So writes John U. Bacon in his new book, Let Them Lead: Unexpected Lessons from America’s Worst High School Hockey Team. But in contrast to Bacon’s previous sports bestsellers, the coach in question wasn’t Bo Schembechler, Rich Rodriguez, or Jim Harbaugh–it was Bacon himself. Let Them Lead, which he’s launching on September 9 with an event at the Michigan Theater, recalls his three years coaching the Huron High hockey team at the turn of the millennium.
Bacon writes that he’d promised his players at the outset, “If you’re wearing green”–Huron High’s team color–“you’re getting in the game.”
But that’s not what happened when the River Rats played cross-town rival Pioneer in December 2001. “A lot of folks thought that this was our year to beat Pioneer … and I was one of them,” Bacon writes.
“Entering the third period, I still needed to get a couple of guys in. I wasn’t afraid they’d screw up, but everything was working so well, and we seemed so close to breaking the game open, that I kept putting off making any changes. With a couple seconds left, when I finally accepted that we couldn’t win, I also realized I had broken my promise.”
The next day, Was reached out to Bacon–and the coach apologized. The lesson, he writes, is that “when you screw up–and you will–admit it, apologize, and fix it as best you can.”
He promised the player he’d let down that he would never make the same mistake again–and didn’t. Was stayed on the team, went on to play for MIT, and graduated from Harvard’s medical school.
The book’s title is another Bacon lesson: let the older players lead the younger ones. “That’s quite a leap of faith, to entrust a group of seventeen-year-olds to be the leaders of a group of fourteen-year-olds,” Was says. “You can see how that has the potential to devolve into a kind of Lord of the Flies situation.” He laughs. “But I think it worked.”
When Bacon took over, the River Rats hadn’t won a game for a year and a half. He brought them to fourth in the state and 53rd in the country.
Was, now a pediatric anesthesiologist at the U-M’s Mott Children’s Hospital, still plays hockey. And he still uses other lessons he learned as a River Rat. “For example, now I’ll be leading teams in the hospital, and I can ask the senior residents to oversee the junior residents. As a junior, seniors were a lot closer to me in life and perspective than the coaches were, and I trusted the coaches, but if something came from one of the seniors, in ways it carried more weight.”
Chris Fragner had been playing travel hockey, but as Huron got better, gave it up to join Bacon’s team. “I’m still reaping the benefits of it,” Fragner says. “Because of the path he helped guide me on, I was able to walk on the Michigan hockey team, I was able to connect with another former Michigan hockey player, Dave Roberts, and we started a business together a few years after working together at another company.
“I’m still really involved with hockey. I manage money for professional hockey players and some other people. It’s about staying connected with the game and really, truly, none of that would be without Bacon.”
In August, Bacon hosted a barbecue for his former players and coaches at his home in Water Hill. He does that every year, but this time, he gave them all signed copies of his book.
Was couldn’t make it: his wife, Jessica, also an anesthesiologist, “was working late at the hospital and our boys (Milo, 8 months old, and Gray, 21/2 years old) were being an absolute handful,” he texted a few days later.
Last winter, though, he and Gray ran into Bacon and his son Teddy at Vets ice arena. “My son is a little younger than Teddy, and he wasn’t skating as well,” Was says. “He kept falling down over and over, but he was laughing and smiling as he did it. And the point is, he kept getting back up.
“I thought of that, in terms of Huron hockey, because while we were falling down a lot (metaphorically speaking), we kept getting back up.”
The former player and former coach “were kind of comparing notes on our sons’ skating on the ice,” Was recalls. “We were watching them both fall down and get up again, and wondering if they’d be skating on the same team someday.”