Legitimite Excuses for Failure

I placed a simple but powerful quote on a whiteboard during one of my summer camps several years ago.

“To have the ultimate result of making the NHL you must systematically and with vigor identify all potential issues that could derail your career. Once each area is identified and addressed you are left with only one valid excuse for failure. You weren’t good enough.”

I want to expand on my quote because within those words one can find the elusive secret to playing in the NHL. Making the NHL is a dream that everyone who plays the game has had and quite frankly is still festering in the minds of the 30 plus age group in the beer leagues.

We all know the odds are slim but we still choose to believe that we are the chosen one; the one that will make our parents, our friends and our hometown proud. When it becomes evident that we aren’t the chosen one there are two types of people. Which are you?

I have a unique perspective on this discussion because I have made the NHL twice in two distinct disciplines, over a span of time and without the benefit of a seamless transition from player to coach. The difficulty in the coaching role was not being able to take advantage of the old boy’s network that players with long playing careers use to leapfrog into management positions.

In précis form here is a quick recap of both journeys. As a goaltender I made the NHL by stepping on the ice to play the New Jersey Devils in a NHL regular season game December 5, 1990. As a coach I made the NHL again in 2003 when I was named as the Goaltending Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Each journey was fraught with figurative peril and the destination was arrived at against truly tall odds.

There are some key elements of my journey that directly apply to this exercise in determining legitimate excuses for failure. I think some of the more popular excuses I hear can serve as blueprint for us. These are the excuses you hear around the gym, the rink and at parties. All failed athletes will readily discuss which successful players they played with and against and typically let it be known they were just as good as the guy that made it. The could have, would have, should have group is a large one indeed. Indeed many of you reading this may recognize a little or a lot of these excuse traits within yourself.

My intention is not to belittle failed attempts to make the big leagues but to critically analyze why people don’t make it so that those that still can make it don’t fall into those same excuse pitfalls.

Excuse # 1- Injuries ended any chances I had to make it.

There are definitely legitimate cases of injuries that have certainly ended careers. Several players have broken necks and are paralyzed. This point is not about this miniscule yet tragic group. This is about players that are still able to play recreational hockey or at least function at a normal job. Every player that makes the NHL has had serious injuries and a majority of players have had surgeries of some sort. Players have overcome eye damage, concussions blown out knees and shoulders.

My example is typical in some respects. I dislocated my left shoulder 15 times and my right shoulder 17 times, each dislocation requiring an ER visit to reduce the dislocation. As a result I had both shoulders repaired in major bilateral surgery by world renowned Dr. Richard Hawkins.

I have had my left knee operated on, my left hip adductor muscle completely release from its insertion at my pelvis and coil up like a softball under my skin near my knee.

I have had over a dozen concussions, 3 distinct and lengthy losses of consciousness on the ice including a point shot one timer the burrowed in and stuck in my Chris Osgood style college helmet.

I have had floaters and retina issues but I still made it. The most convenient excuse for failure is because of injuries. It takes responsibility for the failed career out of the athlete’s hands. It allows for the ego comforting thought that “I was good enough to make it.”

It is an extremely rare case where a doctor would say without equivocation that it is 100% impossible for an athlete to continue playing their sport. Injuries kill the will to overcome them more often than the injury kills the career.

Excuse # 2 – Politics and Nepotism killed my career

This one is a go to excuse for many failed athletes. “The coach always picked his son for the team” and “my parents didn’t have the money to buy my way on to the top teams exposure-wise”.

My father never coached any of my teams, doesn’t know how to skate and has been a hard working mechanic for over 40 years. We never had the resources to buy our way onto any teams and my father never had the ability to select me ahead of another kid.

I had to play house league hockey until I was 13 because the banker’s son was the goalie on the travel team and in my mind I was far better. My parents didn’t drink and party so all the big parties at the banker’s house certainly gave me every opportunity to feel the sting of politics first hand. Many times “Fat Frankie” couldn’t get up from the ice without flopping over to his belly and climbing up the post yet who starts in the Silver Sticks?

I welcomed this type of unfairness. I reveled in it. It gave me goose bumps then as it does as I write this. I was going to prove these people wrong and I make sure they heard from me when I overcame it and made the NHL. They all received calls shortly after December 5, 1990. Later I will discuss my “Doubter’s Diary”

Excuse # 3 – The scouts never saw me and I was overlooked.

There are many examples of NHL players who made it in spite of being overlooked in the NHL and in some cases the Major Junior Draft. Clearly scouting is not an exact science and many athletes are overlooked. But this is not an excuse rather another can of gas to fuel your desire.

I was not drafted to the OHL when I was draft eligible because all the press fell in love with guys like Jeff Hackett and others. As a junior B player, I knew I was better than Hackett but still the scouts ignored me. I was so upset that the London Knights didn’t draft me that I called their coach every day begging to let me come out to their practices to show them what I could do. They wouldn’t invite me so I showed up anyway at practice at the old London Gardens and got dressed in a bathroom. I attempted to sneak out on the ice but the coach refused and man handled me out of the player’s bench. That coach is now a good friend of mine and I see him frequently as we are both NHL scouts now. At the time however I was shaking with rage. I went straight home to Strathroy and began doing my hill sprints until I collapsed.

While playing Junior B in Strathroy Mitch Korn from Miami University attended one of my games and was looking at offering a full scholarship to Jeff Hackett who had left Oshawa and come back to London. In this first viewing he witnessed me allow 7 goals but he must have saw something as he spoke to me after the game.

My next game was the Western Junior B All Star game, which were not normally defensive gems in the 80’s. I was scheduled to play the first half of the game and ironically at the other end was Mr.Hackett. I allowed the first shot on goal to go in and it was at this point you find out what you are made of. I proceeded to stop the next 29 shots in my half of the game and after the game I was offered a full ride to Miami University.

Scouts will see you and will hear about you if you are playing well at an appropriate level. If you dominate at the midget level you will play junior somewhere and so on up the hockey ladder.

If you aren’t playing at the highest level you can be, find out what is wrong with your game and fix it. Don’t succumb to the common excuses for failure. If you ask any of the guys in the beer leagues this question I firmly believe I know what the honest answer is.

“If you had it to do over again, could you have done anything differently?”

If you did everything humanly and honestly possible to make the NHL you are left with the only acceptable excuse for failure. You weren’t good enough.

It is a blow to our egos when we accept this but the reality is we are not all good enough. Not being good enough is a victory at some level if it exists in your world after all measures have been taken and all excuses ignored and overcome. Now you can hold your head high and look in the mirror.

My Doubter’s Diary

From this article you may begin to sense my burning hatred of those that doubted me and my abilities. I wanted to make it more to prove people wrong than to make it for the sake of making it. No one could then and no one can today tell me I wasn’t good enough to play in the NHL. One of the key motivational tools I used and still have today is my Doubter’s Diary. In this binder I have written down the comments and names of EVERY person who has ever indicated that I wouldn’t make the NHL. It is quite ragged as you could imagine and has over a dozen pages. Everyone in this book has received a call or a visit after I made the NHL to “thank them” for motivating me. The people who doubted me ranged from coaches to GM’s to teammates. I will share with you my favorite one and the one who received my first phone call at 10:48 EST on December 5, 1990.

During Second Grade we had a chance to tell Ms. McNeil what we were going to be when we grew up. This of course is common in all schools.

“I will play in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Stevie McKichan” The original words printed out quite messily with a dull large primary pencil.

Ms. McNeil’s comments appear in red pen immediately below.

“That will most likely never happen. You need to pick something possible like a firefighter, police officer or teacher.”

Oh it definitely was possible.

Copyright © 2006 Stephen McKichan