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?
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:
2. Ice Costs
3. Coach/Administration Fees
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.
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. Up until the new NCAA rule changes curbing early recruiting, the recruiting seemingly was 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. 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
AAA organizations can be a lot better with these principles and with walking the talk. They all preach development, development, development. But 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!