An Open Letter From A Hockey Parent – Stephen Austin

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 When your kid is six years old and he or she steps on the ice for the very first time you cannot help yourself from thinking in terms of the unlimited potential of what a human being possesses. You think, we will get the skating down in a few months, then we can start working on stick handling, then shooting, then back skating, etc.… etc.… Next comes the inevitable expectations that start to build in your mind especially when you used to be a player yourself, whether you were any good or not. Expectations of them, their future coaches, teams, achievements (maybe the kid will go pro?), but most importantly yourself. You decide that your kid isn’t going to make the same mistakes you did playing the game. You won’t let them not work hard enough, not set high goals, not want it enough. They will succeed where you failed because you love them enough and you won’t let them. You tell them what you were told by your parents and coaches, just work hard and you will get noticed; put the time in, it will pay off in the long run, keep trying out for A, AA, or AAA.  Too easy right, heck that’s what the pros say, that’s what coach tell us, USA Hockey preaches it, must be true! So here is my question. How can a kid who has worked hard, done everything you have asked them to do, stayed out of trouble, earned good grades, not get selected for the Tier III (the lowest skill level) Junior Hockey Club he wanted to play for? When did the plan start to fall apart? What did I do wrong? How did I fail the kid? I don’t know but here we are at 16 years old wondering for the first time if there is any hockey worth playing next season before we give collegiate hockey a go, un-scouted.

Like most military kids mine has moved more times than the average adult will ever need to relocate over a lifetime. Most of those moves were to places that never even knew you could skate on frozen water, i.e. Fort Polk, Louisiana, so there have been gaps in skill development to be sure. Every move has meant a major disruption in my kid’s life. New house, new school, new friends, and most relevant to the issue, new youth hockey clubs. Each move came with a requirement to prove himself to the prospective team that the kid would play for. After every move before the hockey season even would start I turned into a salesman; shaking hands, volunteering my time as a coach, team manager, video recorder, score keeper, penalty box, whatever it took to build relationships and be “supportive of the team”, in addition to writing the $1,800 to $4,000 check of course. As a “supportive” hockey dad you learn the rules. There are things you do not do. You don’t berate your kid for poor performance, a lesson I learned the hard way and am grateful I could learn from! You don’t teach your kid to play differently than the head coach, though there is no such thing as one way to play. You don’t question the head coach’s decisions or competence. You don’t wonder why the coach or assistant coach’s kid is named team captain or how much ice time they get. You don’t question how your money is spent, even though certain families don’t even seem obligated to pay everything you do. Lastly, you never question the club on how they select players for their teams…ever. Those hockey dads that violate these rules soon find their kid playing down in the house league or on some fly by night, can barely pay the bills, ad hoc youth travel organization, you know the ones, mix matched uniforms and equipment, coaches that can’t skate, etc… Many years of biting the tongue, looking the other way, and kissing the rear ends of people that have no business making a livelihood, some upwards of six figures, at the expense of my pride, dignity, and bank account have passed since my kid first played competitively in Alaska. I learned the rules well.

Where did the coach grow up, Minnesota? “Yep sure do miss the old days of the Minnesota North Stars, hockey has no business being in Dallas, Texas, amen!” Board President from Boston? “Yes sir, Boston College has the best power play in Hockey East!” Head Coach is Canadian eh? “You betcha coach, Americans don’t know squat about ice hockey, thank you so much for moving down here to teach us ignoramus’ how to play your national sport!” Need me to run a practice, no problem, shovel off the rink (outdoor Alaskan rinks at minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit), no problem, get the water bottles and pucks, no problem, drive your kid to practice, no problem. Need a volunteer for a board committee, clean up from the team barbecue, pitch in for the end of season gifts, no problem! Anything to support the team, it’s “all about the kids” after all which is why we are in youth hockey to begin with. You love your kid and you want them to play so that is what you do. Some people do even more but that is another subject altogether.

Youth hockey clubs in the south, I have discovered, dislike change even more than kids or the military. They select the same coaches, season to season, though they can’t coach effectively. They like the same jersey manufacturers, though they provide a cheap product, never deliver on time, and screw up the kid’s names. They play the same tournaments every season, though they are administered terribly, schedule teams that are either woefully under skilled or incredibly over skilled for the bracket, and book the most overpriced local hotels telling you it’s “stay to play.” My personal favorites are the tournaments that charge upwards of $600 per player so they can “sponsor” a European team who gets free airfare to the U.S. to play in the tournament. The litany continues in perpetuity but most importantly, youth hockey clubs dislike changing players. From mite (8 and under) to midget (18 and under) to juniors (amateur hockey 20 and under) they want to see the same group of kids, cradle to grave. The unofficial motto of the club, “keep’em wearing our jersey and on the ice”, despite success or failure. The justification of any struggling organization is always the same, “if only we had the same players from last season!” That’s usually the excuse when your club attempts to roster a 21 player team to only have 12 show up for tryouts. Failing to realize that they had done nothing to earn the loyalty of the player or their family never seems to enter the club leadership’s collective consciousness as a reason for why they hemorrhage kids season to season.

Youth hockey is incredibly narcissistic. Every season in a typical youth hockey market you can expect to see the same kids trying out for the same teams. The same parents always trying to win favor with this coach or that coach so their player gets his or her share of ice time, a position on a power play or penalty kill line so they can “stand out”, or the ultimate parental ego enhancement, the hallowed “C” or “A” of a Captaincy. Does your kid work hard on and off the ice, show up on time for practice an hour and half from where they live, show up for every game, yeah sure, that’s important I guess. However, can your kid put the puck in the net? Does he play the style or system coach likes? Dad or mom coach, manage, volunteer for the organization? Mom and dad got deep pockets, don’t ask questions? Heck yeah, you’re on the team kid, coach will take you to a national championship, I guarantee it! Like it matters if your squirt aged player wins some obscure tournament in Duluth, Georgia twenty years from now when he or she is interviewing for a job. I don’t even know where all my youth hockey trophies, medals, hats, t-shirts, are let alone care, don’t know many hockey dads that do, since we work for a living. Yet we fall for it year after year and bust out the checkbook. What if your player doesn’t get what you think they deserve, well then, next season we go across town to the other organization, see what kind of deals they want to make. The only limiting factor is how much money you want to throw at it. It is an endless narcissistic cycle repeating itself over and over every year in every youth hockey market in
North America. This is why the same kids get picked for the same clubs every season even though an outsider looking at it says “huh, I don’t get it, that kid is nothing special and he certainly isn’t any better than mine, what gives?” The truth is that he or she probably isn’t but the clubs know them. They are safe and familiar. One thing I have learned is that youth hockey clubs love the familiar and comfortable which is the answer to why so many clubs have resisted the American Development Model. That’s right I am talking to you USA Hockey!

What if you luck out and get the kid on a team that has a really great coach, really great kids and families? Players work hard, earn some wins, everybody enjoys the game, and most importantly the players get better at the game. Well then you hit the lottery because these days it is about the same odds. Stick with that coach, support him or her best you can because they are a rare bird nowadays, like an unladed African Swallow for all you Monty Python fans out there. You’ll know the kids on a team like that because everyone will be chomping at the bit to get back for next season. We were lucky and my kid had that as a first year pee wee in Alaska on a house league team of all things. Guy was great, my kid improved dramatically almost overnight, skating, shooting, stick handling, everything. Unfortunately he had the bad habit of rewarding the players that worked hard instead of the spot-lighters and he was subsequently fired. Recall the above reference of things you don’t do. Well as a coach you don’t NOT play the kid’s whose families have deep pockets and are tight with the board of directors. Again, a different topic altogether.

So now what? My kid didn’t make the team. I’m not made of money so private school is out of the question. All the in state competitive teams, all scheduled their tryouts on the exact same weekend. Why you ask? Well so you and your player have to choose which basket to place all of your eggs. Eggs being a metaphor for hopes and dreams of playing NCAA or ACHA collegiate hockey. Now we really have no choices that involve my kid playing junior hockey AND staying in the same high school for senior year which brings us full circle. I am now back to being the salesman, sending emails out, linking highlight videos, making phone calls, and spending large amounts of money traveling to other states for tryouts. Hopefully we find a coach who will see the same things in my kid that I do and leave the empty promises at the door. Promises like, “play a year of 18U for us and you’ll make juniors next year” or “come up to our spring showcase in Boston”, $300 on top of travel expenses by the way, “so we can take another look at you.” Let us not forget another personal favorite, “well if a guy gets hurt we can always call you up from 18U”, which nobody has ever actually witnessed happening at any level besides professional hockey. If an when another organization wants to take a chance on my kid then the real fun begins, getting a family to room and board with, changing high schools, talking momma into letting her kid leave the nest a year earlier than expected, and last but not least, writing a huge check ($11,000) to cover all the expenses. All for a big fat maybe at getting developed enough to play collegiate hockey. Yep, sucks.

In the end what have I really learned as a former hockey player, coach, and dad? I have learned that there are so many other, better things I could have done for my kid. I should have made the hard decision and told my kid, “sorry, we are moving to North Carolina, not upstate New York, hockey just isn’t mainstream enough there, you’re playing football.” I literally could have saved my family tens of thousands of dollars, weeks and months of lost family time traveling, and priceless emotional turmoil. I could have saved money up front and sent him to private school. I could have left him in Alaska to play and board with friends who still resided there, but I didn’t. Instead I brought him to the south to play a northern sport. How stupid, arrogant, and naive am I? Unfortunately you can’t go backwards. My kid still loves the game and wants to play in college. I still want him to play. I’ve had friends, relatives, and hockey parents ask, “When is it time to stop throwing money at hockey?” I always tell them, there are two kinds of youth hockey players, kids that like to play hockey and kids that are hockey players.  Hockey players play hockey. I made my kid a hockey player, now where’s my checkbook?