Q & A with Calgary Hitmen Head Coach Steve Hamilton
By Katherine Dolan
Last season, the Calgary Hitmen under the guidance of head coach Steve Hamilton, were down two games to nothing in the first round of the playoffs. Hamilton says the easiest thing would have been to say it just wasn’t their year, but that wasn’t an option in Hamilton’s playbook. Instead, he talked to the team about staying the course, keeping steady even pressure, not gunning it and sticking with the process. Turns out staying the course, paid off for the team, who fought back to win the series in seven games.
From elementary teacher to head coach of the Hitmen, Hamilton sees his role as much more than just plotting the X’s and O’s on the ice. As a former elementary teacher, turned WHL coach, he says that while his job has changed, it’s still the same curriculum. Stay the course, do the right thing, don’t look back and mistakes are inevitable.
We sat down to talk about his coaching philosophy, what type of player makes his team and his advice to parents and I must admit, his outlook on the game was a refreshing change from what I am used to. I’ve interviewed many coaches throughout the years, but Hamilton was refreshingly different. From grit to growth mindset to character development, he’s teaching these young men much more than just hockey IQ, he’s giving them the tools to succeed in life.
This is my Q & A with Steve Hamilton.
What is your coaching philosophy?
My coaching philosophy has evolved tremendously. A few factors behind that include growing up, getting older and more mature. More of a bigger picture mentality of how I view coaching not riding the emotional highs of wins and losses that you do when you are a young coach and you live every moment and you feel every moment. That is a hard way to live.
How has your previous job as a teacher, affected your role now as a coach?
The single best toolbox items I ever had, came from teaching. When I was a young teacher, I had a few tough assignments and when I say tough assignments I just mean challenging students. I started as an elementary teacher and I was all of 23 when I started and you are pretty naive, so you have to figure things out and adapt.
I have always said it’s the same job different curriculum in every sense of the word. You are dealing with people who want to get better at what they’re doing. Especially as a coach of elite athletes, (who are) very driven and highly motivated. So you do have a unique group because we are not necessarily pulling them in here, they are coming in on their own whereas, at times the teacher you had to find different ways to reach different kids.
What do you want to ‘teach’ your young players now and beyond the rink?
Before we met here, I was looking at a few videos and what it came back to is books that I have read and believe in that start with a growth mindset. How important that is and grit. If you can have your players, have a better sense of both of those things through their experience, I would consider that a foundational piece for life going forward.
The idea that who you are now is not who you are always going to be. What you are, where you find yourself, we talk about it all the time. We talk a lot about auditioning for the job we want, whatever role that might be on the team. We talk about that a lot. That fits into the growth mindset and not being fixated on what others are doing, how green their grass is. Just really worrying about your process and the grit part is the willingness to stick to it and see it through the long term.
When you are talking about building a professional career or aspiring to push your career as far as you can, those characteristics are probably two of the more prominent things.
When you lose as a team, what do you focus on post-game with your players?
Perspective. Stay the course, do the right things, not looking back, mistakes are inevitable and that’s the beauty of sports. You look at hockey from a technical standpoint, there will be 200-300 mistakes a game. But that’s what makes it such an awesome thing, is the unpredictability. The highs, the lows, the currents whatever you want to call it, those are part of sport. You can’t get fixated on the little things, if you are losing sight of the big picture process. So that is a real driving force for our team.
When you are selecting your team, what do you want to see in your players?
I would say the character piece, is such a huge deciding factor and it goes along with the grit. Character is such an important aspect. Coachability, willingness to take feedback and take feedback most constructively and implement it. Work at things as opposed to feeling like you are owed something, or it’s your right to step into situations.
Let’s be honest, hockey is a stream that narrows and the best players can simply get by on talent year after year and you see at the junior age group, the narrowing of the stream.
So what is the difference between the player that comes from Surrey BC and Calgary, Alberta? They’ve been the best of the best in their hockey streams and so now you are creating an environment with the best ’24 players’ from their teams. Top 3-4 from every team, so now how are you different? How are you different from everyone else who has essentially the same resume coming in here?
When you find that character aspect, the willingness to adapt and grow and recognize how to fill a role, that is a huge thing. Everyone wants to touch the puck, be a powerplay guy, be a feature player and the sport isn’t built like that. Guys can build exceptional careers for themselves by accepting a role and again auditioning for the job they want, while accepting the one.
The ones who can be chameleons find their way, tack on the grit and those guys just seem to find a way to be important team members and they separate themselves that way. When you look at skill as a basis, it’s hard to decipher between most guys. It’s those underlying characteristics that are huge.
What is your advice for young athletes looking to one day play in the WHL?
For the kids, be passionate about what you do. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. Be passionate, be a good teammate, be an important part of whatever you’re involved in. Jump in, right into the middle of the pool, don’t stick your toe in. Try different things. Nobody knows what their true passion is when they are 4, 5, or 6 years old. I am a huge proponent of trying new things, becoming a well-rounded athlete, having diverse experiences.
I don’t believe a hockey player is made solely on the rink. More is not always better. Having different things in your life, different experiences, and not all athletic. If you have multi-sport experience or diverse things, you have a much better balance and perspective about why you play and the reasons for it.
What advice do you have for parents?
From a parent standpoint, I think accountability is just super. Raise a good kid. Raise good respectful, hard-working children. We are all trying to do that. Being on both sides of the coin, if you were to ask my kids if they were to get in trouble, what would I say? They would say, what is your role in that? You can plead all kinds of injustice, but we ask what is your role in that? Try to build that accountability. Easy to blame failures or missteps on people around, coaches, or everyone else, that is a very easy answer.
I just think that promoting love of their endeavors and supporting them, making them accountable. You see the most adjusted, well-adjusted kids come from backgrounds where parents are ultra-supportive, but kids are also ultra accountable for their own decisions.