By Jamie McKinven
1. Hockey is a Fun Game. Period.
Hockey, in its purest form, is recreation and nothing more. The number-one goal in all youth sports is to have fun. When kids begin playing hockey, they don’t know the meaning of the word “salary.” They have no idea what a contract or an agent is, or why NHL players go from one team to another. When kids first develop an interest in hockey, it is purely for fun. Too often this cold, hard fact is forgotten and becomes lost amid a torrent of ego, politics and misdirection. When things become crazy and stress levels escalate, hockey parents need to take a deep breath and repeat this three-letter word over and over again: F-U-N.
2. Development is More Important than Winning
Not too long ago, I had the unenviable task of listening to one of the hockey parents tell me that their 10-year-old son has been crying himself to sleep for the past week because he has been getting two shifts a game, rotting on the bench. The coach wants a championship and since it is the AAA level, he has decided that he will do whatever it takes to win.
Some people say, “When you’re playing AAA hockey it’s about winning, and if a kid sits on the bench, they sit on the bench. If you want to get equal playing time, go play house league.” I completely disagree with this. The fact is, every parent pays for their kid to play at the AAA level and the mandate is still development and fun. It’s not junior hockey, college hockey, or pro, where players are commodities. We’re talking about 10-year-old kids with developing bodies and minds.
When I was 10 years old, we won a few tournaments. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you where the tournaments were even held, and all of the trophies and medals I received are long gone and forgotten. I’m not where I am today because I won a 50-cent plastic medal at the Eganville Invitational in 1991. Winning is not important when you’re 10 years old.
3. Don’t Worry About Status
The biggest misconception in hockey today is that if you aren’t playing AAA, you’re going nowhere. I hear it all the time: parents stressing because their kid got cut from the AAA team. It’s the obsession with the letters in rep hockey. It’s a ridiculous fixation with status.
The fact is, kids are going to develop at different stages. The child who dominates at the Atom (Squirt) level isn’t necessarily the kid who dominates in Bantam, Midget or Junior. In fact, that 10-year-old prodigy may decide to quit playing hockey within three or four years. Most of the kids who dominate at early ages are the bigger kids who are just physically stronger than everyone else. Within a couple of years, everyone else catches up and then it might be someone else who emerges.
From Atom to minor Bantam (10 to 14 years old) I played AAA. For the majority of that time, I sat stewing on the bench. I was always the smallest kid on the team, and always had coaches who were obsessed with winning. I loved hockey—which is what kept me going—but I saw a lot of kids who were in similar situations as I was pack it in. The turning point in my career came when I was 15 and was cut from the major Bantam AAA team (which at that time was the major junior draft year). Subsequently, I went down and played A-level Bantam and had the best year of my life. I had a great coach who played everyone and I was playing at a level that was perfect for my development at that time.
The next season I played Junior C hockey, followed by four seasons of Tier II Junior A. I then received a full scholarship to play in the NCAA at Clarkson University and, after graduation, played four seasons of professional hockey in the ECHL, CHL, and in Europe. If I hadn’t been cut and gone down to play A-level Bantam, I never would have played beyond minor hockey. It was an experience that opened my eyes and changed my life.
Playing against the best players possible doesn’t necessarily make you a better player. It’s no different than bringing up a rookie too soon to the NHL. In the long run, it is better to play at levels that are ideal for the moment in time, while developing your skills and increasing your confidence.
4. Don’t Compare
One of the worst things parents do in minor hockey is compare their kid to others on their team. This does nothing but create animosity, and is a terrible result of insecurity and jealousy which can have a damaging effect on kids. Comparing kids creates strained relationships between parents, which often filters down to the kids themselves. It’s the, “Why is Jimmy getting more ice time than Johnny?” Or, “Why is Suzy’s line starting on the power play?” It’s no different than the typical workplace jealousy: It spirals into paranoia. If you as a parent act like this, your child will see it and constantly compare his/herself to everyone else. Which is extremely detrimental to building confidence.
5. Avoid Politics
Don’t get caught up in minor hockey politics. It’s not hard to get a reputation as a troublemaker, and whether right or wrong that reputation follows both the parent and their kid around. When I was coaching Tier II junior A hockey, one of the factors that came into recruiting and making the final selections was family life. At the higher levels, you look to get a glimpse at possible character traits. If you are deciding between three 16- or 17-year-old players who are almost identical in skill, potential, grades, etc., and you are about to invest the time, money, and effort and introduce them into your culture, you take family influence into serious consideration. If one kid has overbearing, meddling parents, you almost immediately cross them off the list. It’s sad, but it’s true. The last thing coaches at higher levels want is to bring in a kid who has grown up with parents who fight all their battles and run around making excuses. It’s a bad example to set and it’s damaging to the culture of a team and the success of your child.
6. Always Be Positive
A recent survey stated that the one aspect of minor hockey that kids fear the most is the drive home. It’s the fear of criticism, and for a child it’s cutting. My dad was always really positive with me when I was young, and I think that was what got me through the tough years in minor hockey. I was always put down because of my size, but my dad always said, “Don’t worry, you’ll grow. Just keep having fun with it.” There were lots of other kids who had yellers and screamers for hockey parents, and it wasn’t long before they gave up on the game.
When I played hockey, the one thing that I hated more than anything was when I would make a mistake in a game, skate back to the bench, and then get reamed out by the coach. Couldn’t he tell by my head-shaking and slumped shoulders that I was well aware of my mistake? What good does it do to state the obvious, other than to kick someone while their down? Who benefits from this?
In my first season of junior A hockey, I had one of the best coaches of my career (Steve Carter, who played for the Belleville Bulls of the OHL and later for the Fort Worth Brahmas of the CHL). I can remember the first time I made a boneheaded blunder on the ice that season. I made the long, lonely skate back to the bench and braced myself for what I thought was sure to be a blasting, followed by a long ride on the bench. But what happened next was the most uplifting experience of my hockey career: Coach Carter put his hand my shoulder, leaned down to my ear and said, “Relax, kid. Now get back out there and make up for it.” I went back out with my head held high, full of confidence and determined to reward my coach for his positivism and trust.
7. It’s a Marathon, Not a Race
Most kids who play hockey dream of making it in the NHL. As a parent, it’s great to support your kids and do whatever you can to help guide them through the journey. One thing that’s important to remember is that the journey to the realization of this dream is that it’s a marathon and not a race. If times get tough when your kid is 10, 11, or 12, it’s important to remember that it’s all about developing and getting better, and that nothing is written in stone. There are so many stories of kids taking the long road to reach their dreams. Always keep that in mind, especially when the horizon looks cloudy.
8. Always Take a Step Back
As a parent, your first instinct is to protect and defend your child. If you feel he or she is being wronged or a situation is unfair, you want to lash out and hurt those who would dare bring harm to them. It’s only natural. That being said, it is important for hockey parents to always take a step back and put things into perspective. You need to understand that your actions will have consequences, and those consequences affect you as well as your kid (and others).
In 2000, Thomas Junta (look him up; it’s a sad and tragic read) let his paternal emotions get the better of him during a situation at a minor hockey practice. He spent 8 years in prison for his actions. It all resulted from a typical situation that happens every day in hockey rinks around the world.
Last week, I was at a minor peewee game watching a friend’s nephew play. I brought my 2-year-old daughter along because she loves watching the Zamboni. Throughout the game I heard every curse word in the book aimed at players, coaches, other parents, and referees. Some of the yellers were people I recognized from real estate and insurance ads in the paper. Do these people believe I’m now going to buy a house or a policy from them? I wondered what they would think if they were able to watch themselves on video.
Actions and behavior have consequences. Before you lose your cool, take a step back and put the situation into perspective.
9. Be Aware of the Signs
Not everyone who starts playing hockey is going to want to do so forever. Even kids who are the best players on their teams and play at the highest levels can develop other interests or lose interest in hockey altogether. There is nothing wrong with that. Kids often try different things throughout their childhood before they decide on what truly interests them. To be more in tune with this, pay close attention to their body language and subtle cues, because quite often kids are too afraid to tell their parents that they don’t want to do something any more out of fear of disappointing them.
10. Educate Yourself
If your kid is serious about their dream of playing in the NHL, and you want to shell out colossal amounts of money and provide moral support, educate yourself as much as you can about hockey and the different stages of development. Learn about what is important for development and which path is best. Absorb as much information as possible from as many sources as you can find.
One of the biggest obstacles for kids and their families at crucial times in the development stages is lack of knowledge. For example, in the past few years I’ve seen dozens of kids throw away their NCAA eligibility in order to play a handful of major junior hockey games, simply because they didn’t have enough knowledge. They think that the only path to the NHL is from AAA minor hockey to the OHL to the NHL. They simply haven’t educated themselves on the subject of hockey and the various levels and paths.
Jamie McKinven scratched and clawed his way up to the minors, only to fall short of his ultimate dream of playing in the NHL. McKinven currently coaches his former Junior A team, the Kingston Voyageurs of the OJHL. He is the author of the book “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” which is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com. For more information visit his website, www.glassandout.com.