Top 10 Ingredients of Championship Teams

I’ve always been really interested in the “why” of winning. What is it about certain teams that really make them special? It’s so hard to win a championship, or win consistently…it takes a lot of people pulling in the same direction and a lot of things going right to be able to do it.

Whenever I get the chance to speak to people that have won championships, I always ask them about the “why”. It’s great to hear different points of view from people that have reached the pinnacle and listen to their reasoning about what set their particular groups apart.

Last week, I got the chance to catch up with a buddy of mine working in the NHL right now. He’s won championships at pretty much every level he’s coached, and getting to pick his brain about why he thought those specific teams got the job done was awesome.

I’ve always kept a loose list of things that I believe are necessary for teams to win championships. Part from my playing experiences, part from my coaching experiences, part from these conversations that I’ve had with high level coaches that have won. With a dream of coaching at the highest levels, I wanted to really have an understanding of not only what it takes to win, but a roadmap to get there as well.

So over the past week I put my list to paper and thought I’d share it with you. Here are the Top 10 things that I believe teams need to win a championship:

1. Great Authentic Leadership Group

Player leadership is everything. With most coaches I’ve spoken with, player leadership was number one on their lists. Without it, I honestly don’t think you have a fighting chance to be great.

Your leadership group is the pulse of your team, and as a coach one of your biggest responsibilities is to be in sync with them. If you involve them in the process, LISTEN to them when they challenge you, and earn their trust allowing them to buy in…that is SPECIAL.

At the end of the day, you only get so much time with the players. As teammates, they are with each other 24/7. The players in your leadership group are the stewards of your culture and if they are living it every day, that is the recipe for a successful team.

Empower your leaders to try and be the best version of themselves. You need different players to bring their authentic strengths to the table…there’s no one recipe for a great leader. If they all try to be like you, or if they try and be something that they’re not, you’re not going to get the best out of them. Encourage them to bring the best of what they have to offer the team, and your group will be strong and able to handle all types of different situations that arise.

To me (and a lot of other coaches), leadership in the room is everything. And if leadership in the room is everything, it’s important to work on leadership development with your players throughout their time with you. Those qualities can be honed and developed…take the time with your players to help them grow. It will benefit your team in so many ways and help you win championships.

2. Great Secondary Leadership

The players wearing the letters are important. But I think the players that have leadership qualities that don’t wear letters are just as important to the health and well-being of your team. For a college team, it could be a junior that struggles to get into the lineup but gives everything he has every day to try and get there. It could be a freshman who is talented and is a part of leading his freshman class. It could be a senior that doesn’t play much but is a great person that helps teammates with issues outside of hockey.

This secondary leadership, and great followership, is an essential ingredient to a successful team. These players wield a ton of influence in the room. And although they may not have the official title of leader, they are the oxygen that makes a team breathe (or suffocate if they’re toxic).

So much of the fabric of a team is built away from the rink. And in my opinion the way the unofficial secondary leadership group behaves and lives the culture will determine the health of group. Team building is always happening, and most of the time it’s away from the rink in everyday activities.

If the conversations away from the rink, about the rink, aren’t healthy and there’s a lot of negativity…as a team you’re doomed. The secondary leadership group many times are the stewards of these conversations. Are they on the same page and bought in to what the coaches and leaders are advocating? If they are all in…that is a huge win for the health and well-being of your team.

3. Depth

Injuries happen. Player slumps happen. The unexpected happens and players need to fill in different roles during a year. And that’s why it’s SO important that you have depth on your roster and a lot of players that can play.

Many successful teams often refer to the “Next Man Up” mentality when it comes to roster depth. When someone gets hurt, there’s always someone to step in or move up the lineup that can fill that void. It’s something that is really essential to a successful team.

But I want to take it even a step further. When you have depth on a team and a lot of players that can play…it creates COMPETITION. Competition for roles and for spots in the lineup. This competition creates a much better practice atmosphere and buy in to bringing your best to practice every day…because if you’re slacking from an effort or execution standpoint, there are players that can take your spot.

I think with depth, players push each other more in practice because they have to earn everything they get. And that makes each individual better…which in turn makes the team better as well.

4. Legit #1 Goaltender

You can’t win without a legitimate goalie. It’s too important of a position. And I think one of the most significant aspects of championship goalies from a team standpoint is their ability to give their team confidence playing in front of them.

We’ve all been there with a goalie that is inconsistent and prone to letting up a soft goal…and it just deflates a bench. The confidence just goes down the drain. Championship goalies, on the other hand, make all the routine saves. And then every once in a while they will steal a game when the team isn’t playing to their abilities in front of them.

Case in point:

Look at the St. Louis Blues last year. They got their swagger when Jordan Binnington brought his swagger. They gained confidence from his confidence, and now it’s a team we’ll be talking about forever as a Stanley Cup champion.

Goaltending is the most important position in hockey. Look at the save percentages of many of the coaches that got fired in the NHL this year…it tells a pretty compelling story. Without it, your team doesn’t have a chance. With it, you’re putting yourself in a position to win.

5. At Least 1 Gamebreaker on Forward and D

I’m a big believer in special talents. If you look at pretty much every team that’s ever won a championship ever, they had a few players that can truly change a game. Players that make the coaching staff on the other side have to gameplan against and pay extra attention to.

“Make sure take away Ovechkin’s time and space on the power play.”

“Make sure you outnumber Crosby down low.”

“Be tight to McDavid so he can’t generate speed.”

“Know where Doughty is at all times.”

But no matter what you do, these players find a way to influence the game. And more often than not get on the scoresheet.

Special players can dictate the pace of a game. They have an incredible authority over the game and play chess while everyone else is playing checkers.

And these players are necessary to win championships…because when the games get more important, the harder it is to really stand out with how competitive they get. Special players still find a way to stand out in the biggest of moments.

Game breaking forwards will always be on the scoresheet. And that takes so much pressure off the rest of the team from an offensive standpoint. They have the ability to take the team on their back, but they also have the ability to allow other players to play within their roles or play free because there isn’t that pressure to have to score.

One of the toughest experiences as a team is to be on a bench where you don’t know where the next goal is coming from. You can cut the tension with a knife, because everyone is trying SO HARD to be that go-to guy…but they don’t necessarily have the talent and confidence to do it. Special players bring that confidence and swagger offensively to a team, and it takes the pressure off everyone else to play their game.

Game breaking defensemen flat out can control a game. Offensively, defensively, they have such an influence on the pace and direction of the game that it’s so much fun to watch. You know you’re going to get 25-30 minutes of great hockey from these players, and it again takes so much pressure off the team when you have someone with that ability and stability. The truly elite ones play both ways. You can put them out in any situation and feel comfortable. And they, like the game breaking forwards, flat out give your team so much confidence…which is an essential ingredient in championship teams.

6. High Compete from Top Players

If your best players are lazy, you’re doomed. If your best players don’t compete in practice, you’re doomed. If your best players are inconsistent with their work ethic, you’re doomed.

Whether the best players like it or not, teams take on their identity. Because of their talent level, they wield an influence on the rest of the team…for the good or the bad.

I’ve been on teams where the most talented players are dogs…and it never ended up well. But on the teams where the best players were the hardest workers…those teams ALWAYS won.

If your top players bring an effort to practice every day, everyone on the team will get better. Like I said before, spots are earned in a lineup. And if the best players (who have already earned their spot) continue to push the pace and compete…it sends a message to everyone else on the team that nobody is better than the team. If they are going to work like this and continue to earn their spot…you better do it too.

I’m a big believer that teams will only go as far as their top players take them. And when your top players play to prove themselves every day, the effect it has on the team is so impactful in the most positive ways. It’s a special thing, it’s so contagious, and it’s so necessary for championship teams.

7. High Buy In from Top Players

I’ve been on teams where the top players didn’t buy in to the team culture or systems and it was the recipe for the most dysfunctional locker room you could ever get. The negativity is contagious, and the atmosphere is toxic.

Most of the teams I’ve been on, fortunately, the top players ARE the hardest workers, they’re great teammates, and they have their coaches’ backs.

When your best players are bought in to playing the game the right way, everyone else almost has to do it as a by-product. Look at Ovechkin the year they won the cup. He bought into playing Barry Trotz’ system and won his first championship after so many disappointments. And if you look at the way he changed his game to buy in, it was a really cool thing to watch.

Every successful team has players that sacrifice a little bit of the individual for the greater good of the team. It’s a necessity, because to win you have to be able to play well defensively. And to play well defensively you may have to give up some opportunities to cheat the game and create offense.

Every championship hockey team has players that are bought into the systems. And it all starts at the top with the most talented players. When they buy in, it’s a special, special thing.

8. “No ****heads” in the Room

I stole this one from the book “Legacy” by James Kerr. It’s one of my favorite book of all time about how the All-Blacks rugby team built their culture. Their most important team building strategy?

Don’t recruit any ****heads.

All it takes is one bad apple to spoil the entire bunch. We’ve all been on teams where there’s that one person that just sucks the life out of a room when they walk in. Their negativity is contagious, their selfishness brings a destructive vibe, and they just make everyone around them feel uncomfortable.

Attitude is contagious. For the good and the bad. Negative attitudes, even if it’s just one, can be so toxic to a locker room and a team culture. Negative attitudes weigh on people. Negative attitudes aren’t fun to be around. And it spreads and creates an environment where people aren’t able to enjoy themselves.

Every championship I’ve won I can honestly say there were no selfish people in the room. Everyone cared for each other, loved each other, and bought in.

On the less successful teams, there were typically 1-2 players that weren’t all in. And it had an effect. Players that did buy in couldn’t stand them. They were talked about away from the rink in informal conversations. And it took away from the positivity needed to be successful.

If you want to build a championship team…make sure you have the right PEOPLE on the bus. One bad decision can be costly and ruin your chances of doing so.

9. Top 25% Special Teams

In the game today, it’s hard to score. When playoffs come, it’s even harder.

So Special Teams play becomes that much more important when the games become more important on a team’s quest to win a championship.

A confident power play adds swagger to a team. A confident penalty kill adds an element of togetherness.

A power play that doesn’t feel confident adds stress, especially to the top players. A penalty kill that doesn’t feel confident adds uncertainty to the execution or the system.

Winning the special teams battle puts you in a much better position to win games and series. Consistently great power plays and penalty kills can vault your team to championships.

10. Coaching Staff that Loves to Work and Loves Each Other

As coaches we are always encouraging the players to have a great work ethic and play with togetherness as a team. But I think it’s crucial to have that in the coaching room as well.

Coming to the rink and enjoying your work is a great thing to have as a coach. Loving what you do is one thing, but loving who you are doing it with is something really important too. As high level coaches, you spend more time with each other than you do with your own families.

Being successful as a coach requires a lot of long hours. Between meetings, video, practices, travel, games, building relationships…there’s a lot to do. I can’t imagine working with people who don’t have a great work ethic, it would drive me insane. Luckily, I haven’t encountered that yet!

Successful programs have a camaraderie within the coaching and support staffs. That camaraderie rubs off on the players…they can see it. They are smart enough to know when there are coaches that aren’t buying in or aren’t working hard.

Does that mean that everything is always perfect? Absolutely not. Good staffs will challenge each other, question why things are done and why decisions are made, and coach each other through the good and the bad. But the challenging should always be done together in private. And when you walk out of the coaches room into the room full of players, everyone has to be on board and bought in.

Great coaching staffs love to work, love to work together, and love each other. It’s what we ask of our players…and it’s important we ask that of ourselves as leaders as well.

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