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A Polite Reminder: Minor Hockey is About Fun

A quick heads up: this article isn’t about the Edmonton Oilers, but it is about hockey. In fact it relates to every sport.

The past few days I’ve received over seven or eight emails from hockey parents, some venting about the lack of ice time for their child. Minor Hockey week is underway in Edmonton and surrounding areas, and it seems some people get caught up in the opportunity to win.

I understand that. Winning is fun. But at what cost?

Let me state there are hundreds and hundreds of excellent minor coaches in all sports. They volunteer their time and do a fantastic job. There are a few, however, who get to caught up in winning and lose focus of what is really important for kids when they are 6-12 years of age and just getting into athletics.

I loved my minor hockey experience. I enjoyed it. We didn’t have minor Hockey Week in New Sarepta, Leduc or Beaumont where I played my minor hockey, so I can’t relate to the excitement of winning it. I did play in playoffs and Provincials though, and I assume the excitement of the games is the same as MHW.

All my coaches were good. But I did quit my Pee Wee team because it wasn’t fun. My coach was too serious. He benched kids often, usually the same ones regardless of how they played. It wasn’t fun sitting on the bench even if we won. When you are 11 and 12 years old you want to play. I told my parents it wasn’t fun and my mother said, “If you are going to quit you have to tell the coach yourself.” It was a great lesson. It was my decision and my parents weren’t going to tell him.

I had to go the rink and tell him face to face. I remember feeling uncomfortable, but I don’t recall exactly what I said or his words, other than something along the lines of, “Quitting isn’t good.” I didn’t play for the remaining few months, but I played the next year and that entire experience still taught me a lot.

A few years later, late in my final year of Midget, something personal came up for our head coach. I can’t recall exactly what, but he had to leave the team for a bit. We didn’t have any assistant coaches,  just one head coach, Lee Redding, and he was great. So my former Pee Wee coach became our head coach. And he played me a lot. I was older and out of all the kids who he had played ahead of me in Pee Wee, only one of them, Darcy Werenka, who became a second round draft pick of the New York Rangers, was playing at a higher level. It is a reminder to coaches that worrying about who the best player is when kids are nine, ten or twelve is short-sighted because so much can change in a few years. Play them all, so they all have an opportunity to develop.

Despite what people think, all the studies show hockey is still a late developing sport. It makes sense, because no parent, coach or even player knows how driven, focused and passionate a child will be about the sport they play when the reach 15 or 16 years of age and they have to make a major commitment. Often, parents and coaches want that for young children, but the truth is you can’t instil that drive in them. You can’t make your 16-19 year old son or daughter sacrifice their social life and other things so they commit full time to a sport. The player has to do that and it has to come from within. They have to be willing to eat right all the time, go to bed early and train countless hours.

No one knows in Novice, Atom or Pee Wee how truly dedicated their child will be. We can hope ours will be, but you don’t know.

In Midget, Coach Scott and I got along great. I didn’t hold any grudges, nor did he, from our separation in Pee wee. I believe to this day he was better suited to coach older kids, when being competitive matters a bit more, but not younger ones. He cared, which is ultimately what you want in any coach, but he was pretty fiery and it didn’t work from my vantage point when I was younger. But he was excellent when I was older and more competitive. He knew the game and he demanded hard work. Those are great life lessons to learn, and what what sports is ultimately about.

No one should enrol their children in sports thinking they will become professionals. Enrol them for the life experiences they will learn and all the fun they will have playing, interacting with teammates and going on the odd road trip.

Many years ago Steve Simmons wrote this article about minor hockey. It is a great reminder of how kids view minor sports different than adults. Please read it. Send it to parents on your team. We all need a reminder of what matters in minor sports, and right now in hockey.

I also wanted to share this. My brother sent this to me many years ago. He coached minor hockey for many years, and from what parents and kids he coached said, he was a stellar coach. He loved his time in minor sports and I look forward to coaching again now that my son is old enough to play sports. I am a competitive person, but I wasn’t when I was young, and I hope that when I coach I remember it is about fun first, second and third.

Here is an email written by an anonymous hockey parent.

My son, tonight you lost.

My beautiful son,

Tonight, you lost. Tournament semi-finals in the balance, with the buzzer only seconds away, and the shot yours to take…you missed. That moment of glory you’ve spent hours practicing for, both on the ice and in the basement, taking thousands of shots at the net, vanished, never coming to fruition.

I felt your heartbreak from the stands where I sat watching…where I always watch. Win or lose, I always will.

It was palpable, the weight of your sadness, your disappointment, your guilt as you skated off the ice. I saw it in your eyes as you looked up from the bench on your way to the locker room, and even as I told you that it was okay, I knew you weren’t even close to okay. I felt it in your hug after, in the way you held on and didn’t let go.

It was a monumental moment in your life because it didn’t happen. Because everything you’d been taught about hard work paying off, about practice making perfect, didn’t give you the trophy like it does in the movies.

This moment, my beautiful boy—this hard, painful, disillusioning moment—is why I put you in hockey.

First, I’m so sorry. I see how hard you practice. I know you fight, work, and claw for every ounce of skill you’ve developed. Your work ethic is something both dad and I are flat-out inspired by. You are driven in ways that humble me, that show me it’s not always about some golden touch of talent, but sheer force of will. And your will is so strong.

Second, even though I’m sorry it happened, I’m also glad. Hear me out.

You were three the first time you saw your big brothers skate. Four when you stepped out on the ice for yourself after a year of begging.

It was not love at first sight. In fact, you glared at me through the glass through your first lesson.

But holy crap, did you show up for the second, with a trademark look of determination on your face.

We put you in hockey because you asked. We kept you in because you fell head over heels for a sport that would soon become part of who you are all the way to your toes.

Ready to be stunned? We didn’t put you into sports so you’d win trophies, or championships, though you’ve done both more than a few times. I know it seems commonplace to you, but state championships are rare, and the fact that you’ve won two is something you’ll look back on with a sense of awe that you just can’t comprehend right now.

But we do.

We didn’t put you into sports so you’d get a college scholarship, or have a chance at going pro. We didn’t put you into sports so we could live vicariously through you, either. Trust me, showing up to the rink at 5 a.m. is not our idea of fun.

Sleeping is our idea of fun.

But I digress.

We put you into sports for four simple reasons:

  1. We wanted you to learn to listen to someone else besides us. Aka… your coach.

One day you’ll leave our house (at least I hope you will) and you’ll need to listen to people in places of responsibility without me there to buffer for you. Your professors, your bosses. Your wife. Totally kidding. Kind of.

  1. We wanted you to learn how to work with others — teamwork. Yes, you have a ton of brothers and a couple sisters, but the camaraderie you develop on a team can’t be duplicated. Add to that the nine months a year you spend together and you’ll know why we call our team our hockey family. Hockey is a weird, abnormally long season that seems to stretch year-round lately. We also love the years when birthdays align and your teamwork includes your little brother.
  2. We wanted you to understand hard work and goals. No, not just the ones on the scoreboard, but the ones measured in the speed you cross the blue line, the perfected pass, the number of assists you have. We needed you to find joy in the work, and the payoff, to know that hard work isn’t all pain, but a hefty amount of happiness, too.
  3. We put you in sports so you could lose.

Stay with me here. You are a beautiful, brilliant kid. You’re going to change this world as you grow to a man, I have no doubt. But part of adulthood is understanding loss. Channeling it. Choosing how it will change you, or if you’ll even let it. Your dad is a big, tall, strong guy, and you will be, too. The last thing I want is for you is to be that big, that strong, and undefeated. Because it’s the strength that truly matters—strength of heart—that develops from the losses.

Wins are easy. Wins let you strut away, let your ego grow, let you grow complacent in what you find to be awesomeness. I’ll always high-five you after the win. Always tell you how proud of you I am. How much I love watching you play.

I’ll always do the same when you lose.

Losses are where the growth occurs.

Losses are where you learn. Where you examine what went wrong. Where you figure out what went right, and how to duplicate it. Where you learn how to accept the things you could have done better, make peace with yourself, and then fight to improve.

Oh, my boy, the losses are so much more important than the wins.

And they hurt. I know they hurt. And I hurt for you. I hate that life won’t always hand you the trophy. I hate that it won’t always be easy. You won’t always be the most talented on the ice, the field, the court. But good God am I proud that you’re always the most determined.

There’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of when the scoreboard doesn’t go your way—not as long as you left it all out there and gave it every ounce you had.

In all honesty, I’m prouder of you in the moments it doesn’t, and you still hold your head high, still say, “good game,” and look the opposing players in the eye. Prouder still of the way you attack the next practice, whether it’s on the ice, or in the basement.

I’ve said this a million times: I’m raising good men who might play hockey, not hockey players who might be good men. And I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but this moment is helping to carve you into that man. The one who understands pain, and loss, and determination. The one who knows how to cope with the inevitable disappointment life will throw your way. The one who will work harder, and be even more grateful for the next win. The one who still finds joy when others can’t.

My boy, I’m so sorry you lost. Sorry that your heart hurts. Sorry that your moment slipped through your fingers.

But I’m not sorry about the man you’re becoming because of it.

XOXO,

Mom.

P.S. – I’ll always love watching you play, no matter what happens, or how it goes. I’ll always be there in the stands when you look up. Unless you turn into one of those kids who slams his stick when he doesn’t get his way—then I’ll be the one yanking you to the car in your gear…with love, of course. Until then—skate on. I’ll be here.

Enjoy the remainder of Minor Hockey Week, but don’t lose sight of what is important.

Let all the kids play, don’t just play your best kids in hopes of winning, and be sure your kids and players are having fun.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • rivid

    I will disagree with somethings you write on here in regards to the Oilers, but as a father and a coach l couldn’t agree with your more on this article. Great work Jason! This is something every parent should read regardless if their child is in hockey or any other sport.

  • Butters

    I have 2 sons in hockey, and I have never regretted it for a second. There are the odd over zealous parents, but they are few and far between. Referee abuse, never seen it, not even once. There are a lot of really really good people in hockey, playing.coaching, volunteering etc.
    Hockey isn’t everything, but it is one of the best sports to enroll your child in.

    • Serious Gord

      I’ve seen plenty of ref abuse. Recently a teenage ref who is friend of my son’s stayed in the ref changeroom 1/2 hr longer for fear of confronting some of the parents. And I guess it’s taboo to talk about the conduct of many parents at games my son played against teams from reserves…

      • I went to one of my nephews games once too, and I saw a teenage ref being verbally abused by the other team’s coach. The refs called a lot of penalties that game. But it’s pre-contact hockey (I want to say he was maybe 11 at the time) and the other team was doing stuff that were clear calls. Eventually the other team probably had like 3 guys in the box, and their coach was just livid, screaming at this ref that looked like he was maybe like 15 or 16. The fans on the other side were also screaming too. Eventually one of the refs tossed the coach, to the delight of the fans of my nephews team.

        In my attendance of several of his games, I’ve found parents can be a bit annoying and try to micro-manage everything (“shoot! pass! do this, do that!”). I’d rather they just cheered and watched the game and let the coaches coach. But I haven’t seen anything too crazy out of the hockey parents.

    • yahsper

      Lots of Ref abuse goes on. Cops came to our rink last winter because of two coaches escalating their “feud” . Tier 4 atom girls. Embarassing and neither coach was relieved of their volunteer position. Great message there. My son just plays through as he lives it. We always point out idiot behaviour and reward him with praise and whatnot for his conduct on the ice. At 10 years old he realizes some parents are goofballs and he knows how lucky he is to have great coaches who respect the game in its entirety
      Fortunately there are many great parents in hockey and we try hard to surround ourselves with positivity.

      • Serious Gord

        This was our experience as well. My son learned plenty about how not to deal with people and about politics and favoritism and corruption. He loves sports but the BS really dampened the fun.

  • Datsyukian

    True, but kids in North America are pampered beyond impossible these days. If they are bad at something, up to high school everyone still says how good they are, how great of a job they did and how talented they are (even when there is no talent whatsoever). And this translates into a culture where you cannot tell a person eye-to-eye – be it at work or at school – that they are not good at something and they better go and pull their socks up. I grew up in a different culture where your coach or your teacher would tell you as a 10-12 year-old that you suck, and while that was hard, it helped make you tough. And now I am ready to take all the trashing.

  • The Off Ice

    Decorum should also extend to hockey blogs as well. Some bloggers post with vitriol and intensity that reads like a manifesto. How can kids learn from parents when some parents level cheap shots anonymously at others? Hockey is just a game.

  • polsy

    A quick comment in defense of some of the parents and coaches who get emotional during MHW.

    They all know its for fun. They know their kid is not a future professional. The other thing they know is just how much their kid, and their kid’s teammates, care. MHW is a big deal. Kids get fired up for it.

    The last 2 years my son’s team has lost out in heart breakers. By the time I get to the lobby from the dressing room my jacket is covered in snot from a half dozen kids, and my upper lip is as stiff as it can get.

    When you know how much the kids care, and you care that much about the kids, you can’t help but care as much.

    The letter from the mom is amazing and sums up how I feel. I’m so thankful for those losses. I’m thankful for the tournament. It’s an amazing thing to watch 7, 8, 9, 10 year olds give every single fibre they have in a 2 on 2 on a random wednesday night in January. And it’s amazing to see just how much it matters to them when they lose.

    So for those parents and coaches that give so much to develop and support these kids, show them some patience when they yell occasionally or get emotional. Delay your judgement a bit. It comes from a place of love for most of them. As a coach and a dad, it matters to my kids so it matters to me. If they are willing to care so much that they will sob on the ice, then I will care enough to fight for what’s right for them. I recognize all the volunteers are humans, and that they are giving their time and doing their best, please recognize that same thing in the parents and coaches.

  • I had many coaches over the years (including my dad at some point – yeah I was that kid, for a bit, but there was no favoritism!), but 4 sets really stand out in my memory.

    The first coach I remember coached me as a little tyke for several years, and I have nothing but good things to say about him. He was amazing. Great teacher, taught me a lot of things that I still think about today. His family became friends with our family eventually, as we were all from the same community.

    Next coach stands out incredibly negatively. He had his own son on the team, who was fairly decent, but not that great… but he favored the hell out of him and yelled a lot at the rest of the team, which was too young for this. He had his favorites and non-favorites, so ice time was managed, and this was probably peewee or just before. I also remember his son being a diver which was embarrassing to watch.

    The third coach, I still remember to this day, and I’d love to meet him in person again. I think I was playing Peewee or Bantam at the time, both of which were full contact then and a bit before hitting from behind garnered more attention. I was very short for my age, but stocky. The coach indicated to me in a practice that he felt I was too scared going into corners (although I actually loved the physical aspect of the game). So to “train this out of me”, he stands at centre ice with his son and me and dumps the puck down to the other end and tells us to go get it. I win the race, and his son drills me in the back into the boards, which were about 5 feet away. Excellent life lesson, thanks coach… not sure if I was ever that scared of such plays before, but that should really help with that.

    Lastly, one of my Bantam years, we were coached by 3 younger guys (I’d guess in their late 20s, early 30s). They were on par with my first coach and they were nothing short of fantastic. They made playing fun for everyone. They insured everyone was involved. They threw a party or two at one of their places. They were a funny group too, so every practice even was a great time for everyone.

    One day I’d like to repay the favor of the first and last coaches I mentioned and coach a younger group of kids. That would be quite rewarding. I’m not sure there’s a group in need of an off-the-glass-and-out teacher, but I’d go out of my way to ensure every kid felt included and was having fun, as that’s what those two groups of coaches did… that’s the way it should be.