It was a cold, damp fall morning. Sunday October 2nd 2016. The Canton 12U non-tournament bound team was having their first practice and Coach Newman and I had been asked to coach the team. Organization was a little late with getting this team together. All Brian Coakley had told me was that I was getting a great group of kids with a supportive parent group. This was essentially going to be a group of the kids who hadn’t been placed on any of the local select teams. To say that I had no idea what I was going to get would have been an understatement.
That morning I woke early. Very excited for my first practice coaching in Canton and in the rink that I grew up playing in. I was excited to meet the kids and the parents that I would be working with all winter long. I had my practice plan and my coaching equipment together and I had to stop by the Coakley’s to pick up the team’s pucks and water bottles from their garage. On my way down the driveway (pucks and water bottles in hand) I smelled an all too familiar scent for any dog owner. Yup, dog crap! I tracked it all the way down the Coakley’s driveway and now was going to have to go back home for a shoe change. I mean, first impressions are important, and I surely did not want everyone thinking that was my permanent scent!
When I got to the rink I realized that I was the first one there. I guess maybe I was the most excited. It wasn’t long that a young boy walked into the rink through the swinging doors. His stick in hand, bag slung over his shoulder, I noticed that his bag was much bigger than him.
He introduced himself as Scotty and after he geared up we hopped on the ice together. It was just him and I. I’m not fabricating this. Scotty was literally the first Canton kid I was on the ice with as a coach here. I was quickly impressed with his skating ability and the fact that he was so good on his edges. A wave of relief washed over me when he told me he played defense. My kind of kid! I got really excited because if this was the first look at the type of players I would be coaching, we were going to be a good team!
Some time went on and by 8 a.m. we had our team. Well… not really. There were only four kids. Coach Newman and I quickly adjusted the practice plan and moved forward. Shoot, we need more bodies. And a goalie. When I walked into the lobby I was met by the small group of parents who had many questions for me.
“Where are the rest of them?”
“Will we have a team?”
“Who will be our goalie?”
All valid concerns. What I had already learned is that in this climate of minor hockey you really had to have your players registered and rostered before the year began. We did not. Instead of adding more concern I took a risk. And I told the parents that yes, we would have a team. I would find more players, and a goalie. It was definitely a gamble. But, I knew that if I could just get a few more kids I could build a little team around Scotty. He would be the example and we would stress having fun and improving.
With the help of some parents and Brian Coakley we acquired a few more Canton kids, a couple Canton Blades players and some Potsdam kids. Dougie Premo came over from Ogdensburg and just like that we had a team! It was a rag-tag bunch but I liked it. They were a fun group of kids and one player specifically made coaching that team a little more than just making sure a group of kids had fun.
Scotty Ahlfeld wanted to learn and he wanted to win. As a coach there was nothing not to like. He was focused, coachable and fierce in competition. I could tell he was the one feeling the frustrations when we got our butts handed to us in our first few games. I encouraged him to be a leader for the group and remain positive. He was able to keep the ship afloat long enough for the team to see their improvements pay off. The wins started to come and the losses started to not be as bad.
I can’t give enough credit to 12-year-old Scotty for what he did with that group. Because of him, an entire group was able to improve vastly over the course of a year, just by playing with him. I think I speak for Coach Newman as well when I say that he certainly helped us as coaches that year.
Fast forward two years later and now I am taking the reins of the Canton Varsity Team. It wasn’t lost on me that Scotty was now a freshman. And knowing Scotty I knew that he was going to force me to make a difficult decision. I am almost certain that Scotty was the smallest kid to ever go out for the Varsity team. As a coach, my job now was not only to protect players by not putting them in over their heads, but to also select the best players to be on the ice each day.
On day one, the Senior Captains were captivated by this little guy who was buzzing around the ice. They were impressed, humored, and inspired all at the same time. And when Scotty marched from the rookie room to the Bears Den in his towel to shower with the older guys it was clear to them at least that he was here to stay.
Throughout that week Scotty did exactly what I thought he would do. He forced his way onto the team and didn’t back down from anything. Although Scotty hadn’t grown physically at the rate he probably needed to, it was clear that his heart was going at a different growth rate. Still, there was no way I could really put him out in a game. We had at least seven older defenseman and I certainly did not want to put him in a dangerous spot. But, as the season went on his effort never waivered. Instead, his passion and drive may have increased. Even when he took a hard shot from Cooper Waters in the leg he couldn’t wait to get back to practice. Sam Martin summed up so well his value to the team that year, “he pushed others around him day in and day out. He was a hard worker even though he knew it would be tough to get time his first couple years.”
As playoffs inched closer I decided to order two new sets of jerseys. One for Scotty and one for his teammate Tanner Hazelton. They both had earned them and earned the opportunity to dress with the rest of the team from then on. His work ethic was infectious and definitely inspired his teammates. Jack Finnerty had this to say about his year playing with Scotty; “he just never backed down in drills or scrimmages despite his size being so different than everyone else’s.”
Coach Jake Ladouceur, who was Scotty’s Bantam coach that year, was constantly in my ear about how great Scotty was as a player and kid. Again, Scotty was leading a minor hockey team that desperately needed him. “I know, I know, Jake” was often my response. But, I knew exactly what Jake was experiencing coaching him.
So when Monroe-Woodbury came to town for the State quarterfinal at the Pavilion it was Scotty’s time to dress. I have to admit that I didn’t even add Scotty to the line chart. I mean, he’s not getting in right?
Something I was reminded of that day? Always believe in Scotty and don’t deny him opportunity. So when we got up a few goals and there were just a few minutes remaining, the crowd who had taken notice of Scotty’s dressing had other plans for him. When his name started getting chanted I knew I had to do it. I sent him out on forward with two of the program’s most prolific goal scorers in Sam Martin and Jack Finnerty.
I thought, “jeeze if they set him up and he scores the roof is gonna blow off the place.” It almost happened. Literally three inches just wide of an empty net. The crowd still erupted with a united “OH!”
And when Scotty’s shift was over he came back down to the middle of the bench to me. I will never forget the smile and size of his eyes. His look said it all.
At this point I thought Scotty’s day was over. Nope. Again the student section started back in with the “Scotty! Scotty! Scotty!” chants. And at that moment it felt like the entire crowd was staring right at me. That feeling was affirmed when I motioned to send him back down to the door. The crowd erupted. He wasn’t even on the ice yet! What a celebrity.
It was definitely great to see everyone support him and obviously made for a great story. But, I didn’t like how people were viewing him as a sort of novelty. I mean, this kid is legit. He’s going to be seriously good! When I saw my Mom after that game she remarked that the moment was “cute.” And then she got the look. Anyone who knows me well knows “the look.” I told her “you just wait.” And I left it at that.
As time went on during his Sophomore year people began to see the player that Scotty was going to be. Some knew he was going to be good and I am sure others doubted him. What I knew was that Scotty has the heart of a lion and that his heart could make anyone a better person. It’s his heart and drive that has made him into a great varsity player. He plays a tough position for being “undersized.” He was going to need all of that heart to get where he wanted to be.
This summer Coach Newman and I already had Scotty tabbed as the team’s first Captain. There was never a doubt. Sure, we discussed it but the conversations always ended with us calling him our perfect captain. We felt he had a voice that could carry in the locker room and that he was also going to be a player that we would rely on heavily on the ice. The captaincy set him up for a senior year that would be a perfect culmination of everything that Scotty has worked for and overcome.
This year Scotty has been everything and more. For most of the year he was the only captain of a team that lost several players to graduation and prep school last year. He has handled his difficult position with the poise and focus that gives any leader a blueprint for success.
This year Scotty has been a presence on our blueline. Shutting down other teams top players and delivering some clean but very nasty hits. Not so cute anymore eh Mom?
When I watched Scotty get his first Varsity goal this year (assisted by brother JJ) I could not have been happier to see him rewarded. And now, he’s got the train rolling. As he leads our team into the playoffs I could not be more happy with the success he has had and is going to have. I firmly believe that with him and our other leaders we are in prime position for playoff success.
Aside from the on-ice stuff as senior day nears I am reminded that my time at the rink is winding down with my first Canton player. I didn’t know all those years ago about the relationship that I would build with Scotty or with any one player. I have been lucky to coach a core group for so many years. It’s a unique situation that not many coaches get to experience and I am fortunate to have had it with Scotty. The rest will be graduating next year but this year marks the beginning of the end.
In reflection, l have so many great memories of the ups, downs, and most importantly, the learning experiences. It’s players like Scotty that can teach a coach as much as a coach can teach a player. Maybe not so much about hockey but about life and overcoming certain things.
I have never, until now, made Scotty’s size a story because I never thought it needed to be. He let his play and work ethic do all the talking for him. And whatever others thought at the end of the day didn’t really matter. I think that’s a simple strategy for life. No matter what hand you are dealt you are always able to work hard and improve. It seems so simple but I am humble enough to admit that everything Scotty has taught me or reminded me of was always needed.
It would be very remiss of me if I didn’t mention Scotty’s parents Bob and Shelly. They simply have been great. They both have been very supportive of me in so many ways and in getting to know them it is clear how they raised such a great kid. They both should be and are very proud.
We don’t often have people that walk into our lives and make a profound, lasting impact. I have been so lucky to coach Scotty and watch him grow on and off the ice over all these years.
I know that no matter what his future brings, that he will be successful. I hope that the life lessons he learned at the rink through all of his experiences stick with him.
Gonna miss you 37,
Coach Newman had this to share about his experience over the years with Scotty:
As the first player we coached both in Peewees and all the way through varsity, I cherish my relationship with Scotty. He was one of the first players I met when I showed up that first day I coached Canton hockey, and I knew right away he was going to be someone who made an impact on me for years to come.
My most vivid memory of Scotty has to be the first game he ever dressed for on the varsity team. He got a jersey for the State Quarterfinal game at home against Monroe-Woodbury our first year as high school coaches. Once we had a multi-goal lead, the crowd began chanting “we want Scotty!” and I had to smile because internally, I was rooting for the same thing. Seeing him get out there and hearing the crowd cheer him on is something I will never forget.
Scotty has been a reliable, dedicated, team oriented player for us for his entire career. He earned everything he’s accomplished. We are lucky to have had him as a team member and captain for the Golden Bears.