It’s impossible to follow the Colgate women’s hockey team without seeing their motto “We Play Free” hashtagged on nearly every social media post. It’s not just a marketing tactic and it’s not tied to the school’s Raider mascot. It’s a directive.
Or better yet, a declaration.
While much of the hockey world is predicated on systems – that is, a firm set of tactics that define how a team plays – the coaches at Colgate teach a system-free approach. When they say “We Play Free,” they mean freedom on the ice to be creative and to make mistakes.
But while the team stays away from rigid formations and rules, “We Play Free” doesn’t mean disorganization or disarray. Fargo said the team has guiding principles – three for when they have the puck and three when they don’t. Beyond that, the way the Raiders play is entirely dependent on the women on the roster. Even in season, things are constantly in flux, said Fargo. The idea is to play to their player’s strengths, try things out and see what works and never stop adapting. Sometimes the ideas are great, sometimes they don’t work out, but Fargo, the Colgate staff and the players are constantly thinking.
This system-less system of play has a major impact and ramifications internally, but it also makes Colgate incredibly difficult to play against. Scouting a team that never seems to do the same thing twice is not only difficult, but it’s highly unusual. Watching a lot of tape may help opponents see tendencies among individual players, but what has helped Colgate go from single-digit win seasons to perpetual top-10 rankings is that even they don’t necessarily know what they might do next.
“It was difficult to play against us. We called it controlled chaos. They couldn’t find patterns. We’d do one thing and something completely different the next (time),” said 2019 graduate Jessie Eldridge. “We laughed because sometimes we didn’t know what was going on, we just went with it. We had connections and we understood each other, which is why it worked.”
It’s just one example, but watch Colgate’s 2018 national semifinal win over Wisconsin and you’ll start to get a sense of how their “controlled chaos” can tie opponents in knots. The Badgers played smart, smooth hockey with quick passes and a ton of puck movement. Watch the extra frames of that national semifinal here and you’ll see how the Raiders’ play pushed them out of their comfort zone and forced them into mistakes, including the penalty which led to the power play, game-winning goal.
Of all the sports, hockey combines some of the quickest play on one of the smallest surfaces. Fargo wants his players playing comfortably and instinctually, not thinking about which play in a among dozens from a playbook they should be using at any given moment. The only way he wants anyone dwelling on a mistake is to rethink the play and consider how a different choice would have affected the outcome.
“Hockey is a fast game. You have to process the game quickly in order to be an elite player. Thinking is slow, playing free is fast,” said Fargo. “We don’t want our players thinking about where to be and when to be there. It has to be instinctual. We want our team to be predictable amongst themselves, but be chaotic for our opponents.”
While this no-system philosophy is fairly unusual in hockey right now, Fargo thinks it’s the way the game is headed – but he also knows that what they’re doing at Colgate isn’t for everyone. He himself admits that “comfort is structure” and embracing the idea of playing free has pushed his own boundaries over the years. He credits assistant coach Stefan Decosse, who joined the staff in 2016, with helping build this philosophy,
“Stefan has helped me widen my lens and move towards this model of playing free,” said Fargo.
Playing free never was solely Fargo’s idea and his staff, past and present, have embraced and helped enact the concept. The freedom isn’t just for the players, but also presents the opportunity for coaches to focus on skill development and reinforcing the hockey mindset. The team spends a lot of time watching video and practices tend to be a series of game situations that help the players ingrain decisions and reactions to an almost habitual level.
The result is players with improved hockey IQ who see the ice better.
“Playing around and discovering things allowed me to be a student of the game,” said Eldridge. “Each day you went to the rink, you learned something new or a different way than the day before because everything was so fluid.
As a former goalie, coaching his players to see more of the ice and have a more macro view of what’s happening across all the zones is instinctual for Fargo. Playing free blurs the lines between traditional positions and as such, Colgate players necessarily have to widen their field of vision and their understanding of how their teammates might move around the ice.
“The game teaches us a lot if we pay attention. The game is always giving you feedback,” said Fargo.
A player scores or misses. They complete a pass or turnover the puck. Playing free means not being afraid of any of the outcomes when making decisions, but also learning to understand how to change the outcome the next time around.
It’s an ever-evolving philosophy that Fargo and the Colgate staff believe in and the players have bought into. “We Play Free” brought in the top recruiting class in the country last season and has the Raiders ranked fifth in the country. Whether or not it’s the future of hockey doesn’t actually matter all that much. Playing free has proven successful for Colgate in the here and now and the program’s commitment to tweaking, evolving and trying new things seems to imply that if it stops working, Fargo and his staff will have already been thinking about the next thing they can do instead.
It’s the flexibility and openness to possibilities that makes what Colgate is doing so exciting.
“What we’re doing today is also not what we’re going to be doing next year or the year after. As a staff, we are passionate about evolving and finding ways to do things better. We have this mindset internally that we always want to grow. We’re never going to be finished. There’s no limits on what we can do.”