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Matriarchs of Rec Hockey : Brenda Medley

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Brenda Medley is a familiar figure amongst the players of women’s rec hockey in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.  She played competitively around the region for over 27 years before moving to coaching.  She has been a passionate advocate of the women’s game and I was fortunate enough to have her as a coach for a tournament in Toronto. I loved her positive coaching style and it wasn’t until I sat down with her that I realised just how-far-reaching her playing and coaching career had been……..  

The Player

Brenda started skating at 3 yrs old.  It was evident then that skating came naturally to her.  Her dad always made a rink at the side of the house in the winter and her local school also had a rink.  She and her brothers would go to the rink every day at 5am and play until 8am when school started, then after school they would rush to the rink to play until 9pm or when they were chastised for not coming home when the streetlights came on. They lived two blocks away from the rink and played 6 or 7 hours each day.  

When I asked her which player she aspired to play like when she was younger, Brenda, a Leafs fan, replied “Davey Keon, the number 14 for the Leafs.  He was a centre and used a wooden stick which was as straight as a board.  He could shoot and control the puck like there was no tomorrow.  Best centreman in the game at the time.”

When she started playing competitively at the age of seven, her team mates were often significantly older than her.  Because women’s hockey in the area was not organised by age, there were very few age restrictions. So, at the tender age of seven, she was able to play in a tournament for Fanshawe college, and at ten she played for the University of Guelph.  

The travel hockey schedule back then was in a tournament format. Each weekend they played at a different town.  Brenda’s family lived in Stratford and it would not be unusual for two teams  to be staying the night in her living room. Her mother would move all the furniture out the way for them to lay out all the sleeping bags in on the floor and she would make big bowls of chilli for dinner.  These weekend sleepovers enabled the players in the league to really bond.    The visiting teams would wake up in the morning to a glass of milk or cup of coffee beside their pillows and when they were up and dressed, they went to the arena to the day. 

Every Labour Day weekend, Brenda would go down to the Junior B training camp armed with a pad and a pen and she would sit and write down all the drills that the boys did.  She created her own drill books and then, when the girls on her team turned up to play at the rink for their next practice, they would work through all the things she had on paper.  They would practise these drills over and over again. They firmly believed that it did not matter whether the drills were done by a Junior B or a novice – it was still teaching the same fundamental hockey skills regardless of the skill level.

In her time as a player, Brenda must have played hundreds of games, and I wondered if there was one in particular that sticks out in her mind: 

“We were playing for New Hamburg in a tournament in Mildmay, which is a small town in the middle of nowhere. On the Friday night we played against a team from Taylor, Michigan and lost.   That meant we had a long route to get to the final.  Under OWHA rules, players cannot play more than 3 games in any one given day but with how the schedule worked out, we had to play five games on the Sunday if we wanted to reach the final.    We had our first game at 8am then had an hour break in-between each game until a two hour break between the semi final and the final.   We didn’t even take off our equipment between games.  We played the best hockey ever and won all of our games to get to the final against Ayr.

I remember walking down the hallway past the Ayr dressing room just before the final game, and all I could smell was A535 (a muscle rub) and I thought ‘We so have these guys!’   We were all friends, so I shouted it through the doorway to them.  It was all good-natured humour and we all laughed.   The game itself was the most amazing game;   I remember the play to this day.  The puck was behind the net with Jane Bell who was our defenseman.  She hit it off the left boards and I remember picking it up at the hash marks and banked it off the boards at the blue line.  I went down the boards, cut in across the far blue line to the face-off circle and made a backhand shot high over the shoulder of the goaltender into the net.  We won the game 1-0.  We were overjoyed but so tired; we couldn’t even eat when the game was over.  I remember mum and dad took us out to a restaurant afterwards and none of us could eat.  We just wanted to sleep.”

When Brenda was 17 years old, there was still no national women’s team.  However, one day she received a call from a gentleman in Vancouver who invited her to attend a training camp for a program to showcase women’s hockey. He was putting together a Canadian team and an American team and they would travel for a year together all over North America to make everyone aware that the women’s program was out there.  The players would be paid $75 dollars per game and the training camp was to take place on a Labour Day weekend at Maple Leaf Gardens.  Arguments with her mum and dad ensued.  She would have to give up job and was more than willing to do it.  She was so excited however, a week before the training camp was due to start, the organiser had a heart attack and died.   Sadly the exhibition tour never materialised.  

When she turned eighteen, a devastating injury halted Brenda’s budding hockey career.  She was playing in a Brampton tournament and on her first shift an opposing player punched her in the mouth under instruction to “take her out”.   Later, the player caught Brenda again.  She doesn’t recal seeing the check but the move resulted in a damaged ACL, MCL and meniscus – the “terrible triad” of knee injuries.  Her knee was blown and she firmly believed her hockey playing days were over. 

It took nearly two years of recovery, numerous scopes and sheer determination before Brenda returned to playing.  Her coach moved his star centre to defence.  She saw this as a blessing at first because she was so paranoid about getting hit.  By playing in defence she could see the play develop in front of her and she could anticipate moves.  After she got her confidence back and her leg got stronger, she moved back to centre and went on to play for another fifteen years before deciding to move into coaching.  

 

The Coach

Coaching was a difficult transition for Brenda. She struggled to adjust, and in her own words:  “I had to change me. I was still the player trying to be the coach and that just didn’t work. Just because you play at a higher level and the game comes naturally, doesn’t mean you can be a good coach.”

She had high expectations after years as a competitive player and could not recognise that as a coach she had such a wide range of skills to manage.  She would frequently come home from games frustrated and wonder why she wasn’t getting the best out of her players.  She walked away for a year and a half because she could not figure out what she was doing wrong.  After many conversations with her family and friends, attending coaching clinics, watching other coaches, and many conversations with Sue Scherer she was able to go back  a couple of years later and not be “that same person”.  She realised that she needed to explain things in a different way.  Instead of making a demand, why not ask a question and get the players to think for themselves?  She still had high expectations and was still frustrated that she could not play herself, but she now learned to be coachable as a coach.  She understood that she can have all the knowledge necessary for the role but still not be a good coach until she brings the wide range of skills in the team to the same level so that they can play together.  This was not done with demands but with suggestions.  It required corrections, positive feedback, and, in some instances, it needed to be done with discipline.  

As a coach, Brenda explained to me that she tried to emulate the two best coaches she ever had – Rod Beer who played for the Junior B team in Stratford,  and Susan Scherer , the Kitchener native who went on to play for the Canadian Women’s National Team.  Scherer in particular had a way of steering players in the right direction by not making them feel like they made mistakes but helping them to understand that if something doesn’t work, maybe they should try something else.  Very often, Brenda would lean over to her own players and say “I have a suggestion for you and I’d like you to try this.  It won’t work every time, but even if it works once every ten times, good for you.   But if you don’t try, you’ll never know.”    It was then up to the player to try her suggestion.  

I asked Brenda what advice she had for players in the rec league, particularly for someone like me who was relatively new to the game.  Her advice was simple: 

  • Enjoy every minute. Whether it’s the laugh in the dressing room, or whether it’s someone telling you that you’ve got your shin guard on the wrong leg, love every minute.  The skill will come.  
  • The best players in the world still wear equipment because they still fall down so it’s okay for you to fall down.  If you don’t have a coach, target someone on another team who has some skill and watch what they do.  You can learn from watching.   That’s what practices are – you watch the drills then you try them for yourself.  
  • Every shift is its own little game.   Try to set something to achieve in one shift and if you can’t do it, then you have the next shift to try it.  If you have accomplished what you wanted to in one shift, then the score doesn’t really matter.  If you can come off the ice and know that regardless of the score,   did you learn something that game and were you able to practice it?  You’ve already won.  Take one small bite at a time.
  • Even during those times when you may get beat or someone skips around you, it may not be something you did wrong; it may be simply a really good play that the other person did.  Learn from what they did.
  • If you stay too long on the ice, you’re showing a lack of respect for your team mates, the success of your team and for the game.   This comes from the skill level in rec league hockey and also comes from lack of coaching. 
  • There are six of you on the ice for a reason.  If the puck gets past all of you, sometimes it just wasn’t meant to be.   Move on. Regardless of a bad bounce, don’t dwell on bad luck.   That is why hockey is called a game of bounces.  What other sport is played in such a close confine, is so fast – a sprint sport, and has this intensity in such a small space?  If the puck goes off the glass and into your net, can you control that?  No.  Can you change it?  No.   Do you laugh at it?  Oh yes you do! It happens in the professionals and it will happen to you.  

Brenda recalls a story of a lady who played in the Kitchener-Waterloo Women’s Recreational League a few years ago who could not skate.  She managed to get all the way to the opposing goal area and fell. All the other players were giggling as they watched her try to get to her feet.   She grabbed hold of the sock of the goalie, then her pants, then her arm, and pulled herself up to lean against the post and just stood there and yelled “I’m up!”    The whistle went and someone had to go over and bring her to the bench but she didn’t care.  She got from the blue line to the net, she fell down, she got up.   Are those not skills you have to learn?   She stayed in the league and by the end of the year; she was skating on her own.  Those are the rushes of the game for Brenda now.  When she teaches a player how to do something and it works for them once every ten times in a game, she still gets a rush.   Those moments are what coaching is all about to her   Goals and wins are bonuses -they seemed so important when she played take a lower priority now.   What she strives for are the little battles, the little positives that happen and the look on somebody’s face when they get something right.    

 

The Hockey Philosopher

As someone who is relatively new to the sport, I wondered what changes Brenda had seen over the four decades she has been involved in hockey.  She told me she believed the game had become much more stick-aggressive.  She recalled how years ago, when players didn’t even wear a mask, they rarely got hit in the face with a stick, but when masks became the norm, there was little or no control over sticks. It was almost as if nobody cared anymore.  When she played, not only were there were no masks but there was full body contact.  Players were taught how to give a check and taught how to take a check in practice.  They had to be coached for it and Brenda became a firm believer that when a check is done properly; the game can be played properly.  

In Brenda’s opinion, one of the biggest differences has been the influx of the women referees and coaches.  The Canadian Women’s National Team has arguably performed better under female coaches.  Women are motivated differently and the women’s game is a different game to the men’s.  Yes, that same puck is carried the same way but women are thinkers and although it may sometimes be may be a slower game, it is a more methodical game. The greater involvement of women referees and coaches have been beneficial for this reason.

Overall it is very encouraging to hear how women’s hockey has grown. It is bigger now, the skill level has improved, the speed has increased, the coaching has improved, the equipment has improved and the recognition of the programs is getting there.  As long as there are coaches with the same philosophy as Brenda, I am very optimistic about continued growth of women’s hockey.

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