“Here ya go, Big Z.”
“Thanks, Glen; here you go, Bergie.”
“Thanks, Big Z.”
And so it went as the Boston Bruins tossed a tennis ball from to one another last Friday on the back lawn of a secluded home in Morrisville.
The team of 27 stood in a circle. The players had to call out the name of the teammate they were throwing the ball to. After making the catch, the recipient had to thank the teammate who had thrown it. Once the ball had gone around once, team-building instructor Frank Wilson added other objects — a beanbag animal and a softball — which the team threw around, in the same order as before, all at the same time.
Soon, a cacophony of sound was echoing across the quiet autumn hillside. The sight of big, muscular National Hockey League players heaving strange objects to one another and politely thanking each other after every catch was surreal, to say the least.
Next, Wilson stepped it up another notch.
“How fast do you think we could do it?” Wilson asked the team.
The team had to use one ball; the ball had to change possession in the same, original order.
Veteran Glen Murray said 45 seconds. Others thought less.
“Under a minute, for sure,” said 6-foot-9 All-Star defensemen Zdeno Chara.
Other Bruins thought that, since there were 27 guys, 30 seconds seemed an obtainable goal.
After some trial and error, which included lining up and handing the ball to one another — which took 11 seconds — the team decided to let gravity do the work.
The team lined up in parallel, staggered lines down the sloped lawn. Each player, in order, lightly tapped the ball as it rolled down the hill. The final time: 5.6 seconds.
“We did quite a bit better than those initial goals. I heard, ‘We have 27 players so let’s shoot for 30 seconds just to be safe,’” Wilson told the players. “The lesson is to challenge yourselves as individuals and as a team, not to just go for the goals that are safe. When we work as a group, it is truly amazing what you can accomplish.”
Wilson, 49, has owned Ten Acres Lodge in Stowe for the last three years. Before that, he spent four years as director of human services in Asia for Nokia, the technology company. He traveled the world, leading team-building exercises for corporations and top executive teams.
When the Bruins decided to visit the Stowe area for a few days of practice, rest and relaxation, the coaching staff contacted Wilson out of the blue. The Ten Acres Lodge Web site advertises team-building retreats, but Wilson said that, in his three years of owning the lodge, no group had asked him to lead a session before the Bruins did.
“I’m very excited to get back into it,” Wilson said. “I miss the work I used to do.”
From the Bruins’ perspective, the serene setting of a Vermont autumn was a perfect location for these activities.
“I had the opportunity to come to Stowe with my wife a couple of years ago and really loved it here, and looked around and figured if everything fell into place, it would be a great place for our team to come and do some team-building,” said Claude Julien, who’s starting his first year as the Bruins’ head coach.
Some people see team-building as a touchy-feely experience, something you wouldn’t expect burly hockey players to try, but Julien has used these exercises in the past.
“I did it with the junior team I coached when I first started coaching, and I did it with the Montreal Canadiens when I was with them,” he said. “I decided to go with our team this year.
“This is the first time the Bruins have ever done this so it’s kind of new. It’s probably going to help our team get to know each other better, bond together. We realize how important a good start to our season is, so we want to put the odds on our side.”
Finding your way
Julien and his staff saw a team benefit in orienteering, and Wilson teamed with Laura Streets, owner of LLS Events in Morrisville, to set up and lead that exercise.
The players huddled around Streets as she explained what the team was going to do.
“Is anyone here familiar with topography maps?” she asked.
After a pause, one player asked, “Who?” and the whole team burst out laughing.
The exercise, Streets explained, is about navigation and teamwork. Using a compass, maps and a list of coordinates, the Bruins had to navigate 200 acres of woods to find and pick up 30 targets — essentially laminated, colored index cards.
Streets, keeping with the team-building theme, made it a competition. Each target was in one of three zones. Targets in zone three, the farthest away, were worth three points each; targets in zone one, the closest, were worth a point.
The Bruins broke into two teams of 14 and 13, and in those teams they divided into pairs. The players were given an hour to get the targets at all 30 locations.
The teams had to figure out which pairs were going after which targets; if a team came back with duplicates, it would be penalized.
After a few minutes of precious discussion and strategy, the teams were off. At first, many walked briskly toward to wooded trails. Then, noticing the opposition was picking up the pace, the players jogged, then made a full-out dash through the woods.
Twenty-five minutes into the competition, Murray and his partner popped out from a thick part of the forest at least 100 feet from where they had entered it. They were muddy, sweaty, drenched and were breathing heavily.
“Great, are you done?” Streets asked as they jogged by.
“No, we’re going to help,” said Murray, out of breath.
The pair darted back into the woods after depositing the targets they were assigned by their team to collect.
After 20 more minutes, players from both teams began to emerge from the woods. Like Murray, they were muddy and sweaty. Some had brambles stuck to their clothes, others had some scratches from thorns and thickets — but everybody was having a good time.
The players were looking at what had been collected, wondering if teammates who had not returned were ever coming back. They joked and jawed, as you would imagine young, competitive men do.
One player was crying foul.
“We went to try and find three of our (targets) and they were underneath branches and leaves, not where they were supposed to be. There was like a nest of leaves sitting next to the tree,” he said as the other team, overhearing the conversation, made no attempt to hide the laughter. “Yeah, laugh it up,” he said.
The killer is, “we almost did that to them but then we said, ‘no, it’s not fair,’” he said.
Time was ticking away and still not everyone was back. Under the rules, a team not returning in an hour forfeits the targets and points it had collected.
As the time left dwindled, players started hollering into the woods for their teammates to return.
At the last possible moment, a couple of tired, drenched groups were seen slowly ambling up the wooded trail. An uproarious cheer went through the forest as the players saw their lost teammates returning.
“Run! Let’s go! Come on! Hurry!” excited hockey players screamed in unison.
As the points were tallied, Wilson talked to the players. At first, he commented on Murray’s trip back into the woods after he had already found his markers.
“Why do that? You were finished; you could have just come on back,” Wilson said.
“We wanted to win,” Murray said.
That’s what Wilson wanted to hear.
“Just because your job is finished doesn’t mean the job is done,” Wilson told the team. “You went out and helped your teammates succeed. It was excellent to see that.
“A lot of you worked really hard at this; all you have to do is look at you. You were individually working hard, but it was for the greater good, wasn’t it? Individuals might win games but teams win championships. (If you) don’t do all your parts, you don’t win.”
When he confronted the players about the shady behavior of hiding the targets, Bruins forward Marc Savard, who was eighth in the NHL last season in scoring, had a solid defense.
“We camouflaged the (targets) so our teammates would know that our team had already been there, so they knew not to touch those,” Savard said, as everybody burst out laughing.
“No, not Savard,” one teammate said sarcastically.
‘They go all-out’
That kind of ultra-competitive behavior is common for pro athletes, said Coach Julien.
“The competitive nature of these athletes is incredible,” he said. “Whenever they are challenged to do something, they go all-out. That’s how they’ve been brought up and I think that’s what you saw, but they had real good laughs out there and had a lot of fun, and I think that was the whole point behind it.”
The captain agreed: “You could see guys were taking it seriously, it was a little competitive, but we also had lots of fun and that’s what it’s all about,” Zdeno Chara said.
The Bruins walked back to the house and Wilson put them back to work.
In one exercise, the players were blindfolded and told to locate a rope, untangle it, and form a two-dimensional hockey stick with it. Walking around, unable to see, the players were muttering, laughing and walking all around, unable to find the rope. Then Chara took over, and instructed his teammates to join hands to recover the rope.
“We’re all a part of it, but to be able to hear what the game plan is, sometimes you have to sit and listen to what the leader is saying. That’s when you started to jell and got things done quickly,” Wilson told the team afterward.
The players actually made a pretty decent hockey stick, fit with a knob, a shaft and a blade.
‘The Twilight Zone’
Next, Wilson showed the team how he could push down the horizontally outstretched arms of 6-footer Marco Sturm and Glenn Murray, 6-foot-3, just by telling them to think negative thoughts.
When Sturm and Murray were thinking happy thoughts, Wilson couldn’t come close to pushing the powerful forwards’ arms down.
Next, the team was instructed to collectively think positive or negative thoughts about the two players. Murray and Sturm weren’t privy to what their teammates were thinking, but without fail, if the team was secretly told to think negative thoughts, Murray and Sturm went weak.
“It’s ‘Twilight Zone’ stuff, isn’t it?” Wilson said.
The lesson: “You feed off each other,” Wilson said. “Individuals win games; teams win championships. It is absolutely amazing how much stronger you can be when collectively, as a group, you trust each other and have positive energy.”
Coach Julien said these exercises worked well when he was the Montreal coach. Team-building works, and the players like it, he said.
“Training camp is pretty grueling, and this is a chance to just to get out of the everyday surroundings and get yourself in a different environment,” he said. “This is obviously a more relaxed atmosphere and we’re hoping it’s going to help us get our second wind.”
Patrice Bergeron, 22, a Bruins player for three seasons, looked at the session as a way for the team to connect before the regular season starts Friday in Dallas.
“I’ve never done (team-building). You could say it’s a new strategy, but I think it’s part of building team chemistry, team spirit, and training camp is the best way to do it,” he said.
Wilson said the Bruins brass liked the team-building experience.
“It was a leap of faith by them to just find someone on the Internet, but they were very pleased with how it turned out,” Wilson said. “They thought there were some very good messages in there.”
Wilson said he was “overjoyed with how much they got into it and how they responded and participated. When they made a mistake, they seemed anxious to learn from it. They seem to have a good nucleus of a team that already exists.”
Wilson said Julien and the Bruins front office had brief discussions about making team-building sessions an annual event.
Will the Bruins return to Stowe?
“Upper management seemed pretty pleased about the idea of (coming to Vermont) and look at these surroundings,” Julien said. “It’s really looking good, and certainly a good start to the season would validate that and give us that urge to come back.”
Chara said he and his teammates had a good time, and these sorts of activities really are important to team success.
“It’s really neat to have the whole team away from the rink and doing something a little different than being on the ice and around the whole hockey environment,” he said. “When you get away, especially from the rink, the media, the town, and are spending quality time with teammates and everybody together doing different kinds of activities, it’s fun to do and also brings the team closer together. You need that, you need to relax a little bit, especially mentally.”
Bruins invade the Nail
After a muddy day in the woods, the Boston Bruins canceled practice on Saturday and went on a different kind of excursion.
The team — reportedly at the suggestion of goalie Tim Thomas, who played for the University of Vermont — went out to the Rusty Nail nightclub in Stowe.
Fans got a chance to rub shoulders with their favorite players and the Bruins looked to be thoroughly enjoying themselves and the band, Last Kid Picked.
Many players huddled around the television to watch the baseball pennant races unfold on ESPN. You could hear a cheer late in the night, when the New York Yankees lost in extra innings to give the Boston Red Sox the American League East division title.
When the house lights went on at closing time, at about 2 a.m., many of the players were still having a good time. A Peg’s Pickup van took the late-partying players back to Topnotch Resort, where the team stayed during its time in Stowe.
Four don’t make it
A couple of days after Boston Bruins trip to Vermont, four players received bad news: They didn’t make the big club.
General Manager Peter Chiarelli sent defenseman Matt Hunwick and forwards Petteri Nokelainen and Nate Thompson to Providence of the American Hockey League, the Bruins’ minor league affiliate.
He also put Jeff Hoggan on waivers, meaning any of the other NHL teams can claim him. Every NHL team had to trim its roster to 23 before the regular season.
The Bruins open Friday in Dallas.