Thanks to the recent successes of the Pittsburgh Penguins, youth hockey participation in western Pennsylvania has skyrocketed. Currently there are 35 organizations in the Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League (PAHL), and several more developmental, school, and Tier I organizations such as the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite forming in the area each year. These teams are allowing young boys and girls to live out dreams of being just like Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin on the ice, become better skilled at a game they enjoy, and have fun with their friends. But as any hockey parent will tell you, all of that fun comes with a hefty price.
Sticker shock first begins with tryout fees, with the average ranging about $350. Once a family decides on an organization, fees for the entire season, depending on which level the child plays at, can start at $1,000 and can cost well over $5,000 at the older and elite levels. Please bear in mind those costs do not include jerseys, socks, or any other type of equipment. Those fees also do not include any tournament or hotel costs a team may do throughout the season. What do they cover? Ice time, for games and practices, which is high in demand with so many teams in the area, and alas, not cheap.
In addition to the family budget taking a beating, the family schedule will take a few dings as well. Depending on the player's (and family's) level of dedication, hockey can be a year-round sport. The average team begins practice in August, with scrimmages running in September, and a regular season running from October to March. Children then can choose to participate on spring teams, which run from March to May, and several rinks, Most notably Robert Morris University Island Sports Center in Neville Island, have summer leagues which run from May through July.
As for practices, while the stereotypical vision of 6:00am practices every day still rings true in many people's heads, most of the time it's simply not reality. Most teams and organizations have set evening and weekend practices. The game schedules are released far in advance so families can properly plan. However, as children get older, their practices do get later. A bantam (average age 13) could have practice start as late at 9:00pm. If that same child has to wake up early for a school bus, the schedule can be daunting.
So what can hockey families do to lessen the pain?
1. Plan and budget ahead of time. Know what you are willing to pay and what you can afford. Talk to your organization about fundraising opportunities. Several work concerts and sporting events to offset the costs. Also talk to the organization itself. Most if not all are willing to work with a family to help them pay the fees at their own pace.
2. Schedule the best you can. Make sure school still comes first. If that means getting to the rink early and taking the books with you, then do it. Most local rinks also have WiFi, so take the laptop too! Pack snacks and meals so your family doesn't have to live off of fast food. For kids with later practices and early bus times, keep a blanket and pillow in the car and allow them to rest on the road.
3. Learn how to say no. Let's do the math here. There are thousands of kids playing hockey just in the Pittsburgh area alone right now. There are just over 600 players on an active roster anywhere in the NHL. Chances are your kid isn't getting drafted. Your child does not have to play on every team, in every tournament, and you as a parent are not bound to spend every last cent in the family savings on sticks, helmets, or skates. This is a youth sport. It's supposed to be fun. The family is still supposed to be a family at the end of the day. Always remember that. Hockey should not take over your life, or the lives of parents, other siblings, or even the child who is playing the game. It's okay to say no.
Hockey is a great sport for kids to play. But it requires a big commitment from everyone in the family. Be sure everyone knows what they are getting into before signing up.