Mankato hockey team gets help from ROTC program

MANKATO, Minn. -- People are probably used to seeing the Maverick hockey team donning protective gear and heading into battle. But here, where the only protection is a face mask and their hands hold guns instead of hockey sticks, "battle" is some...

Hockey paintball
Cadets and officers from Minnesota State University, Mankato's Reserve Officer Training Corps observe as MSU Maverick hockey players participate in a paintball contest, Sept. 22, 2009. The hockey team was participating in a program developed by university's ROTC program that helps teach leadership skills. (AP Photo/Mankato Free Press, Robb Murray)

MANKATO, Minn. -- People are probably used to seeing the Maverick hockey team donning protective gear and heading into battle.

But here, where the only protection is a face mask and their hands hold guns instead of hockey sticks, "battle" is something entirely different -- there are no sticks or pucks, no fans cheering them on and hurling insults at the refs, no nets, no penalty boxes, no ice.

On one side, five young men take positions behind barricades, poking their heads over the top to scan the battlefield. They can see their enemies, darting in and out of their own barricades, moving closer. As the enemies approach, the five defenders open fire.

"Watch out, Boe!" yells one.

"I'm hit!" yells someone across the field.


The approaching enemies have a goal: acquire a valuable object from the defenders. The defenders' goal: stop them.

"Should I just get the thing?" an enemy offender yells. "Cover my back, I'm makin' a run!"

He does, and is immediately hit with a barrage of fire.

His arms go up, he laughs a little, and jogs off the battlefield. The charge has failed. But there is a lesson to be learned. He'll be told in a few minutes by a man in camouflage what he did right, and what he did wrong.

Out here, instead of coaches with whistles, men in camouflage uniforms and booming voices tell them where to go, who to shoot. The team, in short, is out of its element. And that's the point.

The Maverick hockey team recently finished up a three-part program developed by the Minnesota State University's ROTC program. It is aimed at teaching the team about leadership. Those guns in their hands? They shoot paintballs instead of bullets. But that's the only part of their leadership that wasn't the real thing.

Msg. John Moore of the university's ROTC program said Darren Blue, one of the Mavericks' assistant coaches, approached them with the idea of using the ROTC's training methods with the hockey team.

"They were looking for ways to become more of a team," Moore said.


Previous experience

Athletes tapping the ROTC's expertise isn't new. They've worked with teams before, including the hockey team.

But this is the first time the ROTC put together a comprehensive program for a team to address specific leadership issues. They used the rappelling facility on one of the days. On another day, they used something called the Leadership Reaction Course and the Field Leadership Reaction Course, both of which put groups in problem-solving situations. Their third day was the experience at Tommyguns, a paintball facility where they broke up into two groups and engaged in an offense-defense strategy exercise.

Moore said the training allowed the players and their coaches to see how individuals react to another person's leadership style.

He said he was able to see improvement in the hockey players.

"The biggest thing I've noticed is a cohesion starting to form," Moore said.

Cohesion was one of the goals. Another was to find out if, through the leadership program, some players might emerge who would be candidates for team captain.

Blue said the program did, along with other things the team has done this month, help clarify who the team's leaders will be.


That decision has yet to be made, but Blue said he was pleasantly surprised at the leadership shown by many of the players, even some of the younger ones.

Blue said the facilitators did a great job of asking questions and making the guys think critically about solving problems.

"They did a great job in teaching guys how to lead, and how to follow," Blue said. "We got a lot of kids who were all captains before they came here ... They're learning how to accept direction from other leaders."

Moore said they'll soon be working with other groups, including students from the university's nursing program. And each time they do it, it helps them train their own cadets.

"It's taking something that has worked as long as the Army has existed, employing it to better our kids as well as applying it to other areas," Moore said.

Players said they enjoyed it.

Channing Boe, a junior, said the experience was a welcome change from previous years and seemed to bring the team together.

Using the ROTC's program to pinpoint leaders, he said, was a good idea.


"In past years, we kind of just nominated captains," he said. At this point, he said, players have had a chance to "see who the guys will listen to, who they'll follow."

He also said the way the ROTC carried out the program was impressive and showed him and other players a side of these fellow students they hadn't seen before.

"You see them walking around campus, but you don't know what kind of people they are," he said. After getting to know them a little, he said he's glad he was given the chance to experience their expertise.

Geoff Irwin, who is a senior this year, said he grew up in a military family and recognized the cadets' style of leadership. His father, a deep-sea diver in the Navy, used a very direct style of communication, the same kind he experienced with the cadets.

The ROTC training, Irwin said, taught the entire team a lot about communication and how to get a message across to someone who may be very different from you. They taught them that good leaders are also good followers when the situation calls for it.

The ROTC, clearly, had a positive effect on the group, he said.

"Just their presence had a leadership quality to it," Irwin said.

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