players. Every kid can play with the puck. To be a good teammate, you have to do good human. Do you have to have manners? You don’t necessarily have to agree with everyone, but you have to respect them enough to hear them.
What are some of the great takeaways when it comes to this subject and the elite players you coach at Boston College?
I will never be able to watch a 7-year-old and know what they’re going to be. All I hope is that they are surrounded by a family that encourages them to keep going and that the coaching environment is a healthy one and they encourage that growth. I mean, these are little kids. They still have PowerAde above their lips after their games. And I’m going to what … offer that kid a scholarship? Are we serious?
And I’m not making hockey players at BC. I develop them and want to develop them and want to try my best to make a kid better. But, in the end, I want them to leave in four years and feel like they can take on the world.