Can the Game We Love Survive?December 23 2009 at 5:57 AM
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Can the Game We Love Survive?
BY JERRY MacDONALD
Elitism, greed, money and a win-at-all-costs mentality are ruining the sport of hockey.
I DON'T know when my love affair with hockey began, or when it ended. All I know is that the game is part of who I am. It reaches back to earliest memory, wobbling on skates three sizes too big on a black-eyed lake as smooth and glossy as the paint job on a '58 Cadillac. Ice so slick that slap shots were banned, the puck known to disappear into the blackness of the ice itself down the endless stretch of our town's northern Ontario beachline. Our games would last for hours, or until we ran out of pucks or froze our toes.
I was never very good, and as time skated by, it became evident that Detroit had no intention of offering me a pro contract. So I became a referee of amateur hockey, and for more than two decades the game was part of life's apprenticeship. The sport offered lessons in humility, the art of retort, of exercising objectivity when thousands screamed at the top of their lungs that I was in need of an eye examination. It was all part of the challenge. Part of the game.
But somewhere along the line, as an official, coach or manager of teams at various levels, I realized that something had changed. Hockey had become "organized." Kids were streamed -- better kids playing with better kids in Rep, less talented youngsters sidelined into house leagues. The game moved inside, and somehow the frozen ponds that developed a nation of hockey players were abandoned. Lost, too, was the concept of playing for fun.
Today hockey has become an 11-month commitment for the talented 12-year-old. Schedules reach 100 games or more. There are "Best Ever" camps, hockey schools and offers of European tours during the summer. And a game that was built on hand-me-down equipment has become a $5,000 or more annual addiction for families with sons in the elitist stream, all chasing the dream of being that one kid in a thousand to make it to the NHL.
I have seen families beg, borrow and even steal to provide their gifted sons with the best hockey equipment and send them to the right hockey schools. As multimillion-dollar pro contracts have grown, so have the dreams of many families that their sons could be earning six figures by age 18, a million dollars at 20. I have had ten-year-olds tell me they'll "never be any good" because they play house league, tier two.
A generation ago most 15-year-old Canadian boys continued to play the game. Today more than 83 percent of those who start playing hockey drop out by age 15. Hockey is dying at that age level because it is no longer fun. Because it costs thousands of dollars to play. Because it is too violent. Because many of the gifted ones have played more games by the time they are 15 than the pros in hockey's "golden years" played in their whole careers. Because if they haven't been drafted into junior hockey by age 15 -- Grade IX -- chances are they are "going nowhere."
Why have we allowed this to happen to our game? And where is it headed? To find out, I spent more than two months travelling across Canada asking players, coaches, administrators and parents.
DR. RANDY GREGG runs a sports-medicine clinic in his home town of Edmonton. A lean, six-foot-four, red-haired man, in 1980 he was captain of Canada's Olympic team in Lake Placid, N.Y. He was paid $4,000 to play for his country, giving up a $150,000 contract offer from the New York Rangers. That year, he says, was one of the last times he played hockey for fun and as a true sport.
Gregg didn't come up via any elite fast track. He tried AA hockey once at 14, but he missed playing with neighbourhood friends and reverted to community-league hockey the next year. At the University of Alberta, he encountered Clare Drake, legendary coach of the Golden Bears, who helped him develop his hockey skills. He spent nine years in the NHL, eight of them with the Edmonton Oilers, and has five Stanley Cup rings to prove it.
Gregg fears hockey may be in trouble. Today's emphasis on winning, he warns, is destroying the true meaning of why we play sports.
He tells of a ten-year-old who was brought to his clinic. The child had been checked from behind and had suffered a back injury. But Gregg couldn't determine why the lad should be suffering the pain he said he felt. "He was a good hockey player," says Gregg, "but small for his age -- like his domineering father who was also his coach. He called his kid a 'wimp.'"
Gregg talked to the boy alone. He discovered that the child had played for more than 24 months without reprieve in regular games, tournaments, practices and hockey schools. "I asked him, 'If I prescribe a two-month rest away from organized hockey, do you think your back will get better?' The boy thought for a moment and agreed it might."
Gregg has many stories of young athletes pushed to the limit by parents in search of their own unfulfilled dreams. He feels sadness for what he sees as the game controlling lives. Such sadness that seven years ago he and some friends set up an organization known as Fun Team Alberta to provide a setting for kids aged five and up and their parents to play sports together for fun.
Games begin with a phone call, kids and parents meet at a rink, and everyone plays. Such a casual, low-cost system creates a love for playing for the sake of playing, explains Gregg. It also hones skills through positive reinforcement as opposed to criticizing mistakes.
In Quebec, Marc Beaudin would approve. He was hired to produce a program of noncompetitive recreational hockey, Hockey 2000, set up in 1989 by the Quebec Ice Hockey Federation (now Hockey-Québec). The program ensures that kids who want to play hockey for fun have a league to play in -- one that guarantees fair play, equal ice time and sportsmanship. In a Hockey 2000 game, the buzzer may sound as often as every two minutes for a line change, and there's no bodychecking.
The program is thriving. Rimouski, with a population of 32,000, for example, boasts 24 teams. A 1992 University of Montreal study of Hockey 2000's impact found that parents were extremely happy their children were playing the game in a healthier environment, and kids were developing into good hockey players.
SIX-YEAR-OLD Nathaniel Sledz emerges from his team's dressing room in a rink in Edmonton. It's Minor Hockey Week and his squad has just won the tournament. With the gold medal draped around his neck, Nathaniel is close to tears. "What's wrong?" asks his mother, Barb. "You won."
"I know we won," replies the boy, "but how come I didn't get my turn?"
For Barb, a career counsellor and mother of three, it was a perfect example of what's wrong with minor hockey today. It gets far too competitive far too quickly. "My kids love hockey and they just want to play," she says. "But sometimes I wonder what values my boys are getting from the game."
Barb talked to Nathaniel's coach about the lack of playing time. Winning this tournament, he replied, was a team goal. He said that it had been decided that if it came to winning or losing an important game, the team would play its best players.
Barb grudgingly accepted his comments. But she resents the priorities of minor hockey. "Pushing six-year-olds to win as the most important aspect of the sport is out of line," she says.
Barb's story is all too typical -- and one that 44-year-old Rick Polutnik wants to change. After years of coaching, Polutnik has a new job working for Hockey Alberta, an amateur branch of the Canadian Hockey Association (CHA). At Red Deer headquarters, he runs a coaching program for Alberta's 250 minor-hockey associations. Fair play, equal ice time, stress on the values of sport -- all are addressed in team and association meetings moderated by full-time facilitators.
"The game has become too demanding for hockey's moms and dads to do it all," says Polutnik. "They need professional coaches who will guide and support them."
MARK RECCHI of the Montreal Canadiens is a small man in what has become a giant's game; his saving grace is finesse, speed and tenacity. A rare cut from the old school, Recchi, 29, credits his success and values to good coaching throughout his amateur career and to his parents, who never pushed.
The big change he has seen in his eight-year NHL career comes down to one word: money. It has changed players, club owners, coaches, parents and fans. Among its casualties, he believes, is respect.
"There's a big difference now in the young guys coming into the game. In my day, you never demanded things. And there was still a great respect for the older players. Most of today's kids don't appreciate what the vets have done for them in creating a path."
Today's million-dollar rookies are chauffeured to the rink or arrive in a $50,000 sports car. They walk into training camp wearing $1,000 suits and order the club trainer around.
That erosion of respect, Recchi believes, begins in junior hockey, where first-round NHL draft picks are put on a pedestal at age 18. Most find themselves with bank balances of up to $750,000. And they sit in a dressing room where other kids take home a $15 club allowance. An attitude develops, says Recchi. "It's a 'me' mentality, and it wasn't there just a few years ago."
But the biggest problem "is the pressure parents put on kids. I see it at hockey schools all the time. It's unbelievable."
MURRAY COSTELLO is president of the CHA, an $11-million organization that oversees an increasingly complex hockey system and its 500,000 young players.
Costello admits the CHA's powers are limited to national championships and international events. In trying to negotiate changes with thousands of minor-hockey organizations and in dealing with hard-nosed hockey executives, the CHA must walk softly.
If Costello had the power, the NHL draft would be bumped back to age 21, from 18. That lower draft age alone, he says, has pressurized the system down to the peewee level (12- and 13-year-olds) and created an atmosphere for scouts, agents -- and greed. "You never find the late bloomers now. That's a shame."
He's also critical of what he terms the "gladiator mentality" in the sport. At one time, checks from behind, the clutch and grab, the hook and spear, and other cheap shots were unheard of. Today they are common at both amateur and pro levels.
Violence on the ice. A "me" generation concerned with money and winning at all costs. Elitism. Athlete burnout. An erosion of respect.
LIKE SO many hockey people in Canada, I fear that the business of hockey is replacing the sport itself. At every level, it is becoming "Entertainment" -- packaged like All-Star Wrestling and Roller Derby. Hockey has given so much to this country -- pride and character -- that criticizing it seems blasphemous. But the dropout rate and declining values alone testify that if we don't move to protect it soon, we will lose its essence. And with it, we will have lost a part of who we are.
Re: Can the Game We Love Survive?No score for this post
|January 4 2010, 3:36 PM |
Amen! Great post. I couldn't list all the pro teams or tell you what team is in 1st place in the NHL, but my kid loves the sport and has fun playing it. Youth hockey is more like a cult than a sport especially at the upper levels in my opinion. I could never write an article as well as this but share the same concerns, and have a lot of the same thoughts and observations. Some are killing the sport they love and what is really sad is that they don't see it. The constant one upsmanship by each parent, each coach, and each organization is slowly killing hockey. A sport being cost prohibitive, has an elitist persona, and that is becoming exclusive is headed for one thing, the history books of sports and what once was.
From a St Louis guy.
Re: Can the Game We Love Survive?No score for this post
|January 4 2010, 4:26 PM |
Well written, but the basic premise of the piece is wrong: that parents are spending all this money to chase the dream of putting their kids in the NHL, a pipe dream.
The posters on this board and others treat the parents of youth hockey players as mentally challenged. "They do it all, because they think Little Johnny is the next Gretzkty". It is not true.
Almost every parent that I have ever met in hockey, gets it. Most of them get it. Why do we do it then? Spend all that money? All that time?
Some of it is selfish. There is no greater spectator sport for a parent than youth hockey. One hour. No rain outs. Watch your kid: compete, overcome fear, smile, score a goal or two, push himself to a higher level, condition himself, use it as a tool to develop himself into being a better athlete for other sports. It's all good.
My experience is that the hockey community is a great community as well. Nice people. Not dumb. No more disillusional than the baseball parents, the football parents or the wrestling parents. All of those sports also split into travel and house league levels. It is the nature of youth sports.
At the end of the day, if its too much for you and your son...the time..the expense...the over the top parents...the elitism...the high drop out rate...you can do what every American has always had the right to do...You can choose not to participate...and you can criticize from the sidelines...
And I will wish you well during the third hour of a ten year old baseball game where 90% of the batters are walked, or in the ninth hour of your son's wrestling tournament where he has seen the mat for a total of three minutes. I will stick with hockey. It is still the coolest game around.
Re: Can the Game We Love Survive?No score for this post
|January 5 2010, 7:55 AM |
4:26 I think the original poster illustrates how hockey has evolved and he compares what it once was, vs. today in Canada. Sixth paragraph of your post says it all. It defines the perception most people have of the sport and its participants. This perception will kill youth hockey in the long run.
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