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Youth Sports Hero of the Month: John Huether (West Roxbury, Mass.)

High school junior varsity teams are usually temporary stops on the road to the varsity, a rite of passage, but not the desired final destination. As players develop their skills with hopes for the future, JV games normally do not provide the sort of lasting memories that varsity games often leave. Nor do JV games usually present dramatic crises that test a coach's character and values as the players watch.

On Sunday morning, January 9, 2011, the JV hockey game between Boston-area rivals Catholic Memorial School and Xaverian High School was an exception.Hockey referee

Early in the third period, referee Richard Sweeney dropped the puck for a faceoff and then fell backward and hit his head hard on the ice when his skate caught a piece of debris. Catholic Memorial coach John Huether, a Veterans Administration nurse by profession, immediately sensed a medical emergency, although he did not know that, years earlier, while working as a Boston police officer, Sweeney had suffered a serious head injury following a seizure.

Huether quickly jumped the Catholic Memorial bench, attended to the unconscious Sweeney, and then, when he regained conciousness after several minutes, with the help of two players, assisted the referee off the ice. But that was not all. When Sweeney did not know what day it was or remember his home phone number, Huether sensed a severe concussion, and asked the Xaverian coach to suspend the game while he sat with the referee in the stands until an ambulance with paramedics arrived. Concerned that the referee's family might not have heard about what happened, Huether drove to two hospitals after the game to find him and make sure that he was not there alone. Then the coach remained at the hospital with the Sweeney family for two more hours.

Why did Huether do so much for a man he did not recall ever having met before? "That's the way I was taught to play the game," said the coach, who was Catholic Memorial's varsity hockey captain in 1982. "You play it hard and play it with ferocity and competitively, but you have to respect your opponent and the officials."

Huether was distinctly uncomfortable with the attention he subsequently received after the Boston Globe ran a story about his act of sportsmanship and, later, when he flew to St. Louis to receive a National Sportsmanship Award, presented by the Citizenship Through Sports Alliance and the St. Louis Sports Commission. "They're making a big deal out of nothing but playing the game the right way," he said, explaining that "I was doing what you're supposed to do when someone gets hurt. . . . All you have to do is show respect" for the game and its participants. "The referee is part of the game."

The score of the game, once it resumed? Catholic Memorial lost, 7-0, their worst defeat of the season, but Huether was right: "Nobody cares about the score, and that's the lesson" from an otherwise uneventful junior varsity hockey game one cold morning in early January.

Actions speak louder than words

"Example is not the main thing in influencing others," said Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Albert Schweitzer, "It is the only thing." "The older I get," observed philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, "the less I listen to what people say and the more I look at what they do."

Youth league coaches teach X's and O's, but the best coaches also teach sportsmanship. As Schweitzer and Carnegie suggest, the coach's example about sportsmanship -- what the coach does -- can leave a more lasting impression on the players than any pep talk or lecture. Words can surely influence players who respect the coach, but Benjamin Franklin wisely said that "a good example is the best sermon."

Few coaches ever get a chance to set a good example in a crisis such as the one that brought Huether and Sweeney together. But week in and week out, all coaches can teach citizenship by the way they present themselves, keep their language clean, react to victory and defeat, and behave among supporters and detractors. Coaches watch their players carefully, but the players also watch the coach. As Huether says, "As coaches, we're always teaching. We just don't always know when we are."

Huether's coaches taught him well 30 years earlier, and now he is teaching the next generation. Catholic Memorial hockey players will remember how their coach helped the stricken referee long after they forget anything the coach said to them. Perhaps former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said it best when he said that "the legacy of heroes is . . . the inheritance of a great example."


Sources: Matt Rocheleau, More Important Than a Game: Coach's Gesture Touches Injured Referee, http://www.boston.com/yourtown/news/west_roxbury/2011/01/more_important_... (Jan. 16, 2011); Kathleen Nelson, Coach Wins By Showing Compassion, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Apr. 28, 2011, p. C1.

Posted February 3, 2012

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