THE COST OF AAA HOCKEY

 

By: Topher Scott


As the youth hockey season comes to a close, I am reminded almost every day that this is the most chaotic time of year for hockey parents.  It’s that crazy stretch where stress, anxiety, and the fear of unpredictability casts a dark shadow onto our sport at the youth levels.

So I got to thinking…really…

Why so much craziness? Why do people lose their minds at this time of year? Why do people get so invested into literally a youth sport?

And as I thought about it and then spoke to a lot of my friends and colleagues in the industry, the answers that kept coming up were these:

“Making it” and “Money”.

And too often, nowadays, people believe that the two are becoming intertwined.

The “Making It” piece is an interesting part to this crazy youth hockey equation.  First of all, “Making It” can mean a whole bunch of things to different people.  It could be junior hockey, college hockey, NHL…but that’s not the point.

Parents are being lead to believe that the process to “Making It” begins younger and younger by the year.  The professionalization of our sport has trickled down to even the youngest of levels, and parents are feeling the pressure to make the right decisions for their kids (where to play, who to play for, what level to play at) at way too young of an age.

And when we talk about parents and what they want for their son or daughter…wanting them to “Make It” usually comes with a severely negative connotation.  It’s almost like we talk about parents as being overbearing and doing whatever it takes, ethically or not, to make sure their kid gets to the next level.

But while there are certainly parents like that out there, I have a different take based on a lot of the conversations I’ve had with youth hockey parents as a whole.  Most just want to see their kid succeed because it’s their dream.  And they will go to the ends of the earth to help their kid achieve that dream because they love them and want to see them be happy.

And this, in my opinion, is where AAA hockey is failing them.

Look, AAA hockey was started to give kids the opportunity to play with and against other top level players…a notion that I don’t think anybody would deny makes kids better.  But AAA hockey’s model, unfortunately, has shifted from a “developmental model” to a “business model.”

Year round sport specialization.  Insane amounts of games.  The emphasis of winning over development (Hello, myhockeyrankings).  This is what AAA hockey has become.  While playing with and against other top players will always challenge kids and help their development…the other aspects of AAA hockey are hurting it.

It’s especially hurting the parents who are struggling and feel like they have to keep up.  They feel the need to pay an incredible amount of money to make sure their kids aren’t getting left behind.

And man, if I had a nickel for every time a parent expressed to me the fear of being “left behind”…I’d have a lot of nickels.  A LOT of nickels.  It’s really unfortunate that so many families feel that way.

So I posed the question on social media to the parents of youth hockey players.  I wanted to see how crazy the costs have actually gotten.  I asked them:

How much money do you spend in a typical year, ALL-IN, for your kid to play AAA hockey?

And WOW.  I got A TON of responses. Thank you so much to all of you that took the time to reply!

It was really interesting to read all of the emails as the responses came back with so many different tones.  Some parents were disgusted by what they wrote.  Some were surprised as they hadn’t really taken the time to think about it.  And some said that they’d do it all over again, every year, because they couldn’t put a price on their kid’s experience.

It was a pretty eye opening and informative exercise, to say the least.

So what I’d like to do now is have an honest conversation about the state of money in youth hockey.  After looking at the responses and speaking with knowledgeable hockey people, there’s a lot to dive into.  And we’ll break it down through these two questions:

1.What are families paying to play AAA hockey?

And

2. Why is it so expensive? (And what can we do about it?)

OK, Here we go…


What are families paying to play AAA hockey?

This question, my friends, comes with an incredibly diverse set of answers.  Because…well…it depends.

It depends on where you live.  It depends on how much your kid plays during the spring and summer.  It depends on what position your kid plays (sorry, goalies).  It depends on your kid’s age.  It depends on whether your kid plays split season or plays a full AAA season.  It depends on whether your kid belongs to an “Academy.”

There are a lot of factors that go into it.

Families out West (in the US) are paying more than families in the Midwest or the East based on location and miles traveled.  Families with older kids are paying more than families with younger kids.  Families that pay for a full season are paying more than families that pay for a split season.  The variables cast a wide range of total costs.

When I started this project, I wanted to provide an average cost to play AAA hockey in the US and Canada.  But after recognizing that there are so many different factors that go into it…it would be disingenuous to give a “one-size-fits-all” average cost.

I had emails of families that pay $5,000.  I had emails of families that pay upwards of $50,000.  And while I don’t think it’s right to give an average annual cost, I would say that a sensible range would be about $10,000-$20,000 per year.  If you are under $10k, you are probably playing a split season, in MN, younger, or are extremely lucky.  If you are over $20k…you are probably traveling way too much.

I would say that a majority of families fall within this range.  But still…ten to twenty grand per-player, per-year.  For kids to play a youth sport.  Really?

Take a step back and think about that.  Seriously, it’s insane.

So let’s dive a little deeper into how we got here…


Why is AAA Hockey so expensive? (And what can what can we do about it?)

Why is it so expensive? It comes down to four major areas:

1. Travel

2. Ice Costs

3. Coach/Administration Fees

4. Equipment


1. Travel

I knew that families spent a lot of money on travel for AAA hockey.  But I had no idea how INSANE the numbers actually were.  For most families, travel was their biggest expense.

If you live out West in the US, you are talking somewhere between 5-10 plane trips per year and easily over $10,000 for a season.  With two plane tickets, 2-3 nights of hotels, food, and rental car at minimum…yikes.

But even if you don’t live out West, teams are still spending an incredible amount of money on out of town travel.  I had families from cities with multiple AAA organizations saying they pay upwards of $10k as well.

Why?

My opinion – An overemphasis on exposure over development…and Adult Ego.

Let’s start with the overemphasis on exposure over development.

First off, if your kid is a pee-wee or a bantam…EXPOSURE DOES NOT MATTER.  The fact that parents at these ages talk to me about being at the right tournaments so their kids can get exposure to “scouts” of the best summer teams for the best summer tournaments or camps…I can’t believe that’s actually a thing.  Just…stop.  Please.

At the midget level, yes, colleges and junior teams are coming to watch.  But you can be smart about where and when you are traveling.  A big time showcase in the fall before the college season starts is a fantastic opportunity.  A flight trip during the college season? Not so much.  Imagine what you could do with your kid’s development with that $2,000 you save.

I get it.  The recruiting is getting younger and younger every year.  But the average age of a college commit is still 18 years old.  Put the focus (and your hard-earned dollars) towards their development.  The exposure will come in time.  Trust me, the better your kid gets at hockey, the more exposure they are going to get.

Now let’s get to the “Adult-Ego” part of this discussion…because I think this is an important topic.

I often ask the coaches and hockey directors of youth teams about the amount of games they play and why they go to so many tournaments during the year.  And the answer is typically the same:

“We want to play against the best teams…and those teams are all at these tournaments.  Everyone else is going to be there so we need to be there too.”

Great.  Pick three of them and go to those.  I’m sure they are great and the kids have a fun experience.  But there’s no need to go to seven or eight of those tournaments.

The biggest piece, however, to this Adult-Ego puzzle, is the widespread emphasis on recruiting super teams rather than the emphasis being put on development.  And this is not just on the coaches…it’s on the parents as well.

There are coaches out there that put more emphasis on recruiting than they do on coaching, no doubt.  These coaches need to get over themselves and understand it’s about the kids and not them.

But there are also parents that strong-arm coaches into doing things a certain way to make sure their kid is a part of the best team.  Some teams even have a parent that is the “money guy”…a parent that foots the bill for some of the team expenses.

Problem is, that parent requires a say as to what goes on, and the expenses being paid don’t necessarily go back to the other players on the team.  They go into the coach’s pocket or the tuition of a really good player they want to recruit.

The by-product of these super-teams is the belief that nobody in the area is good enough to play against…so you have to travel out of town to get any good competition.  This leads to multiple trips that are unnecessary and a whole lot of craziness at this time of year as people try to figure out where to play.

It’s a vicious cycle that seems to play out in a lot of places around North America.

At the end of the day, it’s important to understand and realize that exposure does not matter at younger ages…and there’s a smart way to go about it at midget hockey.  Stop playing so many games…and be smart about the games and tournaments where you do travel.  And if you are an organization, it’s your job to promote (and follow through with action) that your job is about DEVELOPMENT.  Not recruiting.

2. Ice Costs

Ice costs have been on the rise for quite some time now, and here’s the biggest reason why:

The decline in community rinks and the rise of privately owned facilities.

We are seeing more and more individuals and privately owned companies buying community rinks with goals of turning a profit.  They are also building these “super-facilities” with multiple rinks, workout facilities, restaurants, and more…all with a goal of turning a profit.

Where rinks used to be more community based and partly funded by tax payer dollars as a building for community activity…they are increasingly now being turned into revenue generating facilities whose purpose is to bring in money.

This has caused the ice costs to increase to levels that are becoming unsustainable.  The range for an hour of ice at privately owned facilities depends on where the rink is located…but around the US and Canada it can range from around $200-$700 per hour. If you are at that low end, you are extremely lucky.  Most rinks, from the people that I’ve spoken to, are around the mid to higher portion of that range.

To counter the higher ice costs, I think USA Hockey has done a nice job promoting and teaching coaches how to get more kids on the ice at a time during shared team practices.  By doing station based practices and utilizing half a sheet, now the ice costs are being split by more people.

The other thing that we’re starting to see more of though is AAA organizations being in charge of running programming at these facilities.  Where community based rinks used to take their ice out during portions of the summer, these new facilities are now looking to fill as much ice as they can to turn a profit.

So we’re seeing more and more kids at the younger ages being pushed onto the ice during the summer.  And AAA parents are feeling a bit of pressure to attend these camps ran by their organization for fear of being cast as not being as committed as other kids and families.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with older kids using summer ice to work on their craft to get better.  There’s nothing wrong with younger kids going on the ice every so often for a camp or clinic for fun.  But it’s important that parents know that burnout is a real thing at the youth levels.  A very real thing.

Rink investors like money.  The more kids they get into the programming, the more money they get in their pockets.

But I hope that parents understand that while there certainly is more programming going on during the summer, it’s important that kids spend time away from the rink and do other things.  So important.  So important.  So important.

Moving on…

3. Coach/Administration Fees

Let’s face it.  Coaching AAA is moving away from volunteerism and it seems like more and more youth coaches are being paid every year.  That is certainly upping the costs for families who choose to put their sons or daughters into AAA.

A lot of people like to bash on organizations for this.  And I am certainly one of them.  But let’s have an honest conversation about it…

The biggest complaint that I get about AAA hockey is the cost.  That’s why this piece is being written.

But the second biggest complaint that I get about AAA hockey is parent coaches.  It’s incredible how many people have confided in me about their kid’s coach who puts their own son or daughter out in situations they don’t feel are warranted.  I would imagine that 75% of the people reading this have felt that pain at some point…

So I bet if I asked a room of AAA parents if they would pay, let’s say $1,000, to have a non-parent coach…I would actually think that most parents would jump at that opportunity.

And I don’t necessarily think that’s such a bad thing…because coaching at the AAA level is exhausting.  Two or three nights of practice per week, plus the travel.  Helping kids move on to the next level if you are coaching midget hockey.  That all takes a lot of work, and that’s a lot of time to be spending away from family.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with coaches being paid a reasonable sum.

REASONABLE sum.

What does that mean? I’m not sure.  But I think $500-$1,000 per kid for a non-parent coach and their travel expenses isn’t astronomical.  A youth coach getting somewhere between $10,000-$20,000…that sounds a bit crazy.  But I’m not so sure it is crazy based on my conversations with parents.

Honestly, I didn’t get nearly that much coaching midget hockey this year.  I err towards coaches being paid less and I see coaching more as giving back than anything.  But that’s just me.

That’s a subjective call that I’ll leave for you based on your experiences.

Aside from coaches, I also went deeper into more organizational costs because I know there are hockey directors out there that are making six figures.  And to me, that is absolutely nuts.

Absolutely nuts.

But I went into writing this piece with an open mind…so let’s take a closer look at it.

Let’s take a hockey director that makes $100,000.  And let’s take their organization that has 12 teams (boys and girls included).  With twelve teams that would be about 200 kids in the program (round numbers are good for people like me that don’t get along with math).

Using those numbers, that’s about $500 per kid to have a hockey director in charge of setting the foundation for the organization.  Is that totally unreasonable?

Maybe, maybe not.  Again, I’ll leave that to your discretion.  Like I said earlier, I think someone getting paid six figures for youth hockey is absolutely nuts…but when it gets broken down like that and knowing what the job entails, it at least makes me think.

The problem that I see though is that a lot of these organizations have multiple people making really good money.  There are presidents, hockey directors at each level, skills directors, and more titles that squeeze even more money out of the families than necessary.  And let’s not kid ourselves…a lot of coaches and directors are making more than $500-$1,000 per kid.

That’s why I think parents should demand more transparency about where their hard earned money is going.  Through my conversations and emails, it was pretty clear that parents write their checks blindly to the youth organization and don’t really know where each of their dollars is going.  If parents are upset with the costs…ask to know where the costs are going.

There are only so many places that your money can go.  And for the families that are paying upwards of $6,000-$10,000 to your organization alone, which many of you are, I’d want to know where that money is going.  That’s a lot of dough.  And ice, equipment, tournament, and league fees only cost so much.

I can see a lot of parents reading that and being nervous about approaching the organization about seeing where their money goes.  They don’t want to rustle feathers with the people that are in charge of their kid’s hockey journey for fear that their kid will get a black mark.

Well let me ask you this question:

Do you want people like that in charge of your kid’s hockey journey?

Ask the questions.  You’ll either get the answer you’re looking for regarding costs…or you’ll get the answer you’re looking for regarding the type of people you wouldn’t want guiding your son or daughter anyway.

4. Equipment

It was funny how many people who emailed me back when writing about the cost of equipment that either went:

“Phew, my kid didn’t grow much last year so I didn’t have to buy equipment”…or… “Crap, my kid grew like a weed so I had to buy new equipment!”

The costs of putting gear on a hockey player have gotten outrageous.  Skates and sticks especially.  And I really don’t envy the parents of goalies.

But here are some things that I think could go a long way regarding keeping costs down on equipment:

1. Buy equipment as much as you can as a team. The more people buying, the more likely you’ll be able to get a deal from an equipment manufacturer or a pro shop.

2. “Top of the Line” gear…is it really that much better? I don’t think so…It’s all marketing. I used the same shoulder pads from bantams until I retired. They certainly needed a few sewing jobs…but they got the job done. I also used the same shinpads and elbow pads from bantams until college.  As long as the equipment keeps your kid safe, that’s the most important thing.

3. If your kid DOES want top of the line stuff…tell them that you’ll pay for the cost of regular gear…and they will have to split the difference if it means that much to them. I think you’ll find it really doesn’t mean THAT much.

4. My kids will be using wood sticks until they are at least bantams.

5. Keep your receipts on the sticks you do buy…and choose the ones with warranties. You never know.

6. Organizations can implement equipment sharing/hand-me-down programs. Most older players have their old equipment just sitting in a basement…why not recycle it to families that may need to cut down on costs.

At the end of the day, buying equipment is certainly a piece of this crazy-cost puzzle for families.  There’s a lot of equipment to buy, and it certainly isn’t cheap.  But if you use any of the above suggestions I am confident that you can find at least a few ways to save some money.


CONCLUSIONS

Hockey is an expensive sport to begin with, but the way that our AAA hockey culture is conducting “business” is not benefitting our kids or families.  It’s something that keeps me up at night and I will fight tooth and nail to help change it.

My dad said it best when he told me, “AAA hockey is no longer for the best players.  It’s for the best players that can afford it.”

I believe that the cost of high level hockey today is starting to price people out.  Great athletes and great people are choosing other sports because of the insanity of the costs.  We are becoming a sport of the “elite”.  And that is not right.

I hope to be a part of the solution that keeps as many great athletes inside this hockey family as possible.  That is how our sport will continue to grow and be great.

So now, to end this post, I want to make a few challenges to those who are reading this.

1. I want to challenge the AAA organizations. I want to challenge them to provide a complete structure of a developmental model for their kids. From top to bottom, progressing from the youngest kids to the oldest.  If I asked all the AAA hockey directors to show me their developmental structure and philosophy, I would guess that a majority don’t even have one written down.

That’s because AAA teams operate more like individual fiefdoms ran by certain parents at specific age levels rather than cohesive units ran under one organizational umbrella with the same mission.  And that is a problem because all of the leaders of those teams have very different agendas and only care about that single group.

If I’m a parent, I want to know what the organization’s stance is on the amount of games a team should play. Their stance on playing multiple sports.  How important myhockeyrankings is to them.  Their qualifications in hiring a coach.  I want to know their stance on skills vs. systems.  What they think are the most important life skills their coaches should be teaching.  How often a team should be traveling.

Those are important, important building blocks of any youth hockey organization.  They should be clear, concise, on their website, and plain for everybody to see.  That way, parents know exactly what they are getting when they sign up to pay for the program…and they can hold their coaches accountable for not adhering to the principles that are set.  Providing a sound and complete structure of developmental principles should be the starting point for every conversation organizations have with any parent or kid.

I want to challenge them to walk their talk as well.  Preach development, yes.  But then back it up with action.  Judge your coaches based on how their team looks at the end of the year compared to the beginning.  Not where the team is on myhockeyrankings.  Stop talking about that site, it is the worst thing that ever happened to youth hockey.

AAA organizations can be a lot better with these principles and with walking the talk.  They all preach development, development, development.  But 60-70 game seasons, ridiculous amounts of travel, year round hockey, recruiting super teams…that’s what AAA hockey is today.  And that ain’t development.  It’s far from it.  If you’re about development, PROVE IT.

2. I also want to challenge the parents. I want to challenge them to speak up when they don’t think something is right. I want you to confront your organizations about things that concern you.  I want you to confront other parents who you feel are taking advantage of people or situations.  I want you to speak up for what is right.

Too many parents are worried, nervous, or scared that by speaking up…they are going to blacklist their kid.  Trust me, there are a lot of people who feel the same way that you do about the cost of hockey and the way the culture is headed.  Find those people, go with them to raise your concerns, ask for more transparency, and hopefully you have an organization that will help you to find solutions to yours and everybody else’s issues.  If they don’t want to help…again…is that a place you really want your son or daughter?

I love the game of hockey.  It has given me and thousands of other people in the game our lives.  I hope that this post can be a start to a bigger conversation for positive change, and I welcome any and all feedback that you may have.  Thanks for taking the time to read this!

39 Responses
  1. Gregory A Cheesewright

    Please call if you wish. 248-302-1881. Have a delightful insight that has worked for 10 years plus.

  2. Steve Crotteau

    Absolutely fantastic Toph and spot on. I grew up playing basketball and the AAU model of “development” and this hockey thing is an eye opener. Learning on the fly for my son and daughter (they love the sport and b-ball is out the window) has been very hard. Thank you for your rational perspective, very insightful! Stay the course!

  3. Pat Gaffney

    Nice piece.

    I’ll only add that many of the things you discuss are creeping their way down to AA hockey, as well.

  4. Gregg Heidenreich

    FANTASTIC ARTICLE!!!
    Man oh man their is alot i could tell you but im typing this via my phone.
    I have been playing hockey since the 6th grade and im 48 now, soon to be 49 😢. I was also a coach, Level 4 USA HOCKEY
    Anyway my daughter has played since she was 6 till 19 yrs old so i know about the expenses.
    I live in Pittsburgh PA, if you want to ask me some questions i would gladly responed as soon as i can.
    Thx again for the eye opener!
    Gregg

  5. Miles Death

    I love this. I am a AAA hockey coach. I agree with minimizing games, travel, and placing emphasis on skill development.

    I would push back on the amount teams are paying coaches. When you talk about 50-60 hours all in to coach a team (ice time, commuting, etc.), we should be looking at a range of $2,000-$3,000. You’re going to get a better enthusiasm and coaching that way, and it is fair for time put in by a coach.

  6. Alex Diana

    How do you challenge these organizations to do the right thing? While I am not the paragon of what a AAA parent should be, I do emphasize development as a priority for my kids. They were both pushed out of an organization to which they were well qualified by one of these “Super Teams” who essentially bought out their spots, all with the not-so-tacit approval of the organization, who essentially sold their 2008 team to a parent who wanted to assemble his own team. We are told, “sorry your kid couldn’t make the super team” with no recourse. The fact is, they were probably good enough, but their spots were essentially bought for other players. There doesn’t seem to be any real oversight of this by USA Hockey or the various leagues

  7. Contact me…I’ve run 6 different Bantam AAA programs in NL and continue to run minor hockey and chair Atlantic AAA tournaments…I have perspective for sure

  8. M. Smith

    Great Article! Thank You for taking your time to put pen to paper on a subject that seems taboo unless your part of it.
    Let’s hope this starts raising more awareness on how associations are managing the programs our youths participate in.
    Thanks Again!

  9. Paul Roche

    This is fantastic. My son is nowhere near AAA but I’ve witnessed the lengths people will go to just to get their kids into House A. I’ve also been an evaluator at Atom AA for 2 years and have seen disturbing things from organizations to ensure that the child of someone on the executive makes a team over more deserving child. After 2 years of it, I wont be volunteering my time to evaluate next year. Most of the team has already been preselected by the executive.

  10. Mike

    What an absolutely awesome presentation of the facts here Coach. Your article came across my Twitter feed and I’ll be sharing it to other parents who I’ve had conversations like this with. Great information. I sincerely hope this sparks some productive conversations at the very least and perhaps some actual change in the best case.

    Our son has just completed his Minor Midget year of AAA hockey in the Toronto area. I’m actually finding this part of his season the most stressful! We’re into teams holding “skates” (at $30-$60 / skate) in helping identify players for their teams next season. To your point, if my son doesn’t participate, we may miss an opportunity to make an impression and potentially not be included in their decision making process. I told another parent on our team that our son was taking a pass on two upcoming skates in order for him to rest and they looked at me like I had 4 heads.. and I understand why they did…

    I’m going to read through the rest of your content on the website but am interested to know if you’ve ever taken on the discussion around “Player Advisors” and what, if any, help or guidance they can actually provide to a young hockey player trying to make some big decisions regarding NCAA, CHL, or Jr hockey opportunities.

    Yours in Hockey – Mike

  11. SoccerCoach

    Excellent article with a lot of good points. I just want to say one thing. Based on your article I am guessing either you do not have kids or they are still very young. So assuming I am right I am going to call you out on one tiny thing in your article that I will guarantee you will not follow through with assuming your kids do play hockey and play it that long. That thing was where you said:
    “4. My kids will be using wood sticks until they are at least bantams.”
    I will categorically GUARANTEE you that your kids will have their firs “non wooden” stick (likely composite of some nature) by or before they are pee wees. I guarantee it. I am a wooden stick guy. I still use a wooden stick to this day. My kids all started out with wooden sticks and I thought the same way you did and guess what. You WILL cave on this issue. You can stick to your guns on everything else but you will cave on this issue. It isn’t even a matter of “if” it is a matter of when. For me they were both squirt majors when they got their first composite stick. Why, because grandma and grandpa bought them one for their birthdays and once they have that first one there is no going back. You can’t. You will cave to the peer pressure. The pressure from their teammates. The pressure from the parents and the other coaches and the pressure you will get from your spouse. Oh the spousal pressure. It’s unreal and you will cave. SO you may as well make peace now that you will never be able to keep this promise about the stick, it isn’t going to happen. I guarantee it.

  12. Theresa Gallaway

    Thank you for this article. My 05 is a 2nd year Bantam in Missouri. We played house this year and he had the best season he’s ever had. Made it to the state championship game, lost, but still beat out 8 other teams to get there. As long as he’s having fun and loving what he’s doing I will pay the $4,000 per fall season. The day he decides to stop we’ll be fine with too. We’re not aiming for the NHL. We’re aiming for the fun, friendships and exercise he gets playing.

  13. Michelle Wilson

    You are wrong on several opinions stated. Did you play hockey at any level? The ages matter no matter what for one example and another example you are dead wrong it is only for good players who parents can afford it. I will print your article and respond to very point/opinion you make that may discourage any parent who has an extremely talented child on the ice.

    1. Pete McLean

      Michelle,
      Topher is more than qualified both from a hockey stand point and a real life standpoint. He brings no bias to the table, either.

      pm

  14. Erik Monsees

    I agree. The system has become about whom can afford it. It’s no longer about drilling the best teams.

    Pareocoaches can still be good coaches and should be used.

  15. BobLesch

    Wow well written!! I agree with many of the opinions. But if you don’t mind I would like to add something. I maybe be wrong but I got the impression that the AAA teams that you were talking about were for boys. My daughter played AAA hockey some 15 years ago. Back then those were the only all girls teams. She played with boys until checking age then we had no other choice but to play AAA. Cost back then was $10-12000 because we needed to travel just to find other all girls teams. Was it worth it YES. She played NCAA D3,and grad assistant coach for 3 years Would I do it again YES life long friendship built experiences can’t be taken away Was it worth it? Well I think I may still be paying off a credit card bill, but hockey kept her out of trouble. A lawyer would be more expensive and a record would always be there

  16. Kim

    Wow what a great article. It hits on several major points we have said for years. AAA hockey has changed so much over the years. I believe it started with good intentions – to help their kid achieve that dream because they love them and want to see them be happy. The article misses one point. Yes it states that in some cases AAA is becoming the best hockey money can buy . It is also ruining local hockey clubs by taking away their numbers, diluting the talent pool, and for some areas making it hard to even have enough players to field a team much less play at the level of their most talented player. I think there is one lesson to be learned here and that is quality coaching is worth $$$. So maybe AAA programs aren’t the answer most kids need but rather taking a good look at who and what skills our youth level volunteer coaches bring to the rink . Thankfully my boys grew up with a great coach they call dad who strives to help all coaches bring the best experience they can to the rink for every player, not just the AAA bound ones.

  17. Mark Dennehy

    Toph-I always enjoy reading the “Think Tank”. Keep up the good work! I would argue the AAA model is never going to change. Sports are a microcosm of the real world and the AAA message plays right into parents vulnerabilities (See HollywoodCollege scandal).
    I challenge parents to as Simon Sinek writes “Start with Why”. Why do you have your child in hockey. If it is to play at a higher level (Even prep school), get a scholarship, or achieve some sort of dream, then your process is flawed. Those are outcomes. Hockey (most sports) can be wonderful teachers of life lessons (both good and in many instances bad).
    Finally, Minnesota has more high end players than any state in Country. They are hanging on to their community based model. I know that is not possible everywhere because of geography, but I would encourage places who can continue the community based model to do so. It is THE BEST model.

  18. Linda

    Lots of good questions raised. Very helpful info for aspiring “AAA” parents.

    Unfortunately, you can’t effectively argue the math of cost for this level of play. Saying that paying $1,000 per hour to a doctor or a lawyer is too much, is not going to change the price.

    We need to think of two separate costs here. Cost one – is what it takes to run the program that meets quality, safety, and development expectations/standards. Cost two – is what it cost to parents to pay for it.

    I think reducing the cost to hockey parents, and making it more affordable, is more achievable target. Which is not the same as reducing the cost to run the program.

    There are options out there, which are successfully implemented. Couple that come to mind are:

    1. Organizational sponsorship.
    This is widely used already, but may need to be taken up to a next level. This will require skilled administrators, which may increase the cost of running the program, but at the end of the day will reduce the cost to parents.

    2. Government support.
    Hey, in some countries AAA hokey is free. Including travel and gear. In other countries government provides different grants, tax deductions to participants, and other financial support options to both organizations and parents.

    And I do want to reflect on compensating professional coaches. Disclaimer, I am not a coach, or hockey org employee, never have been and don’t envision becoming one.
    Somehow, we tend to think that paying up to $100K to a public school teachers is OK. But compensating pro coaches at the same level is not OK. This is just not logical. Moreover, these people work with our kids nights and weekends, sacrificing their own family time. Let’s keep it in mind when we consider where to cut costs.

  19. Kate Whyte

    Again Topher you nailed it. THIS conversation should be broadcasted on ‘repeat’ until things change, and it feels like it could take a decade to un-do all the ‘wrongs’ and make them right. Our purpose this year was to go where the coaches were stronger and supportive – and it worked. Three things that made a great season. SUPPORTIVE (reasonably paid) EXPERIENCED COACHES, DEVELOPMENT, and at least one travel tournament that showed them a part of the world they’d never seen – therefore MEMORIES – lastly, a team of parents, assistant coaches, and Manager(s) that showed them how to execute GOOD ETHICS, MANNERS, and SPORTSMANSHIP. The feel some of the kids at the AAA ‘pay to play’ have lost their idea of sportsmanship and feel ‘privilege’ is the better attribute. Or maybe that’s just ADULT EGO at work again. Thank you for writing what you did. It calms me, and I’m sure others… thank you.

  20. Michael Glass

    Why is us national tournament a 5 day tournament??
    1 game a day????
    Two games a day makes it 3 a 3 day tournament.
    Hello?
    Who wants to spend 5 nights away from home in a random hotel and have kids miss 4 days of school instead of 1??
    Wake up USA Hockey!!!!!!

    1. Hockey Dad

      Yeah, two games a day. That would be great I could watch my first game at noon and my kids second game at midnight. Then we could get a bite to eat at 1 in the morning on our way to the hotel. Unless you’d like to build another Super Rink with eight sheets of ice or more. But I thought that was an issue as well

  21. Really enjoyed your write-up. Keep asking these questions. Keep shining light on the system. Keep asking for quality. The sport has a long ways to go, but this post raises key issues that people can rally behind.

    – Viewing coaching as a legitimate profession in the U.S. would help raise qualifications, quality, and informed decision making. Shying away from the cost (like you said) hurts this progress. Good coaches deserve to be paid an honest wage, and doing so will push out bad parent-coaches and shady figures.
    – Your point about year-round ice sales is dead on. Exactly what is driving the frenzy of spring leagues, showcases, and everything in between. For what??
    – My focus has been the impact of junior hockey, but these are the families sending their kids through to the next level. Important to reflect on where these tendencies and “norms” come from.

  22. Michael Donahue

    Brian,
    Loved your article. Here are my thoughts:
    Coached the same Bantam AA team for 13 years (1976-1989) in Port Huron, Mi. Coached approx.( 250)13-14 yr olds. Had a reasonable record (405-221- 52). None of coaches had children on the team. Had 6-7 kids get college scholarships out of 250 (5 had previously played AAA level in Detroit-2 were walk-ons). During that time none of the 3 coaches were paid a dime and none was expected. I coached at a summer hockey school in Sarnia, Ont for 15 yrs and did get paid $25/hr CDN ( $900-$1000/summer). Heard that the AAA organizations had paid coaches but a lot of the teams had “name” coaches(ex-pro’s) and I did not have a problem with it.
    1.Now I hear that some A and AA teams are paying their coaches a salary that far exceeds expenses. My problem is that when I watch these teams I see less and less development. Some of these teams are nothing but cash cows for coaches who at their best were mediocre college/Junior B players. These coaches do not seem to have player development as a priority. I would not have much of a problem if the coaches got expenses covered. (Room/Food-per diem/mileage)
    2. Travel now means traveling hundreds of miles so little Johnny /Janey can touch the puck a total of 2-4 minutes per game. We always felt that if we couldn’t find a team within 50 miles (either in Michigan or Ontario) that could beat our butts we were not looking hard enough. We never went more that 25 miles from home over the holidays. Now some teams go to Christmas tournaments hundreds of miles away and still get their butts beat.
    3. I see hundreds of kids at games who have strong thumbs from playing Nintendo but have shots that are anemic at best. There used to be an’old adage’ that said that “if you take a 100 forehand and 100 backhand shots every day of the year there will be a place for you in the advanced levels of the game”. (See Brendan Shanahan) At worst you will have one hell of a shot
    4. Always felt that Bantam level players and above should have some concept of how to approach a face off in defense/offence/neutral zones – and practice it in each zone each week in practice. Its obvious from watching many games the past couple of years that players enter the ‘circle’ without a clue of what to do.
    5. Concept of spring/summer hockey at AA level other to have fun is a waste of time. Kids need to play other spring sports until Junior yr in high-school.
    6. We purposely set our team goals to practice twice/wk (usually averaged 1.75 times/week) , win the majority of our home games , win 50% of away games and play approx. 50 games/ season. We started when new ice was put into the local rink about Sept 1 of each year. Our year ended when ice was taken out of the rink about March 25th or so. If we played more than 50 it was because we had developed well and did well in the State playoffs. The most we ever played was 64 games in a year where we won States. Today it is never ending series of games with very few good practices after New Years.
    Again Brian I love your article and like you I love the game and am alternately sad and mad to see the game not being taught properly.
    I will end my thoughts here.

    Mike Donahue

  23. Kent Metcalf

    Hmmm, There are very valid arguments on both sides, but stats don’t lie. The sooner your kid plays @ higher levels, the more likely they will open up opportunity.

    This is career stats for 10 y/o kids that have played in the Brick Invitational. Roughly 90% of the kids that play in this single tourney will go on to play major juniors, D-1 & or professional hockey. Hard to debate facts.

    http://www.brickhockey.pointstreaksites.com/view/brickinvitational/tournament-info-5/where-are-they-now-9

    1. AAA/DI Dad

      Don’t do it for the math.

      That tournament Kent mentions has a great history of great players. And a great reputation for a positive experience.

      However:

      Yes, about 90% of that list you shared “made it” to a significant level (DI, Major Junior, or NHL).

      However, in the 18 year span that list includes, about 4,000 kids played in that tournament.

      Thus, less than 400 of the 4,000 players in a super-elite 10 year old tournament “made it”.

      Less than 10%.

      So don’t obsess about which team and tournament your son plays in.

      Give him an experience that teaches him life skills and enjoy your time with your son.

      Have him play for an organization and team that develops him. As a player. As a teammate. As a competitor. As a gentleman. As a friend.

      There is no math that makes youth hockey (or any sport) “pay off” financially or a “sure thing” to “make it” somewhere.

      Trust me. I have 2 DI athlete kids and 2 playing AAA hockey.

      At $10k per year for 10 years you’ll spend $100,000 or more. Even if your son gets a DI scholarship, most are only partial scholarships. Assume less than 50%. So a $30k per year school will give him a $15k scholarship per year if he’s extremely lucky. That will save you $60k over 4 years. But you spent $100k to save $60k.

      Don’t do it based on math.

      There is no math that works.

      Do it for the love of spending time with your son and teaching him life lessons.

  24. Jason Cooper

    Struggle with both sides of it. The cost is exorbitant and should try and find ways to keep the cost down. Yes great players will be found. But if you just go through the rosters of D1 and pro teams 90% of them went through AAA programs of some sort.

    We are seeing the game played at levels that all former pros/coaches are saying is the highest skill/fastest they have yet to see.

    There has been alot of comparison to what the smaller euro countries have done. All of their coaches go to college for coaches and are paid a salary to live comfortably and be profession youth coaches.

    Why is it different for quality coaches/directors to get paid than your site charging $50 for a 1 on 1 seminar and $250 for a group webinar?

  25. Great informaton and perspective, Thanks Topher for doing the work. After reading this a few times, one comment sticks with me; “…coaches need to get over themselves and understand it’s about the kids and not them.”

    Here’s to to the kids, their development on/off the ice, the life long friendships and memories.

    For the love of the game!

  26. Mike O’Neil

    Interesting perspective, insights, and responses. No surprises and I agree with many of your conclusions. I have Level 4 USAH Cert. coached 2 of my boys and hundreds of others from Mites-Midgets A-AAA. I was a 4 yr full ride D1 guy, an Olympic hopeful-candidate and played in Europe post college. The expenses to play this sport now are crazy and have become exclusive. AAA shouldn’t even exist before Peewee and you could make a case for starting at Bantam. (Too much $$$ to be made tho). I never made a dime coaching, always paid and was a Dad coach who made sure nobody could say I showed favoritism to my own. My oldest tried out for and was selected to 2 USA Hockey Select Camps. (15 & 16’s). I had NO Votes and didn’t know people selecting teams. Out of those 2 camps of very good and skilled hockey players from across the country, I think 3 made it to the NHL. John Carlson, Tyler Myers and I cant remember the 3rd. My oldest son did 4 years of pvt prep school (Hill School & Northwood-A Chiasson E Oilers teammate ) a year of Juniors (He played on a team w Boston Bruins C Wagner & C Coyle) and ended up playing D1 Club in ACHA. If I added up all of the direct and indirect costs associated with his experiences I would guess it was in the $200,000 range for youth hockey through Prep & Juniors. College even more with his academic scholarship was easily another $120,000. He graduated with a degree in Systems & Industrial Engineering w a Business Minor and played all 4 years. My wife and I worked hard and our family was fortunate that we were in a position financially to take on those costs. The numbers when you roll up are shocking and the track and model are 180* different than what my parents and I experienced. My son did not achieve his dream of playing NCAA D1. However, he had a full time job offer for post graduation before he started his senior year of college. He earns six figures in his day job in Atlanta and has had some commercial success as a self taught musician on the side. Neither he or his parents have any regrets on his path, experiences and costs incurred. He attributes much of his success to the life lessons and values he learned through his hockey experiences. Our youngest son’s path and experiences were much different. He played mostly A-AA, and went the public school route. Declined the prep school opportunity and only played 1 Year of AAA Midgets (Spent $20,000 that year). We didn’t spend half as much on his hockey and education. He was a different player, different skill sets, different interests, and a late bloomer physically. He attends the same university as his older brother and is also pursuing an Engineering degree. His is not playing hockey, but he lives with guys who do and they are a big part of his social circle. Looking back, hockey and the people I met through the sport was a spring board for most of the wonderful opportunities and experiences I’ve had in my life both personally and professionally. I met my wife through hockey friends. My business career started via networking with hockey friends. I gave back to the sport by volunteer coaching for over 20 years combined. The memories and shared experiences with my two boys, the wins-losses, the friends and people we met along the way, make every dollar and hour spent worth it all! Like everything in life the model keeps changing and evolving. The ever increasing costs and the migration to earlier and younger specialization, focus on winning, playing-teaching systems at a young age and all the club jumping, Coach shopping are not in the best interests of the majority. But money and the supply-demand equation play a big part in this as well. It is unfortunate that those of lesser socio-economic means are largely excluded from participating. If each of the NHL Clubs and major hockey markets sponsored programs like the Flyers, Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, then more kids from families of lesser means would have the same great opportunities and experiences that many of us and our kids have had. In the end however, and as the numbers and percentages show, only a select few will achieve their dream of playing NCAA D1. Even less will make it to “the show”. Buyers beware!

  27. Tom

    Wow…Very well written. Dead on the head. You worded this so kindly exposing selfishness, arrogance and pure greed.

  28. TWB

    Short sighted article. What are the positives to AAA hockey for those kids that can/are playing at that level. what would you do if you had a kid who was good but where he plays hockey, they do not have the ability to field a team above A. what would you say if a kid who was playing A, made a spring AAA team at another outfit but his coach who he has played for the past 4 years, or its hockey Director could not even bring themselves to congratulate him. Is it not the goal for kids to play at the highest possible level, getting to those levels through hard work. My kid still has a blast playing as a second year squirt, he does not feel any pressure at any tryouts for hockey or baseball and is just having fun. We don’t talk about hockey on the way home from games, and never have. Cost for Spring AAA was not much more than A spring at his normal place of play except that he will be playing in 3 tournaments rather than 1. AAA hockey does not necessarily mean families that have the money to pay for it as I don’t, I talk to my kid about what he wants to do. he has had people recruiting him to play for other teams based on what they see him doing on the ice. While there are some definite thoughts to ponder about your article, by in large it sounds like coming from someone with an ax to grind.

  29. Wild Thing

    Thank you for a great post. I think one aspect that could be emphasized is the hockey politics. I see more and more coaches pick players that they “like” or they are good friends with these players’ parents. It’s not about skills anymore. My son who is 7 years old and was told by his coach that he could no longer be on his elite team because he does not have hockey sense. Really? hockey sense is a major factor for a 7 years old? I am curious to know if any parent has this kind of experience or this is indeed a major factor that a coach looks for in a player at this young age?

    As for the AAA hockey tournaments, all these top hockey tournaments take place during Spring and Summer except Quebec Pee-Wee international tournament. For example, nowadays you have Brick invitation and Brick series that take place during Spring. AAA/elite kids nowadays play hockey all year round more or less and the cost is substantial. Because in this era kids play hockey all year round, their skill levels have become stronger. Thus, the game of hockey has become faster at every level, even in NHL. However, the question of burnout is a major concern for these players. The challenge for parents becomes how to juggle between playing AAA spring hockey and rest their child and play other sports.

    To be honest, if an elite child stops skating completely in April and does not skate or play any hockey until September vs another elite child who plays some spring hockey tournaments and enrolls in some summer camps, I think when September comes, the second child will have better skills, and the first child may even deteriorate a bit. The rationale is that the second child may burnout so in the long run the first child will win. Sometimes my concern is that if this continues on for a couple of years, the first child will be behind with his skill development and may potentially lose interest in hockey. As a parent, I have yet seen any elite level player who stops playing hockey completely during Spring and Summer.

  30. ShazamBam

    Terrific article Topher, enlightening on many fronts. The AAA programs here in IL may be among the worst offenders of monetary leverage, which in turn breeds all the things we loathe about hockey politics. There are good options, but wow expensive.

  31. Sara

    Spot on for all accounts and I truly believe that has turned into nothing but a money making scheme…