A Gold Mine of NHL ice hockey players

It was an almost surreal experience for Jannik Hansen, when in 2011 he skated into Rogers Arena to represent the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals against the Boston Bruins. Just a few years earlier, Hansen played in a rusty hockey hall in Rødovre, a small suburban club on the outskirts of Copenhagen. Now suddenly he had replaced his anonymous life in Denmark with a key role in one of the world’s largest sporting events. Although the Canucks were defeated in seven games, Jannik Hansen did not fail to put his imprint on the match and he later received the Canucks’ Fred J. Hume Award as the team’s “Unsung Hero” (as voted by the Canucks’ booster club).
In fact, Hansen’s participation in the Stanley Cup finals was just a small piece of a larger and even more interesting story. Up until only a few years ago, it was unthinkable to see a Danish player getting a contract with an NHL club. Denmark’s 5.5 million inhabitants, 18 ice hockey clubs and 14 hockey halls do not sound like much. There are more ice hockey referees in Toronto alone than there are registered hockey players in all of Denmark. Nevertheless, the country has in recent years impressed everyone on the international hockey scene. At the world championships in 2011, Denmark sensationally beat both Finland and the United States and went all the way through to the quarterfinals. The hockey world was shocked: How could this tiny country beat giants like Finland and the United States?
The Danish players have not only impressed everyone as a team, but also individually. In January 2006, the 22-year-old Frans Nielsen took to the ice with the New York Islanders, becoming the first ever Danish player in the NHL. Since then another six Danish players have followed; Morten Madsen (Minnesota Wild), Peter Regin (Ottawa Senators), Lars Eller (Montreal Canadiens), Philip Larsen (Dallas Stars), Mikkel Bødker (Phoenix Coyotes) and of course, Jannik Hansen for the Vancouver Canucks. Even more interesting is that four of these seven players developed at the Rødovre Ice Hockey Club. Over the course of four years, the club, with merely 177 members, has delivered four players to the world’s best league and several others to top Swedish clubs. Think about it. What are the chances that four NHL players are developed over a period of only four years in a small rusty ice stadium just outside Copenhagen?
The Gold Mine Expedition
The Rødovre Ice Hockey Club is an example of what I call a “Gold Mine” – a small, geographically defined location capitalising extremely well on talent and pumping out top performers in an assembly-line fashion. I first became aware of this phenomenon a few years ago when I realised that the best performers on the planet tend to cluster. They simply come from the same small places. Let me give you a few examples:
• Bekoji, a village in Ethiopia with 17,000 inhabitants, where the world’s best middle-distance runners are raised. Over the past 20 years athletes from Bekoji have won 10 Olympic Gold Medals, broken 10 world records and won 32 world championships.
• South Korea today produces 35 per cent of the world’s best female golfers.
• In Kingston, Jamaica a single athletics club training on a diesel-scorched grass track has succeeded in producing most of the world’s best sprinters.
• In a matter of a few years Russia has evolved from a nation with an unremarkable tennis reputation to one which has produced 25 per cent of the players on the world women’s top 40 ranking list.
• Iten, a village in Kenya which consistently produces the world’s best long-distance runners.
• Brazil, where a vastly disproportionate number of the world’s top football players originate.
It became a personal obsession for me to crack the secrets behind these gold mines of world-class performers. I decided to quit my job, and used all the money I had left to book six plane tickets. In the seven months that followed, I travelled round the world to literally live and train with the world’s best athletes and their coaches in six Gold Mines.
The Gold Mine Recipe
After visiting the six Gold Mines, I realized that it was almost the same pattern driving success everywhere. Often we think that these clusters of talent must be driven by a genetic advantage, but there is really no scientific evidence for that. The deeper I delved into the six Gold Mines, the clearer it became to me that success cannot be traced back to an exclusive genetic design. As Dennis Johnson, the former 100 metre world record holder and Jamaican sprint coach, expressed it: ‘I would like to tell the whole world that there is no magic. No special nose or long ears, it’s just normal people that run fast.’
It sends a crystal clear, motivating message to anyone who wants to create a Gold Mine of high performance: this is achievable. Rødovre Ice Hockey Club in Denmark is a great example of that. There was not suddenly more hockey talent born in a suburb outside Copenhagen than everywhere else, but there was suddenly someone who managed to capitalize on the talent that had always been there. As the great philosopher T.S. Eliot famously said: “The great ages didn’t contain more talent, but they wasted less”.
Any business leader, organization, team or society can learn to waste less talent by understanding six simple Gold Mine lessons about how to identify and grow potential:
1. Talent is everywhere
2. When identifying talent what you see is not what you get
3. Start training early, or die soon
4. A performance environment should never be too comfortable
5. Not pushing your kids is irresponsible
6. Success comes down to “who wants it most”
This is the DNA of my new book the gold mine effect. I am convinced that by understanding the anatomy of these Gold Mines we can learn to build our own.
This blog post was written for Indigo

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