It’s 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” is reverberating through the dressing room while the players discuss their Saturday nights.
Head coach Andrew Francella, a third-year concurrent education student, finishes filling up the team’s water bottles and comes out of the bathroom to try to motivate the 11 smiling faces waiting for him.
“Alright, guys, bring it in,” Francella says to his team, the Brantford Avengers. “We’ve been in the last few games we played and if we play hard and hustle, I think we can win this one.”
This morning, he’s wearing a navy hoodie, a pair of faded blue jeans and flashy grey Nikes as he lays out the strategy for the morning’s contest. He emphasizes that the team must continue working on clearing the puck off the boards in the defensive zone and setting up plays from the point on offence.
“But the most important thing today is what, guys?” Francella asks. “I’ll give you a hint: It starts with an ‘F.’”
“Fun!” shouts back one enthusiastic player.
Francella asks again, louder this time, and the whole team screams the answer back this time.
“You have to keep it light-hearted because when you’re learning you want to emphasize, ‘Yeah, you’re still learning, you’re not going to get everything right away,’” Francella said in an interview later. “That’s why making sure they’re having fun is the biggest thing so that when they make mistakes, they don’t get down on themselves.”
While most students are sleeping in, sometimes in an effort to get rid of a hangover, Francella has spent each Saturday and Sunday morning this year, waking up early to coach his team of eight- and nine-year-olds.
Francella was given the opportunity to coach kids hockey in September, when he received a phone call from the Brantford Minor Hockey Association novice commissioner, asking if he was still interested. Earlier in the summer, Francella wrote emails to various local organizations trying to get involved.
“I just want more experience working with kids and I hadn’t really had experience working with younger kids,” he said. “And with hockey and other sports, that’s just something I’ve always done and played so when I go into teaching I want to coach all of the teams.
“I want experience coaching, because later on when I become a teacher, I’d like to have experience.”
Things have not been entirely smooth over the course of the season for Francella. He said that though the parents on the team had no problem with his young age — compared to the other coaches, who are all fathers — he feels that he has been taken advantage of because of it, noting an imbalance among teams.
“There’s my team and another team that are at the bottom, and [the top-three teams] are just beating up on us — a lot of the games aren’t close,” Francella said. “And the whole reason I say it’s not balanced is because I think they purposely tried to manipulate me … being a young coach.
“For example,” he continued, “we drafted an [A-graded player] and if we had that player we’d be really balanced, but what happened is the convener took that player without any compensation and put him on his team. So his team is now the top, and we haven’t won yet, so at some point you have to say, is this really ethical? I know you want to win, but we haven’t won yet now.”
On top of that, Francella said that as the long seven-month season begins to wind down, he is absolutely drained from the time he has put in.
“The season is so long,” he said. “It runs from September to March, so all of my weekends in that time are dedicated to it. If anyone has plans out of town, I can’t make it, and with hockey on weekends and then practicum on Monday, it’s starting to drain.”
However, he said that despite the time commitment, he still loves it.
“I really love … coaching hockey; I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t,” he said with a smile.
When the game finally gets underway, Francella immediately looks at ease behind the bench, walking up and down it offering advice and encouragement to his players.
He manages his lines methodically like a young Scotty Bowman and rewards good play by throwing out more fist bumps than Barney Stinson.
The Avengers, who have struggled this season and are still looking for their first win, find themselves in the game against the league’s best team. After the first period, the game is tied 2–2.
When the second period gets underway, however, the Avengers begin to fall behind. Though the name of the game is still fun, Francella grimaces with pain and looks away when his team falls behind by three goals — the fire of competition still burns inside him.
At the end of the second period, the Avengers are down 6–2, so Francella calls the team in and tries to ignite that same fire in his players.
“Alright, guys. We’re down four, but there’s a lot of time left,” he says. “You guys are playing great, just continue to hustle and keep shooting.”
And to an extent, it works. The Avengers start to buzz in the opponents’ zone and one player gets sprung on a breakaway before being hauled down by a diving defender. As natural instinct, Francella yells, “That’s a trip, ref!” before remembering where he was and the not-so-competitive level of play.
As the final seconds tick off the clock, Francella reminds his players to get out on the ice and congratulate their goalie when the game ends.
The Avengers finish on the wrong end of an 8–2 tally, but he refuses to let them be discouraged.
In the dressing room post-game, he calls for his team to give three cheers for their goalie, and upon hearing the first one, calls for a second cheer — only louder this time.