John U. Bacon’s High School Hockey Experience Gives Insight Into Leadership

In his new book, he chronicles his 2000 return to his alma mater, Ann Arbor’s Huron High School, to coach the boys’ hockey team
let them lead - john u. bacon
Bestselling author John U. Bacon, who turned around a hapless high school hockey team, shares what he learned from that crazy ride. //  Photograph courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers

We live in the Age of the Coach. We now seek out guidance from life coaches, writing coaches, career coaches, spiritual coaches, video game coaches, health coaches. So perhaps it’s not surprising that in recent decades, the “original” coaches — which is to say, those from the world of sports — have become go-to gurus for corporate America too.

Why? Because organizing and inspiring a team of people to achieve something difficult seems, at first blush, like it should translate perfectly from sports to, say, sporting goods. This notion is the driving force behind John U. Bacon’s newest book, Let Them Lead: Unexpected Lessons in Leadership from America’s Worst High School Hockey Team — which pushes against the trend of providing quirky employee perks and instead recommends clear, ambitious expectations; power-sharing; consistent structure; and human connection.

You may recognize Bacon from his radio commentaries focused on sports or his bestselling books about Michigan football (Three and Out, Endzone, and Overtime) — not to mention his early entry into the sports/business crossover market in 2007, Bo’s Lasting Lessons, co-written with Bo Schembechler. But Let Them Lead may be Bacon’s most personal work to date. In it, he chronicles his 2000 return — as a single, 35-year-old freelance journalist — to his alma mater, Ann Arbor’s Huron High School, to coach the boys’ hockey team, which had just endured a winless season. 

Bacon had played hockey at Huron as a teen and scored zero goals during that tenure. That made him a peculiar — perhaps even desperate — choice to lead a change-the-culture-of-losing venture. Bacon writes about implementing two simple rules — play hard and support your teammates — and then presiding over both a predictably cringey first team meeting and a summer workout meet-up that went so badly he required three 90-minute training sessions per week after that. As usual in a Bad News Bears-style narrative, Huron’s hockey squad starts out rough and chaotic and, slowly but surely, the kids start to believe in themselves and each other.

John U. Bacon
John U. Bacon // Photograph courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers

Bacon’s voice is polished, thoughtful, and quite often funny. Although the shifts between the book’s engaging sports narrative and its business lesson takeaways — bullet-point lists begin and end each chapter — can sometimes feel forced, Bacon wisely never goes too far afield from the work’s beating heart: his reinvigorated River Rats.

Bacon doesn’t hold back, either, on his view of effective teaching. Some educators resent the idea that people think it’s their job to “entertain” students; Bacon responds to this notion: “Actually, it is — and the best teachers always do. … That’s why, whenever I could, I swapped lectures for stories. … I expressed my ambitions for the program through stories about Michigan football, the ‘Miracle on Ice’ U.S. Olympic hockey team, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ and the time I finally managed to punch my big brother square in the nose.”

Inevitably, there are limits to connecting sports stories with business practices. When the team’s two best goalies keep squabbling, Bacon decides to put in the third-stringer, and that player, to everyone’s astonishment, plays the game of his life. It’s a gratifying, classic underdog narrative, and Bacon’s takeaway is that if you expect more from people, they can surprise you and themselves. In practice, it’s hard to imagine managers regularly rolling the dice on their weakest links in high-stakes situations.

Regardless, Bacon — who righted the River Rats’ ship in a few seasons before leaving the program — tells his story so skillfully that Let Them Lead achieves rare status for a business book: It’s actually hard to put down. It made me cry a little, and it often got me thinking about parenting choices, too. I dropped my two daughters off at camp recently with two simple-but-not-easy rules: Be good to each other, and when you need space, the code word is “Apollo.”

They came home days later in good spirits, so perhaps some of the lessons in Let Them Lead may have even broader implications than Bacon knows.

This story is featured in the October 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition.