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NEWS | Sept. 25, 2013

Everything I wanted to know about leadership I learned watching a hockey game

By Col. Jeff DeVore Joint Base Charleston commander

As a kid, I remember a cold February night back in 1980. The Winter Olympics were on television and the big event for the night was the United States versus the Soviet Union in ice hockey. The U.S. team was all amateur college students who had only started training together seven months prior to that cold February night. The Soviets, on the other hand, were a team of "professional" soldiers who had been playing together for years. The Soviets, by all accounts, were the best hockey team in the world. In a remarkable turn of events, the U.S. went on to win that game against the superior Soviets 4 to 3. Many refer to that game as the "Miracle on Ice" and it is regarded by most as the greatest sports moment in U.S. sports history because it was such an upset. How could 20 no-name college kids beat the best team in the world? Since that day, I was hooked on hockey, and in particular, how that game was played. I have watched the tape several times over the years. As I grew older, I remember referring back to that game for strategy lessons and looking at the leadership challenges the team faced. The interesting part, is a lot of what they faced as a hockey team back in 1980, we face as a nation and as service components today. See if you can make the connection.

The Team

Let me lay a little ground work first so you know where I am coming from. A hockey team puts six folks out on the ice at once; three forwards, two defenders and one goalie. The three forwards are the young officers and enlisted folks. They are the ones who attack the opposition goal and who are on the front line of the mission. They are your scorers. They control the tempo and are the most technically talented on the team. These are our captains, lieutenants, and our technical sergeants through airman.
Next you have the defenders. They are the senior officers and senior enlisted who keep the action in front of them. They deflect the opposition attack and look to exploit mismatches on the offensive end. These are your operations officers, enlisted superintendants/supervisors and first shirts.

And then there is the goalie. The commander. The last person who guards the line between success and failure. The one who is accountable for the net/mission. Letting a goal go by the commander is tough, because normally a big red light goes off, a fog horn sounds and 15,000 people stand up and scream. Regardless of the issue, it is the commander who is ultimately responsible and accountable for keeping the puck out of the net and keeping the goals against average as close to zero as possible.

Keeping a Balance

During a game (mission) the same folks don't stay out on the ice the whole time, they rotate players through shifts to keep fresh legs on the ice at all times. Each shift has a balance of speed, skill, and expertise. The 1980 U.S. Hockey Team did not have this balance in its early stages, they had to work on it constantly through training and practice. We in the military also do that with our personnel. We put certain shifts out during high tempo periods and adjust our shifts and composition based on the tasks (mission sets) we are encountering. When the strategy of the other team changes, we also adjust to adapt to the strategy and refocus our efforts.


Just like a sound hockey strategy, a sound military strategy must try to anticipate what the environment will look like and how we can shape that environment. Anticipation is a tough skill to learn and is often based on assumptions. That is why it is important for leaders to understand their environment to try and anticipate changes or issues before they become major problems. Arguably the best player to ever play hockey was Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky was a prolific scorer and had a sixth sense when it came to anticipation on the ice. He often said he never went to where the puck was, he instead always went to where he thought the puck was going to be. Sometimes he was wrong is his anticipation and assumptions, but as he gained experience, he often found himself in the right place and postured to score. Wayne Gretzky retired as the National Hockey League's highest scoring player, so he must have been on to something. The 1980 U.S. Hockey team also was very good at understanding anticipation. They actually learned this skill by mimicking the Soviet team. They used the Soviet style of play against the Soviets to watch their reactions and were able to understand their anticipation strategy. Leaders at all levels must be able to anticipate and show foresight. They have to develop the skill of going to where the puck is going to be and adapt their assumptions if they anticipate incorrectly.

The Power Play

In hockey, if a player commits an illegal play they are often sent to the penalty box for a few minutes and the other team gets to play with a man advantage during that time. This is affectionately known as a power play. The power play allows the team with the man advantage to attack the opposition net. They are able to pass easily and find more shooting lanes since the opposition is a man down. As a leader, you are always looking for power play opportunities ...a chance to light up the opposition red light. We see this in how we effectively allocate and use resources to ensure our military organizations have the training, skills and equipment they need to do their mission. If we can overwhelm the mission or issue, chances are a good result will happen.

The other perspective of the power play is when you are forced to play with less than the normal six players on the ice. This is because one of the players committed a penalty and it hurts the team. Playing a man down does not set you up to succeed, it forces the rest of the team to work harder to make up for the lost players skill and expertise. It also does not allow for many offensive opportunities as the team is reacting to the tempo rather than dictating it with a team at full strength. The military is no different. We have to have all our players out on the ice. When someone gets a DUI or has discipline problems that result in missed work time, the organization has to try and compensate. In a day of reduced military budgets and manning, organizations are constantly looking for ways to have an efficient and lean organization. Going a man down undermines an organizations ability to perform. Leaders must ensure they are doing as much as they can to mitigate discipline issues like DUI, etc ... or face the fact that the goals against average will go up.

The Big Win

When the final seconds ticked off the clock in the U.S. versus Soviet Union hockey game, the Americans went crazy on the ice in celebration. They had accomplished something that was unthinkable to most. As the celebration began, the U.S. goalie wrapped himself in an American flag and frantically searched the stands for his father. To that goalie, sharing that moment with his dad was important. As leaders in the military, we often share the same feeling. None of our success really matters without the support and balance of our families. Being able to share success and console failure with them is something that we must never take for granted with our people. Most of us are spouses, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, etc ... . Keeping a family balance ensures all of us are centered and allows us to be more effective in both the job and family.


Many people who remember the "Miracle on Ice" game often forget the U.S. still had to beat Finland two days later to actually win the Olympic gold medal. The team had to stay disciplined up until the very last seconds of that gold medal match to ensure the goal was reached. Leadership is no different. You have to keep discipline at the forefront of your operation for every second. Loss of focus or complacency can put the entire operation at risk and quickly erase a lot of hard work. It is a proven fact that discipline works. Don't let a cheap goal keep your team off the podium.

The Medal Ceremony

In 1980, 20 men overcame incredible odds to win an Olympic gold medal. They did it as a team. Success was never guaranteed and they had to fight for every second of every game. Seven months prior, the U.S. Coach, Herb Brooks, was being questioned by the U.S. Olympic Committee about not picking the best players for the team. His response was simple, yet profound. He stated, "I don't need the best players, I need the right players." As leaders we don't always get to pick our teams. And, we often are given vague guidance based on the ever changing environment we work in. But, by leading and uniting your people, amazing things can happen. Shape that team to have the "right" players so that everyone's role is covered down. You never know, in the end those folks just might create another "Miracle".