When John Imperiale walked away from behind the bench after years as a youth hockey coach, he admits to feeling just a little bit disillusioned by the direction that the game was taking.
“I’ve been in hockey for awhile and you see these coaches making promises and parents kind of scrambling for the higher level, but it’s just an elite few that go on, not even to play pro but to make money playing hockey,” Imperiale said. “People lose sight of that.”
A chance to coach older kids — teenagers on the brink of becoming young men — brought the love back into the game for Imperiale.
“For me coming back, I wanted to get back to the grassroots stuff where you have a coach and built those relationships where you could count on the coach,” Imperiale explained. “I find that’s a little bit lost now in minor hockey. There’s too much money to be made and it had just kind of gone sideways for me, to be honest.”
A good friend operates the Mississauga Beast organization in the GTHL. His AA team of ‘04s were suddenly without a coach on the eve of the season. He called Imperiale to gauge his interest in taking over the role.
“Reluctantly, I said yes but I’m glad I did,” Imperiale said. “It was fun.”
Coaching a group of players who weren’t focused on chasing the elusive dream of becoming NHLers, Imperiale was able to connect with these kids on another level.
Most were facing life-altering decisions away from the rink. Would they go to university or college? Would they be entering the workforce? Was it time to cut the cord and move away from home?
“They are young men but they’re also still kids,” Imperiale said. “They’re going right out of Grade 12 into university. A lot of these kids have no clue what they want to do. They’re trying to pick out a career right out of Grade 12.”
Imperiale coached this group for four years, through their U18 season. He found another method to connect with them by bringing sons Nicolas and Michael behind the bench as assistant coaches. Nicolas served the first three years before moving to Alberta, where he’s coaching with the Calgary Buffaloes. Michael took over for Nicolas this season.
“And I brought one of (Michael’s) friends who also coached on the bench,” Imperiale said. “Just to have them on the bench, guys who are close in age to the players, was of real value to those kids. They can talk about university, they can talk about girls and relationships.
“For me, I’m an older guy. They’re not going to talk to me about those things. They can relate a lot better to (Michael) because they’re closer in age. That was a good thing this year as well, to have that support mechanism.”
All of these kids are trying to figure out where life is going to next take them. As much as it was about X’s and O’s, coaching strategy for Imperiale was also quite frequently devoted to life lessons.
“Some of these kids are planning to go to junior camps and try out but it’s not an easy thing to do, cracking a junior lineup out of AA,” Imperiale said. “Still, I encourage that. Take your chance. You don’t want to have any regrets at the end of the day. See where it takes you.”
There are other ways to stay in the game, and he sought to emphasize that with his players as well.
“They see they the opportunity of coaching and some of them even asked me if you need me to come to your practices with the younger guys, help out with some drills,” Imperiale said.
“That’s what I also kind of want to do is build that coaching tree. My older son is off doing his thing and he’s going to pass on that knowledge. My younger son, he’s going to pass on that knowledge. Just kind of building that good foundation of coaching practices along the way.”
“I was coaching and I was at the rink and I ran into two of my old players who are coaching in another organization. Some of these kids are going on to have successful careers coaching and working with kids and really getting an appreciation for that. That comes from having a good coach. You see what that coach has given to you and what you’ve learned from it. If you had a bad coaching experience, you probably won’t go into coaching. But if you’ve had positive experiences, you might at the end of the day.”
His tenure with this group of kids at an end, Imperiale is going back to work with younger players next season.
“After this U18 team, I’m dropping down to U13,” Imperiale said. “So I’m kind of starting this whole thing again, and I’ll take this team as far as they want me and try to build those same relationships along the way.”
He still sees concerns with the way youth hockey works today but is determined that it won’t impact the approach that he takes to working with young players in order to help them grow as both players and people.
“The way the structure is set up, people are worrying about where they are going next year before the season even ends,” imperiale said. “Another problem is helicopter parenting. When my father signed me up, I kind of begged him to let me play. Now they’re signing up their kids before the kids are even asking to play sports.
“These days, parents are into everybody’s business. I think that’s the deterrent for volunteer coaches is the parents. It’s not the kids. They love working with the kids. It’s the parents that are watching little Johnny’s every move and every reaction to the coach. It’s just getting a little ridiculous.
“They see a different game. As a coach, you’re watching how the team is doing. As a parent, you’re watching how your kid is doing. It’s a very different perspective. I’ll continue to coach until the parents get to be too much. The kids just want to play and have fun.”