The Special Bonds of Championship Teams
April 17, 2018 5:13 AM
by Joe Battista
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There are few things in life that produce the pure joy and exhilaration of winning a championship as a team.

My wife and I just returned from a wonderful four-day reunion to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the 1998 Penn State Icers American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) National Championship. The reunion wasn’t held at Penn State, or even in the state of Pennsylvania. It was held at a resort in Cancun, Mexico. It was an amazing four days of renewing the special bonds of friendship shared by a championship team. Emphasis on “team.”

In sports, as in business, much has been researched and written about the importance of teamwork. We spend billions of dollars studying this topic and providing training to improve culture, teamwork, leadership and the other components of putting together successful teams and organizations.

I believe that we often overemphasize the importance of talent at the expense of chemistry and culture. Recruiting, hiring and developing selfless individuals who can work collaboratively can often create more powerful, synergistic results than a group of more talented employees or players. This is especially true if the talent is ego-driven or if it’s a member who simply wants to be left alone to do their own thing.

The reality is that you need both high-performing talent and collaborative team/organization members (preferably people who have both) to execute at a championship level. Intuitively we know this, but in practice I don’t believe we place enough emphasis on team cohesion. Even if we recognize and accept this to be true, activating it is a whole different situation.

My experiences have proven again and again that when you have the right mix of talents in place, it is still not a guarantee of success. High-performing personnel must be developed, must be engaged and must be committed to their colleagues and teammates. Sure, you must allow for individuality, but only in the context of the greater good. It requires time, attention and constant coaching to turn very diverse personalities into a focused, team-oriented collective.

Organizations and teams are made up of introverts, some who are painfully shy, and extroverts, some of whom are overly sociable. Groups have members that are highly competitive, and some who are poorly motivated. Getting them all to perform at their best is a tough task. Getting them to focus on a common goal and to be committed requires a lot of time, work and perseverance.

All championship teams understand the significance of a single-minded focus at some point. The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “Pragmatic Passion” about the 1998 Penn State team:

It was my 10th season as head coach at Penn State and we just hired a young, bold assistant coach named Scott Balboni. Scott helped re-energize our program, and me as a coach. One of the great inspirational sayings he brought with him from Providence College was, “When you cross the line, nothing else matters!”

It was a quote about focus and paying attention to the task at hand. If you “cross the line” by walking into a classroom or the library, then study, don’t socialize, check email, surf the web, or think about practice or the big game coming up. This is time to focus on academics and clear your mind of any other issues, most of which you have no control over. It is the same with work, family time and time with friends. Give them your focused attention.

We painted a white line on the flooring just before the players entered the ice surface for practice and games. It was their cue that for the next 90 minutes it was time to focus on hockey and not worry about their next test or homework assignment or think about their social plans. The team won a national championship and set a new team record for academic success in the classroom. Players still talk about the impact that the “crossing the line” message makes in their lives. Jason Zivkovic, an attorney in Pittsburgh, told me that he still thinks of that saying every time he steps into a courtroom. “In my professional life, just like in hockey, it takes a focused mind to be at my best. Crossing that line before entering the courtroom is that reminder that its game on.”

The 1998 team was like most successful teams, organizations, and families in that it navigated the adversity and external and internal conflicts that inevitably occur in any high-performing, close-knit teams. Their bonds as friends and teammates allowed them to be successful on and off the ice.

The 20th reunion included 17 players (out of a 27-player roster), two coaches, and five wives/girlfriend.  Players came from as far away as South Korea (Air Force Major Joe Bassett), Chicago (Anthony Annexy), Buffalo (Greg Held), New York City (Tom Westfall, Cam Brown), Greenwich, Conn. (Brent Brower), Southeast Florida (Jurgen Cautreels, Rob Shaner, Jamie Weston), Boston (Chris Reilly, Buff Shuttleworth), Philadelphia (Mike Pietrangelo, Rich Podulka), Pittsburgh (Mark Scally, Jason Zivkovic), Cleveland (Don Coyne) and Houston (John Sixt).

A few guys had very legitimate reasons they could not make it, including two that live in Europe, one that just had a child, one that recently got married, and one who just moved his business and family to a new state.

Off the ice, seven of the players went on to play minor professional hockey at various levels here and in Europe, before moving on to successful transitions in business and industry. Three of the players are partners in a very successful Internet marketing company; two are owner/operators of their own construction companies; three are attorneys; two are engineers, four are in the technology industry; one is a senior vice president of a real estate company; two work on Wall Street; one is in London as a hedge fund manager; one is a fireman/EMS; and one flies an F-16 fighter aircraft. 

Twenty years ago this group was an American Collegiate Hockey Association team without scholarships or varsity status. Even though we were labeled, “just a club team,” we tried our best to run the program as much like a varsity team as time and resources permitted. 

Perhaps it was that lack of respect from others that in part helped form such strong bonds within the team. Perhaps it was the “culture” of the Icer family that gave them additional incentive to win. I think it was team chemistry and leadership that played a crucial role in setting this team apart. The bonds that can, in many ways, still be seen today.

Scott Balboni, the current State High head hockey coach, played a lead role (along with his wife Sandy) in organizing the trip, the destination and the team celebration. Jason Zivkovic gave an excellent talk about the Icer family and all the support from volunteers as the reason for our success. Jason said it was the personal attention and relationships from the coaches and support staff of the Icers family that made us unique. 

Coach Balboni said a few words about the accomplishments of the team, and then it was my turn. Against all odds, I kept my speech brief, but still from the heart. Of course I didn’t make it through without crying. It was even more special as I hugged each player afterward and watched each of them embracing one another. These were my boys after all. Brothers, friends, family.

Team Captain Tom Westfall described the reunion this way: "We had a great turnout from the team with 19 former players/coaches and five spouses making the trip... by the end of the four days Riviera Maya had quickly become Valle Feliz (Spanish for Happy Valley) and they even invented a blue and white frozen drink to commemorate our celebration! We are!"

This team’s accomplishment was significant in the ACHA era of hockey at PSU because they sealed the deal, stopping arch rival Ohio’s three-year stranglehold on the Murdoch Cup en route to winning PSU’s third ACHA National title (1984, 1990). The boys outscored our opponents (Arizona, Eastern Michigan, Iowa State and Ohio University) by a combined 28-8 in Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum. Shutting out the host team from ISU in front of 6,000 fans in the semifinals went a long way in giving us the confidence to defeat our old nemesis from OU, 5-1, in the finals. 

Equally important was this team’s initiating a string of 10 consecutive national championship game appearances (winning four more in a row from 2000-2003). It doesn’t matter what sport or what level, playing in that many national championship games says a lot about the young men and their commitment to performing at the highest levels of their competition.

I am already looking forward to the 25th reunion to see how their lives have changed, how their kids have grown, and to hear about their new challenges and successes. The hockey stories may be old and oft repeated, and perhaps embellished a bit, but it doesn’t matter because they bring back the incredible feelings that only championship teams experience.  

If I could bottle that feeling and share it I would. If I could come up with the secret potion to give your team, or organization or family the chemistry and leadership required to earn that feeling I would. If only it were that easy.

I can promise this: The hard work, sacrifices, resiliency, and determination of championship teams, whether in sports or business, is well worth the price you pay. I hope that all of you someday get to feel that feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourselves.

I hope you get to experience the special bonds of being a part of a championship team.

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