By Susan Lulgjuraj
The Press of Atlantic City
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Tuesday afternoon Matt Thomas took his team off the ice early. It wasn’t for their lack of effort – that day – it was for the way they played leading up to practice.
He told them to grab their long underwear, pants and a jacket and nothing else.
That’s all the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies knew.
Thomas, dressed in the same outfit, led his team out of Boardwalk Hall, over the Boardwalk to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
The players knew he was upset because of the team’s inconsistency since the New Year and Saturday’s terrible 4-2 loss to Reading pushed him to the brink.
“We went a lot of different ways with the guys,” Thomas said. “We went the soft route, went the hard route and thought it was about time we went the risky route.”
With the waves crashing behind him and the warm sun beating down on the beach, Thomas looked at his players’ faces. He saw a team that wanted to win.
Then, he told them: “If you are willing to sacrifice the little things in life and pay the price for the things that are worthwhile, it can be done. Especially if you’re willing to do things that aren’t even worthwhile. If you’re willing to sacrifice and are committed then you’re going to follow me.”
He didn’t mean just on the ice.
Thomas stripped to his underwear and sprinted into the ocean with assistant coach Mark French, trainer Brian Maddox and equipment manager Chris Burke.
The players didn’t think twice and they followed their head coach into the 39-degree water. He has since promised to lead them into more comfortable situations.
“It’s one of the crazy things that a team will do to get the guys to go together,” forward Dustan Heintz said. “Everyone wants to get it going again, so no one was hesitant. They all jumped right in.”
The point was clear to the players from the beginning. Thomas didn’t have to say more than the speech, but he left them with the “Thought of the Week,” which was all about making sacrifices.
“It shows that you have everybody’s back on the team. Just ’cause I’ve been here a week and a half doesn’t mean I don’t respect the guy next to me,” forward Tom Reimann said. “It’s to show that you don’t mind sacrificing, getting frozen out there with the guy next to you. I thought it was a good point.”
Since the New Year the Bullies, who dropped from first to fourth, have been struggling going 7-10-2 and haven’t won more than two games in a row. Before the New Year they were 18-6-4.
It isn’t just one thing that Atlantic City has been doing wrong, every night it has been something different. But the one statistic that sticks out is the first goal scored.
The Bullies are 19-3-3 when they score the first goal but have scored the opening goal just four times of their last 19 games.
“We always talk about it being a family and families do special things together,” Thomas said. “We are doing unique and special things together, things that normal people when they get together, just don’t do. No one wants to go into the freezing water, but everyone did it.”
Teams always have bonding sessions that usually come in the form of dinners or nights out. Even spending hours on the bus has a way of bringing teammates closer – but never jumping into an ocean in the middle February.
“I’ll always remember that one,” said forward Jason Notermann, who got into the ocean for just the second time in his life. “That was different.”