By Brian Waivada
Youth hockey….so much to talk about…where to start. For over 40 years I have been a player, coach, parent and Board Member at the highest levels of youth hockey in the US. It’s provided me with some of the most rewarding and joyful moments of my life and also some of the most frustrating and disappointing.
I have been a part of teams that have won National Championships and also teams that didn’t win more than a game or two all season. I’ve seen the game through the eyes of my two boys now for over 10 years as they also experience the ups and downs, joys and pain of this amazing sport that has given so much to us.
I have seen a bit of a trend however that is a touch frustrating. I see many people post things online about youth hockey/youth sports and from my perspective, almost all of them are taking shots at “crazy” “overbearing” “over competitive” parents. We push our kids to play year around, we push them to play one sport, we push them to go to multiple camps/clinics and pay thousands of dollars a year to try to make them the “best” and these “experts” tell us not to….they say “play multiple sports, let them have fun, this isn’t the NHL, just relax”.
In my opinion and based on my 40+ years of experience though it’s not that black or white.
Parents do shoulder a lot the responsibility for this but the finger should be pointed at the youth hockey organizations as well.
Organizations that are focused on winning and not about development, that choose the “shiny new toy” over the child that has worked his butt off for your organization for the last few years because it might give you a couple extra wins, organizations that charge for “advisors” to help your children and direct them to people in their network, organizations that turn a blind eye to misbehaving children for the sake of winning, organizations that promise spots to kids before the tryout even occurs, organizations that actively recruit…all for the sake of winning or to put a few extra $ in their pocket.
Just because an organization does one or more of these things…does that make them the evil empire or bad people? Not necessarily. You can have an overall great organization and do one or more of these things for any number of reasons.
It’s a vicious cycle…clubs want to win, want the prestige of being district or playoff or national champions and many will do what they have to do to get there. Parents see that the kids that play year around and pay for privates and take lessons from coaches in their organization are many times the ones being picked for these top teams so they push to do the same. And don’t think the kids are oblivious…they see who’s picked, they see what those kids do to get there, they see the internal pressure to be on a “AAA” team because if not, the odds of you making a district or select team are very slim.
Who is going to step up to stop this? My hope is that a Tier 1 organization somewhere will step up to be different. Don’t go recruit. Develop kids internally. Reward the child that busted his butt for you for the last several years with a shot at AAA instead of bringing in someone from the outside.
Be upfront and honest with your parents and kids. Don’t give the kids false hope just so they stick around and you get extra tuition. Hold kids accountable for making bad decisions and have serious repercussions for any physical or verbal abuse. Take pride in developing fine young men. Make tuition more affordable and stop chasing the last $. And for goodness sake, please stop complaining about how much pressure there is and how tough it is on YOU at tryouts…it’s NOT about you…it should always be about the kids!
How many organizations can say they successfully developed players from Mite (or even Squirt) up to 16U at the Tier 1 AAA level within their organization every step of the way? I can think of one prominent national organization…by most accounts they do just about everything the right way but as of today they only have 1 boy on their top 16U team that has been with the organization since Mite and 1 on their top 15U team that has been with the organization since Mite.
Maybe that is the norm, I don’t have enough exposure to other prominent organizations. If your true goal is to develop great young men and also great hockey players, 2 players developed internally, out of what was probably a pool of 70 or 80 to start, that can still play at the highest level of 16U does not seem like great developmental success.
And I know we have not even touched on the NCAA. I understand that when you have boys that are not even freshmen giving verbal commitments to play in college that is a problem. Kids see this. Parents see this. You can say “be patient” “hockey is a late developing sport” “trust the process”, but it’s hard to ignore. So are the rankings. Really…we are ranking 13 and 14 year olds? Guess what, the kids see it and they do pay attention.
As I said it’s a vicious cycle and it’s not just in hockey. Many other youth sports suffer from the same issues. While it might be a popular perception among coaches, it’s not just the “crazy hockey parents” that have put us here. There is plenty of blame to go around and I hope USA Hockey takes a closer look at what the true mission is for youth hockey and take a closer look at what their member organizations are doing for the sport and it’s future in the USA.