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What Makes Hockey Players Great

Great players don’t get anywhere without a solid work ethic. The player that strives to improve at every practice is one that every coach yearns for.

Lou Nanne is a Minnesota hockey legend. He was an All-American, league MVP and remains the first and only defenseman to ever win the WCHA scoring title while at the University of Minnesota. After officially becoming a U.S. citizen in 1968, he captained the '68 U.S. Olympic Team in addition to two more national squads. Nanne starred for the expansion Minnesota North Stars for 11 seasons on the ice before he began a long and successful stretch as a coach and general manager for the North Stars and multiple U.S. National Teams.

Throughout his illustrious career, Nanne watched and coached some of hockey’s all-time greats. And while those players had elite talent, he said they all also shared something else in common:

“They were true gentlemen,” Nanne said. “They were kind-hearted, caring people who really cared about the game, teammates and everyone around them.

“That’s what really made them great.”

While the game’s best players are recognized publicly as great players because of their amazing talent, it’s characteristics such as players’ work ethic, attitude, leadership and drive that are the true foundation of their greatness.

Confidence and Humility

Neal Broten remains one of the best to ever come out of the State of Hockey. The Roseau Ram captured an NCAA national championship, Olympic gold medal and a Stanley Cup.

But if you met Broten on the street, you would never know he was an all-star.

“There’s a quiet confidence that really says a lot about a player,” Nanne said. “You want that high competiveness – and most athletes have that – but the guys who remain humble in the face of greatness are pretty special.”

Character Counts

For Nanne, what stood out even more than Wayne Gretzky’s mind-blowing skills was the way he carried himself on and off the ice.

“That ‘good guy’ trait makes it so much easier to coach,” Nanne explains. “I mean with Gretzky, there’s no doubt it’s his ability that made him great; that unique skillset that nobody else had or has had. But he is such a good guy with a lot of kindness and good character on the ice, which turned into off-the-ice kindness and guys like that are just a real pleasure to coach.”

Taking the Lead

Mike Modano is the NHL’s all-time leading point scorer among Americans. The former North Star’s ability to score on the ice and lead off the ice is what made him exceptional, according Nanne, who was his first NHL coach.

“The leaders on the team are really a big asset to the coach because they not only carry the coach’s message, they make sure that people understand that it’s important,” Nanne said. “Leaders are like a liaison between coach and players because they have to make certain the team is always pulling together.”

Nanne adds that a leader isn’t necessarily always the best player on a team. In fact, in his experience, most often the best leaders aren’t the best players.

“I do not equate leadership with skillset,” he said. “You’ll find on a lot of Stanley Cup championship teams where the leaders are the guys who might not be the star, and there are a lot of great leaders in the league that aren’t the best players. One does not equal the other.”

Work Ethic

The game might come easy for some players. But without a strong work ethic, those that put in the time and effort will eventually surpass them.

“You find very early on who wants to be a pro and who wants to be the best that they can be because they’re the guys that work the hardest and work to get themselves better,” Nanne said. “A coach needs those types of people. It’s even better if your best players have the best work ethic. The other guys on the team know they better not be cheating because they’re going to stand out.”

Great players don’t get anywhere without a solid work ethic. The player that strives to improve at every practice is one that every coach yearns for. The player that does all the right things when no one is watching.

“Your motto should be, ‘nobody outworks me’ because if you’re willing to work harder than the next guy, you’ve got an advantage,” Nanne said. “You can’t control everything, but everybody has the ability to control how hard they work.”

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