Vince Lombardi was credited with the previously mentioned quote, “Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.” If there is truth to the legendary coach’s statement and I am building a team, all other things being equal, I will take the player who experienced team success at an early age over the one who played for a perennial loser 99 times out of 100.
When I began thinking about this topic and examples of players whose early time spent on winning teams contributed to their development as athletes and future team success in the form of Stanley Cup rings, guys like Chris Drury and Scott Niedermayer came to mind. Drury’s story of childhood stardom and team success on the baseball field when he led Trumbull, CT to the Little League World Series in 1989 has been well documented and was no doubt the type of experience that could teach a young athlete a great deal about competing on the games biggest stage, give him the confidence to strive in pressure situations, and jump start that habit of winning. Five years later, Drury would join Jack Parker and the Boston university Terriers where over the next four years, winning on Commonwealth Avenue would become common place. At BU, Drury was part of a team that won two Hockey East Championships, four Beanpot crowns, and one National Title. His knack for excelling in pressure packed situations continued when he joined the Colorado Avalanche and scored 11 playoff goals in his third pro season as the Avalanche won the 2001 Stanley Cup Championship.
Niedermayer’s journey was a bit different having grown up in Western Canada and opting to play in the WHL. His tendency to get his team to and thrive in big games, however, was very much the same as he would go on to be one of the most decorated athletes the sport has ever seen. Like Drury, Niedermayer learned how to win long before ever stepping foot on NHL ice. By the time he had played his first full season with the Devils, the British Columbia native had already won a Memorial Cup and two World Junior Championships. Those experiences and confidence gained through them helped set the stage for a nearly two decade run filled with championships including two Olympic Gold Medals and four Stanley Cups.
But as the saying goes, unfortunately, losing is also a habit. For every player whose early success helps instill confidence and a passion and drive for more, we see a player who learns to lose from an early age and can never quite break away from that trend. For a more in depth look at what how playing for a struggling team can slow player's development hamper his chance at team success down the road, look no further then the NHL Entry Draft. Every year, a team President or General Manager, typically representing a team who has seemingly reached rock bottom, stands at the podium and selects the "once in a generation talent" they have determined to be the best eligible player in the world. The hope is that this top pick will be the cornerstone of a franchise for years to come and lead organization to a continued rise from the basement and ultimately a shot at the Cup.
When the team representative makes that first pick, the immediate reaction is generally elation, from the team, their fans, and the draftee and his family. However, the following fall, the honeymoon period has typically ended and the rookie generally reports to camp with a team expected to finish far out of the playoff hunt. As the losses pile up, attitudes can begin to change, focus can be lost, and veterans may no longer set the example a young star needs to learn how to be a pro.
Since 1982, of the 30 players drafted #1 overall in the National Hockey League, most of whom were picked with the expectation or at least hope of revitalizing a franchise and leading them to a Cup, just seven have won hockey’s holy grail, with the team that drafted them or any other. The first of those seven was Mario Lemieux, who likely would have won 2 Cups with the Johnstown Chiefs as constructed in the movie “Slapshot,” Paul Newman on his wing and all, had they taken him and the NHL allowed the club access in to the League. The most recent #1 pick to hoist the Cup was Patrick Kane, who joined a Blackhawks team that was the exception to the rule with regards to success in the season following a first overall pick, winning 40 games in Kane’s rookie season.
An even greater example of how losing in the early stages of a players career can effect their development or chances of winning down the road is a look at the players taken by expansion teams that are almost always doomed to fail in their inaugural season. Expansion teams are looking for talent and need to sell tickets, so with very few exceptions (Yashin spent one more year in Russia before joining the Sens and Kariya played a few games with Maine and toured with the Canadian National team before joining the Mighty Ducks the following year) all of these players have been rushed to the big club for at least one game in the season following their draft. The format of the draft has changed a bit over the years, but since 1970, 18 expansion franchise’s have joined the League and been granted a top end draft pick to get their organization started (with the exception of 1979 when the Whalers, Oilers, Nordiques, and Jets, merged from the WHA and those clubs picked 18-21 at the end of the first round, all other expansion teams have picked in the top five including five picking first overall). Of those 18 players chosen by those 18 teams, only Kevin Lowe (who in fairness won 5 with the Oilers) and Rob Niedermayer (who captured a Cup with Anaheim 14 years after being taken by the Florida Panthers in 1993) ever won a Stanley Cup.
Many of these players went on to have tremendous careers, Gilbert Perreault, Michel Goulet, and Paul Kariya to name a few, but the ultimate team success eluded almost all of them in year one and throughout their careers. Of those 18 players taken by expansion teams, not one began his NHL career playing his rookie season for a team with a winning record. Many struggled to produce and watched their confidence tumble while collecting minus’ on teams that won less then 20 games. Perhaps the biggest casualty of the bunch was Greg Joly, who after a promising career with the Regina Pats was taken by the Washington Capitals with the first pick in the 1974 Draft. If you are not familiar with Joly’s career, you are likely not alone. He played 44 games for the Caps the year after being drafted, a season in which the club needed 3 coaches to collect an NHL record (low) nine wins in 80 games. Tough for a 20 year old rookie to develop in that environment. Joly went on to play in 365 NHL games in his career, a respectable achievement by almost any standard, but probably not what the franchise had hoped for when they selected him.
Playing for a winning team won’t guarantee you a scholarship or a higher spot in the draft, and being stuck on a loser won’t by it self crush your dreams of playing at the next level, but your teams results and the way you and your teammates react to them can play a role in your development. You may become a better, more driven hockey player competing for a Division 3 National Title then by donning the sweater of a lower end Division 1 team and racking up losses. There are no right or wrong answers when choosing a program that is right for your development, but the teams potential for success is certainly another aspect to consider when making your decision.