December 5, 2018

When No One Is Watching

By Blake Sloan

Blake Sloan

Husband, Father, Son, Brother, Grandson....Friend, Colleague, Teammate, Employee, Coach. Played six seasons in the National Hockey League and won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars. Played 8 years in Europe. Currently is working at Lejeune Steel.

During a game in Las Vegas, we had two forwards who got hurt; one forward was ejected from the game and another who was puking at the end of the bench because he was sick. My coach, Dave Tippett, looked down the bench, and said, “Sloan, come here. I need you to play forward for this period.”

“Coach, I have never played forward,” I said.

I was a defenseman. It’s what I knew.

Coach said, “It doesn’t matter. I need you to go up and down the wing, catch the pass, move the puck. It’s hockey. You can figure it out. I know you can do that.”

So, he threw me out at forward. I didn’t think I did anything special, but after the game, Tippett came up to me and said, “Blake, are you sure you never played forward before?”

“No, never.”

“You were really good. I think you could play at the next level doing this,” Coach said.

I appreciated what he said but just blew it off.

We came to the off-season, the end of my first year playing professionally in Houston, and I got a call from my agent.

He said, “Coach called. He wants you to play forward and defense next season, with your permission. He plans to tell you before each game what position you are going to play that night. What do you think?”

I said, “If he thinks that is what I should do and that is what he wants, then I’m in.”

I figured I wouldn’t be playing hockey forever. I knew I was a decent defenseman, but maybe I could play longer if I added forward–something new– to my bag of tricks. After all, at that point in my career, I was merely hoping to make it through my two-year contract and move on in life.

The next season started, and Coach moved me back and forth between positions between games, just as he said; however, he then started moving me between periods, and eventually, he started moving me between positions between shifts. I would kill penalties as a forward, and then play five on five as defense. It was really hard to shift my mind that quickly, but I was learning how to NOT think and just play. Most importantly, I was having fun and enjoying the added responsibilities.

The year went by, and soon we had 15 games left. Our record was 55-14-3. We had an unbelievable team. We had a critical weekend series against Kalamazoo, which was the farm team for the Dallas Stars. That week in practice, we were all fired up getting ready for the games. Coach pulled me aside and said, “You are going to play forward all weekend.” I didn’t think much about it. We had a couple of guys hurt, so I assumed he was filling in the holes. Little did I know, that the Dallas Stars scouts were coming over to Houston to watch the game. I was living in the moment, having fun, and feeling like a valuable part of the team. The Stars were there to see their Kalamazoo farm team, but they were also there to watch me, something I was entirely oblivious to. They had called coach before the weekend and asked him to play me at forward. I had no idea that a conversation had taken place.

The day following the weekend series, my apartment phone rang. It was my agent.

“What are you doing?” he asked me.

“I’m going to go hit golf balls. It’s my day off,” I said.

“You can’t today,” he told me.

“I have to go. Guys are waiting for me.”

“You have to wait by the phone for a few minutes. Bob Gainey is going to call you,” he said.

“Bob Gainey who?” I said knowing full-well who Bob Gainey was, but never imagining that he was referring to the GM of the Dallas Stars.

“One of the best two-way players to ever play the game, winner of 5 Stanley Cups, four-time Selke Award Winner, captain of the Montreal Canadiens, Hall of Famer,” my agent said, knowing full well I knew who he was talking about. He was having a little fun with me.

I interrupted, “Yeah, I know who he is, but what does he want?”

“He wants to talk to you about potentially joining the Stars for the remainder of the season and playing with them in the playoffs.”

It wasn’t making sense to me. Player’s names that played for the Stars started circulating in my mind… Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Eddie Belfour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Jere Lehtinen, Pat Verbeek, Guy Carbonneau et cetera et cetera. It was a lot for my 23-year-old self to handle.

Sure enough, Bob Gainey called 5 minutes later.

“This is Bob Gainey. I was at your games this weekend. We think you might be able to help our team for the remainder of the year. How do you think you might be might you be able to help us?” he asked.

I threw out a couple of thoughts, spoke from the heart and maybe was a bit self-critical.

“If you were to play for the Stars tomorrow night against the Edmonton Oilers, what can you do to help the team?” he asked.

My first thought was, “Carry your stick bags.” But, what came out was, a rambling, stuttering mess of thought. It must have sufficed.

Silence followed.

“I will work out the details with your agent. Pre-game skate tomorrow morning is at 10 am at Reunion Arena. Pack your things,” he said.

I had no idea what to say or do. I was playing well with my minor league team. I didn’t want to leave Houston for Dallas where I might just sniff pine and not see the ice. I was a contributor, a valuable member of my minor league team and I feared feeling the same uncomfortableness I had when first joining Houston a little over a year prior.

I called Coach Tippett to talk it through.

Coach said, “Blake if you are not in your car tonight, or if you are at my practice tomorrow morning, we will leave the ice together I will drive you to Dallas. Get into the car and go, and I don’t want to see you again this year playing for me. I only want to see you on TV,” he said.

There was nothing else to do at that point other than pack.

I walked into the locker room on my first day in Dallas to a folding chair up against a pillar with my name on it. The Stars had so many injuries they had no ‘real’ lockers left to give me. That folding chair was a constant reminder each and every day just how far I had come. I sat in that chair the next 14 games of the regular season and during the playoffs.

Dallas not only had amazing hall-of-fame players, but they had also already solidified home-ice in the playoffs with a 50-15-2 record.. They clinched the Western Division no muss one month prior. Long story short, I had only a 7 game “try out”…if I could crack the line-up and show the organization that they should keep me on the roster for their playoff run then I would stay. Otherwise, I would go back to Houston. There were only a few spots left to fill for the post-season roster that each team needed to announce less than two weeks later.

I was lucky enough to dress and play in 13 out of 14 of our last regular season games and then made the Dallas Stars playoff line-up for 19 of 21 postseason games. I was fortunate to play in our final game that year when Lord Stanley’s Cup was handed to Derian Hatcher in Buffalo after Brett Hull scored one of the most controversial goals in NHL playoff history. I truthfully had no idea what I was doing during the entire playoff run. We swept the Edmonton Oilers–home of the loudest fans on earth, beat a savage St. Louis Blues team in the second series, then traveled to Colorado where I first encountered Peter Forsberg–the fiercest opponent I ever ran into–literally. Our final match-up was against the Buffalo Sabres in the finals. I hoisted the Stanley Cup shortly before my 24th birthday and only three months after my first NHL hockey game. I was still not awake.

(Day with the Cup was started with a “special” 3v3 game at the rink I started playing at.  Three special people in my development in both hockey and in life— my dad (L) and Vee and Rick Lacroix)

I love to tell that story and felt and still feel incredibly proud to have been part of that team and to have had that experience in my life, but there is more to the pride than just this.  I know that for a kid like me to have been a part of that was definitely the result of a lot of good luck. The self-pride I feel about this incredible experience has more to do with all of the moments that led up to it.  

Maybe it was a natural by-product of never being even close to the most talented guy on the ice or maybe it was the product of being cut from teams I really wanted to make…but somewhere along the way I decided that I had to make every second count when I did have chances to play, to practice…everything.  I knew I couldn’t cut corners. I couldn’t take a day off. I had to have the discipline to do all of the little things right day in and day out to give myself any chance to succeed. I never expected that anyone was watching me and I wasn’t trying to impress anyone when I practiced or played…I was just trying to be a good teammate and do my best because I always had the fear that this would all come to an end soon.  I never had a sense of security about my next job or even the next day, and for me, that turned out to be a good thing. I learned to work really hard, all of the time. My greatest praise from coaches and teammates alike was never about goal-scoring or anything to do with hockey, but simply about how disciplined I was and how hard I worked. I committed to being the hardest worker at every practice, the hardest worker in every game and on every shift.  

Somewhere along the way before the Stanley Cup run, someone noticed this.  I know that it wasn’t the tremendous skill that the Stars wanted from me, but rather the security that they would get from someone who would give 100% from start to finish.  This is what I feel very proud of when I look back. I don’t feel like I wasted opportunities. I had a long hockey career filled with highs and lows, winning seasons and challenging seasons.  More teams that I made, and more that I didn’t. I don’t feel like I left anything on the table. There are many players that had far “better” careers than I did,  filled with many more goals, wins, NHL games, accomplishments…but at the end of the day, I feel like I gave my career everything I had and that’s all I can do.

What I learned from being an athlete:

Everyone has different talents, and there will always be someone who is “better” than you at something.  At times, especially when I was younger, I found myself being a bit envious of other players who were naturally faster, stronger, more skilled, given more opportunities than I thought I had.  As I matured, though, instead of focussing on this, I instead decided to make the absolute most of what I had been given. You don’t get to choose your talents, but even if I wasn’t as naturally talented as others, there was nothing that could stop me from out-working anyone and everyone around me. How hard I worked was my choice, and I truly believe that this was a reason I remained on some teams that I otherwise may have been cut from.  

How do I apply it to business:

The same principles apply in the business world.  Others may have more opportunities or seem to have advantages that you don’t have, but that shouldn’t ever stop you from trying harder, working harder to achieve your goals.  It is easy to get discouraged in defeat, but the most successful businesses will turn disappointment and defeat into motivation.

How do I relate it to youth sports:

Kids (and parents) today spend a lot of time focusing on what team they are on, what line they are on, how much time they get to play rather than focus on making the most of the situation they are currently in.  Defeat and disappointment are really necessary developmentally as I believe these are powerful motivators. This is what motivates me and many others to work harder and eventually play to my potential.

Linklete perspective:

I have seen many players/parents of players I have coached, mentored, played with, and been around really struggle with “coaches change”. “My kids should be playing center”, “Why would coach move my kid to the outfield he should be a shortstop”, “I am better/ My kid is better than…….”. This could even apply to the workplace, “why does ……….. get a promotion over me. I deserve it.”  Professional athletes are not immune to this either. I shared my story “I Deserved Better.”

Blake showed great humility and overcame pride by putting the team before self, and he was rewarded for that.  I have found that when you put others before yourself and celebrate others accomplishments, pride(which can be very toxic) gets drowned out.  This is a constant battle that is worth fighting- Corey Koskie- Linklete



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