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The Youth Hockey Monsters

Relax It's only A Game
Relax It's only A Game
Parents Canada

Holy moly are youth hockey parents out of their fuckn’ minds. Yes, I said it because it is really the best word that totally describes the personalities. I know in the writing world you should not curse or swear, but the more and more I am involved in this youth hockey world it is very apparent. Hockey parents across North America are becoming certified nut jobs. Parents need to really take not just a step back, but several. The fun, enjoyment, and satisfaction of youth hockey is being completely sucked out like a python suffocating the life out of its pray. We as a hockey society are really in a sad and depressing state.

It seems that just about every week you read about parents being banned from rinks for unsportsmanlike conduct. Just recently in British Columbia, Canada a parent faces legal charges for threatening a 10-year old player in the locker room after a game. Too many sport headlines in recent years are being made from the negative actions of youth hockey parents.

I often joke with many people about my own personal experiences or share stories from friends in the hockey circle. I am not really sure yet if I am amazed or in utter shock from the things parents say and do. Seriously though, it is time to change the environment. The time has come perhaps to make parents take classes and be responsible in order to watch their son or daughter play the game. If young players are being held accountable for their on-ice performances, then mom & dad need to be as well for their off-ice actions. Right now it seems the game would be a whole lot better with just players, coaches, officials, and scouts in attendance only. Of course that will never be, so parents need education and awareness. The time is now.

My Own Personal Experiences

When I decided to get involved at the local, youth program five minutes away from my house I was honestly very hesitant. My father had coached a few of my teams during my minor hockey career and I remember a few tales being told over the dinner table. Though fast-forwarding to today’s hockey realm the ante just seems to be upped a lot more chips than in the past.

But one fall day, the phone call came. It was a Saturday morning and just a couple of days prior to my son turning seven. The previous season in his pony program, I was simply a bystander enjoying the modest hockey parent life from outside the glass. Life was good. Life was easy. Life was rewarding. Then my wife graciously volunteered my services and hockey knowledge as my son moved into a House ‘A’ program. Her rationale was that I was going to be at the rink regardless, so I might as well offer my hockey wisdom to young kids -- so the journey began.

For me this past season as a pee wee hockey coach was certainly interesting to say the least. For the most part over the last six years my coaching venture lacked of parent drama for the most part, although this season has brought some reality TV material. Just prior to the season’s end, I announced to my parents and players that I would not be returning to coach at this particular association. There were several reasons for the departure, but what transpired afterward was shocking to me.

Several parents totally ignored my presence at the rink and now turn their heads the other way in the grocery store when they see my wife approaching. Another dad exclaimed to others that he would have his kid take my son out physically next season if our paths ever crossed in a game. Really! Putting a bounty on a 12-year old kid’s head. Wow! Seriously. Now these also were families that we have played together over the last five travel hockey seasons and my son goes to school with friendships created. It is just complete insanity over a simple game where nobody gets paid, no Stanley Cup is on the line, and is supposed to be played for fun.

Parents really need to take a look in the mirror. Parents are so reactive and do not really understand situations. It seems they love flying off the handle without doing their due diligence to create the drama made for television. If parents would only take a back seat and enjoy the ride, not only would their kid benefit more, but so too would the rest of the hockey circle. As USA Hockey promotes, “Relax it’s just a game.”

A few weeks back prior to tryouts I voluntarily reached out to a player and his father, offering advice of where to play. I clearly pointed out to the dad that trying out for another team where my son was going brought no guarantees for a roster spot as I was no longer the head coach. Being the better person, I reached out after being informed of the bad news that this player did not make the cut. Instead of the father thanking me for something I did not have to do, he gave me verbal abuse over the phone and then quickly hung up like a child.

Honestly, I just don’t get it. The sad thing is my stories are nothing compared to some of the doozies I’ve witnessed in the past or have been told.

The Prestige Thing

There is such a status thing in the youth hockey these days. It is a rat race just like the corporate world. Adults today will say and do anything to get to the top. Nobody is taking a step back and asking, ‘Is going non-stop, traveling across North America going to make my son and family happier in the long run? Is this even right for my child?’

It is a high-stakes race in communities and associations across the US and Canada. The obsession with travel, off-ice training, and having mandatory clinics can be overwhelming. Many parents believe there is a fast track to the finish line instead of just letting the marathon play out naturally. Youth hockey is not just running from August to April, or even November to March like during my youth days, it has become a 365, 24x7 sport. Some parents from my area make 3-hour treks in the spring and summer time every other weekend to Canada in order to play in tournaments. The “Keeping up with the Gretzky’s” mentality as I call it is out of control.

The parents want little Johnny to wear the ‘AAA’ warm-up suit so bad, they do not even stop and realize if that team is truly the best route for their son’s development. It is disgusting but many will take the 3 shifts a game instead of the greater opportunity with more ice time and puck touches.

I understand kids have a burning desire to keep the blades on, although I believe USA Hockey needs to start practicing what they preach. You see countless emails and articles about players needing to diversify their athletic profile by playing other sports in the off-season by the governing body in the US, but there is no regulation or enforcement. The two and three-sport athlete is a dying breed. Yes it easier said than done and there is more logistics involved and the process to fully incorporate would be quite difficult and costly. Still I think things can be reformed.

Many parents think that disarming sounds good, in theory. The problem is they are reluctant to try it with their own kid. You see so much of follower approach, rather than a leader mindset. Many hockey parents are non-hockey parents, meaning they never played the game in their adolescence days. Today you see more and more hockey personnel trying to take advantage of the uneducated mom & dad that have big aspirations for their son. I get it; it is all about making a dime. Our society is to blame for that because now both parents work to make ends meet, family time has suffered because of it, and the importance unfortunately today is about making money. Don’t get me wrong. If you are a kid who has a passion for the game and is doing well at the bantam and/or midget level, then that’s great. By all means enhance your game and follow your dream.

But if the kid is sleeping three hours a night, grades are suffering, and he is getting mentally and physically burned out then that’s not okay. The whole basis is: ‘Are you really helping your kid become successful by pushing them so hard and so early in his career?’ Some parents think the physical and mental fatigue is false. They are not properly educated and think another sport takes away from the development of the player and exposure to scouts. In fact, it is just the opposite for kids playing lacrosse, soccer, or baseball as it fosters hand-eye coordination, agility, and foot speed. All key attributes involved in being a successful hockey player.

I have listened to parents talk about their child at the U10 and U8 age needing to play in showcase tournaments over the summer because this is where Johnny will get recognized and placed on the hockey map.

So, the pressure mounts. If it is the NHL you are looking for, you don’t have to go to the game as eventually the game will come to you – if the player is worthy. There are reasons why certain players make it to the big leagues. Their physical, mental, and emotional abilities are superior to the others. I agree that extra time and effort is required to reach that level, but also will state this comes in due time at the proper age, and these players are blessed to begin with. Another novel idea is to communicate with the player to see what his/her aspirations are and allow them to steer the ship in their career. As a hockey community, just allow these kids to live their life and let ice chips fall where they may.

Parents’ Judge of Talent

The crazy side of parents is knowing your child’s true talent out on the ice. I understand many of the moms and dads out there do not know how to make a saucer pass, create center-lane drive, understand how to run a 1-3-1 power play, or never competed in the NCAA Tournament back in their day. But it is absolutely amazing the rose colored glasses being passed around hockey rinks by parents. It is almost as if you are at a 3D premier of 'Superman' at the movie theaters.

My son recently had his bantam minor tryouts a couple of weeks ago. He decided he wanted to challenge his skills and leave a Tier II/AA association for a Tier I/AAA organization. I watch players and games at various levels for scouting, and I played the game so my perspective is obviously different. I see when a player makes that soft 8-10 foot pass on the breakout with pressure on him along the wall, or has his stick properly placed in the passing lane to create the turnover, or knows to put the breaks on by the net for the rebound, and the ones that display strong hockey IQ all around the ice.

I am reality and know where my son stands to his strengths and weaknesses. He sees and thinks the game well with good skills sets. Unfortunately Mother Nature is not on his side at the moment in his physical development, thus plays at a disadvantage right now at age 12. Like many hockey players at the younger ages, the development of his size, strength, and muscle is needed. Again, it is OK, there is no rush. There is no finish line. There is no 3, 5, or 10-year plan. His destiny will play itself out naturally. Only he and he only can decide his future in the game of hockey. It is his future, not mine. Heck, he might even play lacrosse longer than hockey. But it seems I am of the minority for sure.

Now I do not want to discourage or pigeon hole players, but the majority of players are average at best. There is a condition out there called “mass delusion”. Man or man, do hockey parents have it. Fathers and mothers at all ages and levels, across the lands truly believe their son is grooming for the NHL and that NCAA D1 scholarship. Parents will hop from organization to organization until they find that ‘AAA’ team and make every excuse in the book of why their son did not make the best team.

There are some statistics available, many are dated a bit, but in all essence the odds of playing in one NHL game is well over 1 in a 1,000 players. The likelihood of receiving that full-ride to BC, BU, Michigan, or Minnesota is not that much better with players invading campuses from not only the US and Canada, but Europe as well these days. Not to mention of the 59 Division I schools, not all offer athletic scholarships either. A prime example would be the 2014 NCAA Champions -- Union College Dutchmen. Plus, most scholarship money is spilt between multiple players. Only the elite are offered the 4-year, full package.

Today, too many parents in the present will also try to use their business and corporate titles to seek influence in what kids make rosters. They are the ones that will try to cut down every brush in the way in the forest to create the artificial path of success, instead of allowing their son to produce their own natural avenue of achievement. They feel because they have success and financial well-being in their professional life, that this gives them the exemption card to place their hands in the pot and stir trouble up.

I wish sometimes parents could be assessed punishments. A 10-minute penalty and game misconduct for ignorance, selfishness, and dishonesty.

Relax It’s Just A Game

As I mentioned prior, it seems lately there have been several occurrences of hockey parents confronting officials, shouting matches with coaches, and actual fist fights between adults in the stands. Taking an analytical stroll down YouTube searching “hockey parents fights” will bring up plenty of video that will sicken your stomach.

I have not really been able to wrap my hands around it, but I assume since the game of hockey has grown leaps and bounds over the last several decades, with again most parents not participating in the sport when they were young, leads to much of this craziness. Today parents are highly involved and invested, living vicariously through their child. Hockey is a fast-paced game with physicality, thus adrenaline rush is something of the norm. There is too much structure and not enough ordinary play. Kids don’t even spontaneously play out in the yard together anymore; it has to be a “play date” mentality with complicated iPhone or Android scheduling.

But why some parents act in total outrage is just shameful. Hey I get it to a degree, since competitive juices get flowing during games. Yet yapping and degrading others kids, or blatantly abusing the officials on a constant basis is nuts. Enjoy the game and cherish the moments your son plays because quite soon he will probably be in a local, beer league.

I have a good friend that has and still battles brain tumors. His son plays hockey and I cannot even imagine the stress on his family and the thought of one day not being able to watch my son wheel the puck up ice from behind bench or from the stands. Sure a day will come when he will be forced to hang up the skates, although I cherish the games and practices as I see him starting to develop from a boy into a man. Many of us need to relax and ride the wave. Appreciate what you have and not so much what you don’t have. Stop running the race and doing everything it takes to be #1 or what you perceive is the top spot on the pedestal.

No question we all want the best for our children and being recognized in sports is certainly evident. There is no special recipe for the ultimate success. Yes we can extend lessons, buy expensive equipment, and do what we can to assist in the greater cause. Though through it all and in the end, hockey players reach their final destination because it’s their life and skill sets. Not yours, not his, not any other – just the individual. Sure there are many people along the way that positively or unfortunately negatively influence the journey, but if it is meant to be, then it is meant to be. And I think we should all leave it at that.

You can follow Russ Bitely for more hockey news, comments, and articles on Twitter: @russbites