I truly worry about what is going on in minor sports. No one seems to be having any fun anymore. There is so much pressure to win. So much anxiety about making it to the next level. So much animosity and dislike for others who are involved in the game. We have college coaches who have to recruit student-athletes in grade eight and nine in order to be successful and compete against others who do the same. We seem to have difficulty in celebrating others successes if it means we haven’t succeeded. We don’t like the refereeing, we don’t like the coach, we don’t like players on our team who don’t pass enough, we don’t like the goalie who let in the shootout goal in the tenth round to lose the game. Where has all the fun gone?
My son will be turning 16 years old tomorrow. This morning, he got on a bus with his high school buddies at 6:00am to travel three hours to Buffalo, NY for a hockey game. He plays on the “junior varsity” team with players from grade nine to twelve, non-contact, a mix of former AA players and some former house league players. They play a 15 games schedule from November to March and practice three times a week for an hour after school.
I love watching their games. Why? They simply play the game because they love to play the game. You can see it on their faces when they come to the bench at the end of a shift. You can see it in the mad pile of celebration when they won a game 8-7 with a last second goal – not the Stanley Cup, just a mid-season game. I heard it this morning when my son’s alarm clock went off at 5:30am and his feet were instantly on the floor. There is nowhere else these players would rather be today – sitting on a bus for six hours, playing “international” hockey, being a team and being with the team, working hard together, no parents even thinking about driving to Buffalo to watch (and judge). No one is missing today’s school game because they have an “outside” game with their club team. This is their hockey. They pull on school jerseys with no names on the back, they sometimes don’t have matching gloves or pants or helmets – and that’s OK. This is the essence of what hockey should be about for the multitude of players who are not going to the NHL or to Major Junior or to College and University hockey or going to play at the Olympics and to play on the national team. This is the love of the game that we have lost somewhere along the way.
I also got to experience the love of sport over the past three weeks while being part of our national women’s university team at the Winter Universiade (university games) in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I served as video coach and team leader for 22 of our top university players playing in the CIS. It was an amazing experience that truly showed to all what the love of the game really means. Although we came away with a silver medal after losing the final game 4-1 to Russia, there is much more to sport than just the colour of the trophy at the end of the day. Our head coach Rachel Flanagan wrote a heartfelt post on Facebook yesterday and I am sharing it with you below. Although this experience is a far different one than playing “junior varsity” high school, there are more important things to the game than wins and losses.
“We came for Gold but left so much richer…
Almost 36 hours after returning to Canada from the 28th FISU games and I find myself trying to find closure after dropping the gold medal game 4-1 to Russia. During the 27 hours in transit from Kazakhstan to Toronto, I spent a lot of time reflecting on what could we have done differently… Could we have spent more time on special teams? Should we have had the D pinch aggressively? Did we give the team too much to think about???
Then, after a good 12 hours of sleep, I started thinking differently… I thought about the kindness of the Kazak people and the pride they took in leaving a good impression on all of us from around the world. The sold out crowds at almost every women’s game. The games against China, Great Britain and Kazakhstan who, despite being severely outplayed and outmatched, were so grateful for the opportunity to play against Canadian players and who gave it their all for the full game regardless of the mounting score lines. I thought about our team, who recognized that after 4-5 goals it was disrespectful to continue to high five the entire team along the bench and how well they represented their country.
I continue to reflect on the group of women who were selected to represent USPORTS hockey at this event. Their camaraderie, character, respect and discipline would make any coaching staff proud and I applaud their parents and coaches who have instilled these important values in this group of young women; Women who will go on to be teachers, engineers, police officers, doctors, etc. and will contribute to the goodness in this world and be role models for the next generation of girls who play.
We kept reminding the team that their goals, assists, points, saves and wins will not be what they remember… They might remember the hard beds, scalding showers, crazy bus rides, excessive honking, eating horse meat, cold cooked vegetables, biking through Amsterdam, volunteers in green jackets, selfies with strangers, “eh po lei lei”, Ruslan, outdoor speed skating and spending a few hours at an outdoor rink with adoring fans… but mostly I hope they will remember each other, the laughter, the tears and wearing the Maple Leaf.
It was a tremendous honour to coach this team and I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to get to know these wonderful young women. I’m especially grateful to the staff (Kelly, Howie, Rick, Jean and Nat) for sharing in this experience and I hope their memories will be like a vintage wine, better with age.
Our goal was to win a gold medal – but we all left so much richer…” – Rachel Flanagan, Head Coach
This is the love of the game that we have lost somewhere along the way.