From rising costs to heartbroken children, there are many flaws that currently plague the minor hockey system in North America. As we transition into a new era of holistic development, how can we help change the system for the better?
Here are 5 ways we can address major flaws plaguing minor hockey today:
1. Change the Vision
Mission statements aside, the vision of today’s minor hockey system is focused around selling the NHL Dream. There is nothing wrong with dreaming big, it’s what kids do best, but, we need to remember or realize that the NHL dream is a 1 in 1,000 shot. It’s a lottery dream. The problem with making this a focal point is all of the negativity that comes along with it. From an obsession with winning and statistics to status and fights over playing time, everything that is negative about minor hockey can all be linked to the pressures of chasing what is essentially a pipe dream.
I’ve spent the last few days, scouring minor hockey sites from Prince George, BC, to Fort Myers, FLA and there are a lot of similar themes. Almost every home page has pictures of kids celebrating victories and championships. Some of the overarching organizations are promoting graduates currently in the NHL, with posts celebrating the careers of the 0.001%. I totally get it. We’re selling the dream, and it’s dreams that keep us motivated. But, is this really the best model? The business analyst in me can’t help but look at the vision and see the flaws. Why can’t we change the vision to be more inclusive and celebrate the transferrable values of youth sports. Why can’t we celebrate the fact that individuals from all vocations can use the tools and values they learned in minor hockey and successfully apply them to everyday life?
The fact is kids are being setup to fail in a system that sells the NHL dream as its main focus. Even reaching the high levels that I did in hockey, I was extremely disappointed in myself because I didn’t reach the NHL. It is an all or nothing mentality that is a major part of the culture of hockey development in North America. It wasn’t until much later that I understood the hidden transferrable values that hockey had given me—something that just wasn’t a focus and still isn’t in minor hockey. It’s a backwards approach. It’s a quantity-based development model when it should be focused on quality.
2. Align Development with Priorities
Every year I get asked to coach AAA minor hockey in my community and every year I politely decline. When asked why, I simply state, “Firstly, my wife would kill me (it is a huge time commitment). Secondly, the way I would run it would piss too many people off.”
“What do you mean?” He replied.
“Well, I would hold a meeting at the beginning of every season and tell all parents the following: I am a big believer in developing all players so everyone is going to play in different situations and have fun. Everyone has a right to learn and develop and it’s my job to make sure each kid has fun, develops on and off the ice as a well-rounded person, learns valuable transferrable skills and values, and plays with peak confidence. My priorities are: Fun, Development, Respect, and Teamwork. Winning is a by-product of development. Winning is not a priority for me.” I said.
He replied, “You can’t do that, man. It’s AAA. You have to promote your top guns and play to win. Winning has to be a priority, that’s why it’s called competitive hockey. If you want to play everyone, you should coach house league.”
To me, that is such an old school mentality and is debilitating to youth sports. I hear dozens of stories each day from people about kids coming home crying after playing two shifts of a game. When I was 13 years-old, my coach told my dad he should stop wasting his money and pull me out of rep hockey because I was never going to do anything with it. I used to be the kid who was the “grocery stick” (sits in the middle of the bench between the forwards and the defencemen and doesn’t play). I sat and watched 16 other kids play, game-in and game-out. 21 years later, myself and two other kids on that team played professional hockey. The fact is you never know when kids are going to peak. To promote some and not others is short-sighted and detrimental.
3. Fix the Ratio
I’ve mentioned this before in other articles. Kids are playing far too many games and not practicing enough, in comparison. I asked a parent of a AAA peewee player how many games his son played during the winter season last year and he said with tournaments, exhibition games, regular season games and playoffs it was around 65 – 70 games. He said they practiced on average twice a week, usually 3 games a week and sometimes travelling three hours to games on school nights. During his minor midget AAA season, Connor McDavid participated in 88 games during the winter season. These numbers don’t even include spring or summer hockey games, which a large portion of kids partake in after the winter season.
The biggest complaint I hear today about minor hockey is the cost. Annual winter season registration for AAA is between $3,000 – $5,000, not including additional costs like equipment and travel and accommodation. After a season, it’s not uncommon for families to be out $10,000. One way to help reduce this is to reduce the amount of games played and tournaments entered. As it stands, the only league in the world that plays more games in a calendar year than AAA minor hockey is the NHL. Games cost more than practices, yet it’s in practice that kids develop more. Reducing the games played from 70 to 40 and scaling back from 5 tournaments a year to 2 or 3 will drastically reduce some of the associated costs and allow more families to afford to put their kid into competitive hockey.
Hockey is still packaged and sold to families as a “blue collar” sport. Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby came from blue collar families, rose up and achieved glory and riches beyond their wildest dreams. This view is all a big part of selling the dream. Unfortunately, most families today are being priced out of the sport. Not too many families can set aside $10,000 a year for recreation. This is all due to a quantity over quality model.
As a development specialist, I see a lot of burnout today in hockey. I see highly-stressed parents, worried about status and finances, and I see kids who are under an enormous amount of pressure. I hear the word “investment” a lot when it comes to minor hockey careers, a word that should never be tied into youth sports. Financially, minor hockey has reached a serious tipping point. Something’s got to give.
4. Develop Partnerships
Hockey in North America is big business. This isn’t going to change anytime soon. With the growth of hockey development, we have seen a meteoric rise of hockey development companies. More and more families are purchasing the services of these companies for skill development clinics, power skating, private lessons and other specialized hockey services. Many young players now have advisors or mentors and are engaged in off-ice training. The three-sport athlete is fading and the emergence of specialization is the new rage (whether this is right or wrong is an article for another day).
These companies have joined in the marketplace and have begun going head-to-head with minor hockey associations. These companies greatly capitalize on the “Keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. If Johnny Superstar is going to XYZ Hockey School, then everyone else will follow suit. This new era of development has pulled strong coaching candidates from the minor hockey coaching ranks. Why coach for peanuts and deal with constant headaches and pressures when you could make more money, commit less time, and run things the way you want without restrictions?
If these hockey development companies aren’t going anywhere and provide good services, how can we make it work so that costs aren’t going through the roof? The answer is partnerships. If minor hockey associations start partnering up with these hockey companies to provide high-level development services, you will see a stronger, more integrated development experience. The fact is, most volunteer coaches (all great people) aren’t usually equipped to handle high-level specialized skill development. For years, goaltending development suffered in Canada due to the lack of expertise in minor hockey organizations. By partnering up with a hockey development company, organizations can benefit from a roving goalie coach who works with all the goalies in the system throughout the season, limiting the need to shell out thousands of dollars on the side for private lessons.
Another way to help reduce overall costs is to create partnerships between youth sports organizations within the community. When I was playing pro hockey in Europe, I was amazed at how they conducted business when it came to youth sports. In many areas in Europe, there are “club” organizations that include multiple sporting teams spread across several levels. For example, I played pro hockey for HK Partizan, which was part of the Partizan sporting club family. Partizan had pro teams in hockey, soccer, basketball, and handball, as well as youth sports levels under the Partizan umbrella all the way down to tyke. It was much easier to secure major corporate sponsorship through this model and allowed families to register their kids in multiple sports throughout the year at reduced costs.
5. More Transparency and Accountability in Governance
Too many people are able to play God in youth and amateur sports. From league convenors to coaches, it’s far too easy to be sleazy. The amount of corruption and abuse of power I have seen over the years in minor hockey and at the amateur junior levels is enough to make me swear my kids away from ever playing hockey. It has to change and the reason it hasn’t, despite knowledge of the corruption, is due to the “ol’ redneck judge and jury” setup. It’s an old boys club and everyone has each other’s back. It’s a broken system and needs more transparency and accountability. From the selection of teams to the way grievances are processed, there needs to be more transparency and a formalized process in place that ensures objectivity.