Kirk Culik stood alone at the far end of the rink, looking on as the U.S. National Under-18 Team allowed its USHL rival Muskegon Lumberjacks to erase a one-goal deficit late to force overtime.
The Under-18 Team surrendered the game-tying goal with thirteen seconds left, but salvaged a win in its final home game by converting twice in a shootout. The victory was remarkable in that not only was it the last U18 game to be played at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube in 2013-14, but also the final time the team would compete together on U.S. soil, completing all but the IIHF Men’s Under-18 World Championship for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
In the victory, goaltender Edwin Minney (Wind Gap, Pa.) notched three saves in overtime and stopped two out of three shootout attempts, while forwards Jack Eichel (North Chelmsford, Mass.) and Ryan Hitchcock (Manhasset, N.Y.) successfully scored in the first two. The difference, though, was neither the veteran players’ physicality nor their skills. Instead, it was their mental toughness, their ability to overcome frustration and failure that helped regain focus and persevere through the team’s eighth overtime contest this season.
This resiliency is attributed to drills and practices run by Culik, currently in his 18th year as the NTDP’s cross training coach.
“I walked in here 18 years ago and Greg Cronin, an assistant coach with the NTDP back then, had a poster up with a boxing ring, but it was the wrong size, it was too small,” Culik said. “He asked me if I was a boxing coach. I said yes I am, and after that we really hit it off. I’ve been here ever since.”
Culik works with both the U17 and the U18 squads, given the tall task of training young, and often still-growing players as they progress through their two years in Ann Arbor. Essentially, Culik ensures that 15-year-old boys who enter the NTDP leave as 18-year-old men.
But like his students, Culik’s role evolves from season to season.
“At the beginning, I’m like a drill sergeant,” Culik said. “They come here and need to learn how to play as a team so you want to break down the individuality without killing it. Humility is teachability. We want to get them ready to learn.”
With a military background, Culik simulates boot camp situations with log and tire carries, push-ups and intense cross-training workouts. Physically excruciating conditioning challenges players to endure adversity and, in turn, builds teamwork skills as individuals learn discipline and mental toughness.
“When we first got here last year it was all physical stuff,” said U18 forward Joe Wegwerth (Brewster, N.Y.). “[Culik] tries to break you down to build you back up to be mentally a lot stronger and tougher than you were.
“He turns boys into men.”
Along with the physically intense training, Culik works to improve upon attention to detail and stress inoculation through visualization and meditation techniques.
“[The players] are at the top of their age group in the world and at that level everybody is strong, everybody is fast and everybody is doing a lot of the same things,” Culik said. “That’s a given, you’ve got to have that. Then it becomes that little 1%. You get more and more out of less and less so the mental game becomes paramount.”
Minney agreed that mentality comes into play often, even in a physically punished sport such as hockey.
“[Hockey] is such a physical game and there’s so many different aspects to it, if you are not mentally ready for it, you’re not going to be ready to handle the game.”
“Coming in last year, I had a really hard time with mental toughness and Kirk and I worked a lot on it this year and last year, and I see it steadily improving. The big thing he taught me is it’s all discipline. It’s a personal thing. You have to make yourself not get upset or angry when adversity hits.”
As the players transition into their second and final year with the NTDP, they begin to see Culik as more than just a trainer.
“At first, they are just afraid of me,” Culik said. “Then it changes to where they really realize that they can trust me and in the second year it turns into a mentorship.”
Each week, Culik sits down with a leadership group consisting of six players from the U18s to analyze the week and determine what they need to work on to achieve their goals.
“Kirk has been one of the best resources the program has to offer. He’s been a really great guy for me to always go to and talk to,” Wegwerth said. “The other leaders and I chat with him and he brings up stuff that our team is going to need to do in order to win a World Championship. Just having a guy like him that knows what to do and what we need is really great.”
The U18 players’ time at the NTDP is nearing an end as they begin World Championship play on April 17th in Lappeenranta, Finland, before most continue with a collegiate hockey career.
After two years with the current U18s, Culik looks back on his time with the players and ruminates on the impact he hopes to make in their lives on and off the rink.
“I take great pride and satisfaction to see them develop,” Culik said. “Ultimately, the number one thing I really want is for them to be good people. Someday hockey ends and life goes on. But for now, we really want to win that gold medal.”