What I Learned Building A Company Hockey Team

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In 2012, A Thinking Ape was a relatively new company and were looking for people to step up their engagement ideas. One of the cofounders had an interest in hockey and brought it up amongst some of the employees. It turned out that we had a handful of actual players, not just fans and there was genuine interest in playing if the company started a team.

I never had the chance to play hockey when I was a kid; my parents couldn’t afford hockey gear for me at the time, but like most Canadians, I still had fun playing street hockey with friends in the parking lot after school. The idea of an joining an actual ice hockey league with my fellow coworkers definitely peaked my interest, but knew it needed a great deal of planning to pull off successfully, let alone learn how to skate.

And so it began…here are some highlights of what I learned while building a company hockey team from the ground up.

Building A Team Out of Teams

A Thinking Ape was growing fast. With this you have the problem of a lot of people…which requires a lot of space. You either have two floors of people, or one floor that spread flat across  large square footage. Of course, you want teams to stay grouped together as it’s more efficient to throw ideas back and forth. But now you have the problem of very little cross pollination. Solutions like Donut dates are great in theory, but are incomplete in practice (See my posts on how I take them to the next level here). How do we solve this problem through voluntary fun and not forced communication? Build an internal sports team.

First step: What are we called?

You can’t build a team without a name, it’s just bad luck. When you see teams made in the pros, they pick names long before they even announce it. They just give the illusion that the fans have a choice. I decided on the name “Rampage” for several reasons:

  1. We’re a video game company with an ape logo. Naturally, the game Rampage by Data East was a good fit.
  2. I tried to have a team without an “s” at the end. Very few teams of such names exist. How many can you name? (Hint: 4 NBA, 3 NHL, 2 MLB as of 2019)

Then came the logo. Most of my family come from a graphic design background and I have experience in the production side of graphics, but pursued music/audio path. This means that although I could take care of getting the jerseys ordered, branded, etc., I wouldn’t be the right guy to design the logo.

Lucky for me, the lead artist at A Thinking Ape was REALLY into hockey. Being the audio guy at the office, I was stuck in a booth away from everyone while I made a bunch of noise. Because I needed pros for the logo design, I finally got to know the art team.

This collaboration of skill meant that we had a pro logo, a mutual understanding of building a colour palette, and how to execute with surgical precision to get an end result so slick that people outside of the team wanted to wear it casually.

Most companies would stop at iron on practice jerseys. Not me. This represented our company. I would accept nothing less than embroidered crests. And right when you thought I‘d settle with just horizontal stitching, check out the gold portion of the logo:

A Company Hockey Team Requires at Least GSuite Knowledge (seriously)

It goes without saying, but HOCKEY IS AN EXPENSIVE ASS SPORT. Think about it…

-The protective gear alone is necessary. You get what you pay for, so you have to spend money in order to be relatively safe, especially as a beginner. You may be able to know when to stay clear of someone, but spears in your hands and knives on your feet don’t.

-Vancouver doesn’t have ponds… of course it doesn’t. Even if it did, it wouldn’t get cold enough to freeze. And even if IT DID get cold enough, it wouldn’t last long enough to have a full season of hockey. So the solution is to build ice rinks. The price per square foot is insane. Consider that not only do you have to water it, you have to keep it cold constantly for long periods of time, which takes a lot of energy. You also have to keep it flat so you have to have a Zamboni. PLUS you need staff to run the place. This raises the price considerably so literally every minute that no one is skating on the ice is money lost.

-The above problem can be solved by rinks running in house leagues, BUT they have to get people to sign up in teams. Individuals are on a list to join teams. This means that outside of the rink, one person has to be the one collecting money, calculating what they owe, etc.

ATA was generous enough to pay for league fees and ice times for practice depending if you were an employee or from outside the company. But I had to organize the program. Here’s how it broke down:

The fees included things like, practice ice times, paying outside coaches for clinics, and once a month dinners. Considering that there were so many factors that changed the price per player, I needed to act like a bookkeeper.

If there was ever a time to elbow smash GSuite from the top ropes, this would be it. Need the players name, address, phone number, jersey size, allergies? Boom Google Forms.

How much does each player owe? Are they in the company? Outside? How much did each player pay in taxes to be in the team? Boom Google Sheets.

Writing waivers or welcome/thank you letters? Boom Google Docs.

What Happens Outside the Rink Is More Important

One goal of the hockey team was to grow. Both grow as a team and as an individual. But how do you balance the fun when there’s a vast disparity of experience on the team? How do you keep egos in check when everyone wants to be Gretzky or Crosby and score the winning goal? I made sure players left that at the door.

If you were an experienced player, you wouldn’t automatically make it on the team. As GM, I made it explicitly clear that if you were an experienced player, you’d have to do some sort of coaching during practice in exchange for the company paying for your fees. When you put together the right people with the right attitudes, you get a well oiled machine. Because of this condition, the noobs saw rapid growth in their skating abilities and awareness on the ice, while the experienced players learned how to break down techniques that were second nature to them and pass them on to less skilled players.

Leadership is of utmost importance and the best players in a team aren’t necessarily the best people to lead. Lucky for us, we had someone join that was both a great player and a great leader. I worked with him on how I could make the task of coaching easier for him. He pointed out that we had one very experienced player that was showing a bit of disinterest (This usually happens when there’s a skill gap that large). He was showing up late and not really putting in 100%.

Turns out that person was interested in music. So I made a deal with him: Show us how to skate and when we are off the ice, I’ll transfer my music theory knowledge to you. He became an integral part of the team also has has been featured on media, doing tours and shows for his hip hop duo, SO LOKI. We still good friends to this day.

Put in the effort to get good people on your team. Put in the time on and off the ice to keep good people on your team.

Create Buzz With People On AND Off the Team

It was great to see people from all corners of the office talking to each other about how someone made an amazing deke or that perfect pass to set up a winning goal. But I really wanted the whole office in on the action.

Another member of the hockey team and I joined forces to play at Rogers Arena. This was big time so we couldn’t just play a game there. We wanted it to be a spectacular! Since two of the ATA founders played on the hockey team, we decided to make them each a coach and do a draft. We called it “The Founders Cup”. I made the announcement about the game at a company Townhall meeting. After I gave the news, jersey and hat sales went up from people in the office.

Since I love sourcing cool trinkets and building things, I decided to build an amazing sought after prize. Going from pawn shop to pawn shop, I found an old tennis trophy, buffed it and built a two tier base to mount it on. The results were stunning.

Employees, friends and family bought tickets to the game at Rogers Arena to cover the costs. I set up the audio, organized a musician friend of mine to sing the national anthem and also edited music to be played between whistles, complete with custom music for each player who scored a goal. This, plus our in house announcer (who worked in the support department) got the crowd going. Even the staff at Rogers were excited. They told us that they’ve never seen a group put this much effort to create such an experience. One of them went to the scoreboard to complete it all with the airhorn when goals were scored.

I was in net that day and won 5-2. But really, no one lost. Everyone had so much fun and it was great to see kids excited to watch their dad play on the same ice as the Vancouver Canucks.

This barely touches the surface of what I learned building this team and I know all of us have lasting memories. Since the team started in 2012, there have been many new players and coaches. When I run into Rampage players from the past, we still reminisce about the great times being on the team. Those are the types of connections that every office should create.

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