Leaders, teams and garage leagues

What can hockey garage leagues teach us about teams and leadership?

Steffan Surdek
April 3, 2015
Ice hockey featured

For many years, I played hockey in different garage leagues close to where I live. Picture for a moment twenty guys, forty years old and over, desperately trying to create their personal Sportscenter highlight reel moment, all the while claiming they are "just playing for fun". During all this fun, over the last few years, I started seriously asking myself what leadership should look like in a garage league. I also started drawing some interesting parallels to the workplace that I wanted to share.

Are we truly a team?

There are two types of hockey garage leagues where I live. One type with many teams playing against one another and another type where twenty guys split up in two teams that play against one another week after week. I will focus mainly on the second type in this article.

In the garage leagues with only two teams, you will often see the same core group of players year after year and every year there is a small injection of new players to compensate for the ones that are not returning from the previous season. In some of these leagues, the players will sometimes flip around between teams all season to keep things fresh and ensure players get a chance to play with everyone throughout the season.

Working as a team coach, the big question that hits me a few times each season is whether or not we are truly a “team” in the true sense of the word or are we just a group of individuals that get together to play some hockey every week. On some nights, I often wonder if we all have the same definition of the word. Aside from team members wearing the same jersey on each side, what allows us to call ourselves a team?

If we were truly a team, I would expect that we would have someone to coach us or at a minimum, we would have practices between our weekly games to learn how to play better together. Funny, come to think of it, I cannot remember the last time I went to any such practice in the last ten years.

One could argue that playing together for five or six seasons would bring part of this knowledge and practice but for me, the question remains around are we really a “team” in the true sense of the word?

What does leadership look like in this context?

Put a group of men together to play sports and you will find many different levels of competitiveness. For some, this weekly game is an opportunity to have fun with the boys while for others it is so serious it looks like they are playing the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final every single week. Because of the wide difference between these two perspectives, I sometimes have a hard time identifying what constitutes leadership in this context?

In a real team, at work just as in sports, some would expect leaders to lead the charge and demand everyone on the team brings their best effort. Does this expectation still make sense when many people are in the league mainly as a means to have a fun night out with the boys?

Here are some of the ways that we could potentially define leadership in a garage league:

  • The leaders are the stars that score many of the goals, make others great and show a strong will to win
  • The leaders are the players that “motivate” their team mates by getting frustrated and screaming at other players when things do not go their way
  • The leaders are the ones that demonstrate a sense of fair play and encourage others to have fun and play to the best of their ability?

Any of these three can potentially be right, but the answer depends on the perspective that you take.

Are the organizers the de facto leaders?

Instead of the players, should we consider the league organizers as the leaders? I guess maybe we should ask them how they perceive themselves but could they hold the perspective they are merely the organizers but they are not leaders in the league?

If they were the leaders, what does this mean for them? Does it mean their behaviour on the ice reflects what they expect from the other players? How does their behaviour, good or bad, affect the behaviour of the other players on the ice?

One of the big traps of leadership is the lack of conscious leadership because sometimes, we do not realize the people around us even perceive us as leaders. We do not always see that people are following us have expectations towards us and we do not realize our influence on them.

How does all this apply to the workplace?

In our professional lives, many of us find ourselves working as part of a team. How about we take some of the ideas above and see what we can learn from them.

In our workplaces, what really binds us together as a team? Do we have a shared vision and common objectives? What do we do to regularly and consciously practice becoming a better team? In the garage leagues, players do not always have the time to schedule time together between the weekly games to develop their on-ice chemistry together. In our workplaces, the pace is often so fast and the attention paid to results is so high that we do not always have the time to work on becoming the team we want to be.

Instead of assuming the league organizers are leaders, in the workplace, we may assume our managers, directors and upper management are the leaders and this may cause us not bring our own leadership to the workplace.

Instead of on-ice leaders being the players with a sense of fair play that are there to have fun with the boys, in the workplace we may find team members that are there mainly to do their work and collect their pay checks. These team members will typically align themselves with the majority and will not rock the boat. Many of these people are very dedicated to their employers and want to do the right things but many they accept things happening around them as things that will never change.

Instead of on-ice leaders that scream and bully other team members when things are going badly, in the workplace we may find team members that are never happy and that have a gift of identifying problems without ever doing anything to contribute to resolving them. Some of these are unfortunately truly in leadership roles with command and control tendencies while others are disgruntled employees that others may not want as part of their team.

Instead of the on-ice star players that score goals and push others towards greatness, in the workplace, we may find the change agents that are trying to lead change and make a real difference in the organization. Many of these seem to have boundless energy while others are exhausted after spending so many years leading change without having made the impact they were hoping for in their organization.

In your professional workplace, what represents leadership for you? How do you bring together this collection of people around you and help them become an epic team?


Leadership takes many different forms depending on the context we find ourselves in. There is no magic formula but remember that leadership also exists way outside the context of the workplace. Real teams happen with conscious leadership and a conscious desire to become a team. The first step is to have a shared vision and common objectives and the next step is creating ways to regularly practice being a team together as well as develop your team cohesiveness.

What does your team look like in your workplace? Do you have a shared vision and common objectives you want to reach together? What are your ways of consciously practicing to become the team you want to be?