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"3 Blue, 7 White, 10 Red, please stand up " By Harry Thompson After a moment of awkward silence and uncertainty, three boys rise from their seats in the crowded lecture hall at St. Cloud State University . They could feel the eyes of their 237 peers staring at them as Andy Slaggert begins his introduction to the evening‟s presentation on what it takes to play college hockey. “Gentlemen, these three represent the percentage of you who will go on to play pro hockey. The rest of you will not.” Oh, to be washed up at 15. Those words hit like a slapshot to the midsection for some of the top 15-year-olds in the country participating in a USA Hockey Select Camp. It didn‟t seem feasible that only three of them, out of the 15,000 or so 15-year-olds, would one day reach the upper echelon of the hockey world. As the assistant coach with the University of Notre Dame, Slaggert knows the odds of reaching the NHL. He has been recruiting some of the best and brightest hockey players from around the country for 13 years. In that time, only two have left the shadow of Notre Dame‟s golden dome to skate in the golden glow of the NHL. What Slaggert and other college coaches can offer talented hockey players with the right stuff – academically and athletically – is the opportunity to get a first-class education while continuing to play the game they love. And while the odds of earning a full ride to a Div. I school are still a long shot, the point of Slaggert‟s presentation is it‟s better to focus on a future with an education than grasping at a dream that may be beyond the reach for all but a lucky few. “If you have the talent, the NHL will find you. You don‟t need to go chasing around the country trying to get noticed,” Slaggert tells the group. “Make sure you get an education and enjoy being a kid while you can. You don‟t need to be in a rush. Things will happen soon enough.” The reality can be staggering for players and parents with stars in their eyes. An even more staggering figure is that 70 percent of kids who play organized sports will quit by the age of 13. The number one reason they give – it‟s not fun anymore. All youth sports, not just hockey, have come under fire in recent years as the question is raised, are adults taking all the fun out of the game? Pick a sport. It doesn‟t matter if it‟s tennis, golf, basketball or hockey. For every Tiger Woods or Williams sisters‟ success story, there is a boulevard of broken dreams littered with thousands of horror stories of pushy parents, domineering coaches and child prodigies whose star burned out before they reached puberty. There‟s nothing wrong with a player dreaming of playing in the NHL or getting a college scholarship. Too often those dreams cloud the reality of the situation. Players and parents can‟t enjoy the moment as they continually focus on the next game, the next tournament, the next rung on the ladder. “Today‟s society is so fast paced and up-tempo that we don‟t enjoy the moment,” says Troy Jutting, head coach at Minnesota State-Mankato. “Part of the life learning process is taking things one step at a time and enjoying where you‟re at while you‟re there because we all know you don‟t get to be there forever. And if you don‟t enjoy it while you‟re there, you‟ll miss out on a lot.” Parents tend to shoulder much of the blame for what‟s wrong with youth sports today. They push, prod and try to live through their child‟s activities. They share in the successes and feel the pain when things don‟t go their child‟s way. They have one eye on the ice and the other on a bright future. Agree or disagree with the paths some parents pursue, there‟s no denying that they do it out of love of their child. Despite the best efforts of Dr. Spock, or Dr. Phil for that matter, adults are on their own to navigate their way through this parental minefield. Nowhere is that more evident than in the ultra-competitive world of youth hockey. No matter how many manuals or clinics USA Hockey puts on, there are no step-by-step instructions when it comes to raising a child from Mites to Midgets and beyond. “The common thing these days is for people to blame the parents. „Oh, he‟s a crazy parent,‟ when a lot of time they‟re just trying to do what‟s best for their kid. They just don‟t have all the information necessary to make the right decisions,” says Jutting, who has two sons. “We talk all the time about developing the hockey player. I think we need an education program to develop the hockey parent. “If you‟ve never done it before, how are you expected to know what to do? You just go by the general perception. Why is Johnny moving away to play hockey? I better do the same thing with my kid.” Before we go on, it‟s probably a good time to point out that the vast majority of parents, probably in the 90th percentile, don‟t fit the stereotypical mold of an over-the-edge hockey parent. What is it about the inside of a hockey rink that turns some rational adults into poster children for the ills of the game? Why would a relatively sane parent complain about the price of the latest composite stick while reaching into their wallet, give up the cozy comfort of grandmother‟s house to eat Thanksgiving dinner at Denny‟s or drive 100 miles for a practice or a game when there‟s a rink five miles down the street? Jamie Rice has a theory that he‟s developed over the course of his 16 years of coaching. He has earned a bachelors and masters degree, and if he ever decided to go for his Ph.D., he would attempt to tackle these questions in his doctoral dissertation. “The love of your child is a great thing. The love of hockey is a great thing. Wanting your kid to succeed is a great thing,” says Rice, the head coach of Babson College in Wellesley , Mass. “All three, in and of itself, are inert things, but in the right mixture you have a potentially explosive material.” Ask any parent of a house league or travel team player and they‟ll tell you that hockey is a huge family commitment in both time and money. When your son or daughter signs up for hockey, the entire family comes along for the ride. So much invested on a financial and emotional level can skew the perspectives of even the most rational of parents. “The role of youth athletics should be for kids to learn about themselves, to compete, to set goals, to struggle, to succeed, to become better human beings,” says Rice. “It doesn‟t mean getting a pro contract and it doesn‟t mean All-American status or even All-Festival status.” The fact that the journey doesn‟t come cheap is a contributing factor in the growth of the fanatical parent. The cost of team registrations, equipment, private coaches, travel and ice time, added up over the course of a child‟s hockey career, is a substantial amount of money. While most parents would do anything to ensure their child‟s happiness, they have to wonder if there will be some kind of a payoff at the end of the road. “I think some parents view it not as I‟m spending money for my kid to have a great opportunity but that at the end there‟s a return on my investment,” says Rice. “It‟s a draft, it‟s a scholarship, it‟s a spot with the Omaha Lancers. That‟s what is at the end of my rainbow. And like investing, there are no guarantees.” With so much riding on every shift, every game, every season, it‟s no wonder some parents go off the deep end. Try telling a parent who‟s dropped thousands of dollars and has given up every weekend, holiday and birthday over the past 10 seasons to “relax, it‟s just a game,” and see where it gets you. For many parents, getting their money‟s worth means hitting the road to find a better opportunity than the one that‟s a 10-minute car ride away from home. Some parents and coaches have taken on a philosophy that the grass is greener on the other side, and they have to travel an hour or more to find the best competition. Ask any hockey coach and they‟ll tell you that nobody has ever developed a single hockey skill sitting in the backseat of a car. “You drive 45 minutes each way to play a game and they may touch the puck in a game for a minute and a half. So all of a sudden there is a kid who‟s 10 years old who‟s spending six to 10 hours a week in a car,” says Rice. “Where‟s the fun in that?” When Troy Jutting was growing up in Richfield , Minn. , he didn‟t have to go far to find all the competition he wanted. While he knows it may be necessary for players in places like California , Florida and Texas to hit the road in search of competition, players in most communities don‟t have to look far for their next game. “When you look around at the guys who have been there who now have kids, you don‟t see most of them chasing all over the place. They know you don‟t have to travel 15 hours to become a good hockey player,” says Jutting. “Part of it is to let your kid be a kid while he has the opportunity to be a kid. And don‟t feel like you‟re cheating your kid because he‟s not doing what Johnny‟s doing. Just because Johnny‟s doing it doesn‟t make it right.” And just because Johnny plays hockey year round, it doesn‟t make it right, and it may not make him a better hockey player. Gone are the days of skating from September to March, then playing baseball and soccer in the summer and being hungry and ready when they hit the ice again the following fall. With the creation of ultra-competitive spring leagues, scout camps in the summer and fall festivals, kids are playing too much high-level hockey, which can lead to burnout at an early age. “Hockey has evolved over the years. There are so many games and it‟s year round that you do see some kids get burned out,” says Brian Riley, head coach at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. “I think that some of these kids who are really good players, by the time they get to be Bantams or Midgets, don‟t have anything left in the tank.” What role do coaches play in driving talented teens from our game? Has all that instant gratification and a results-oriented society clouded the true meaning of being a youth hockey coach? Has that win-at-all costs mentality sent fun and creativity to the end of the bench? “I think most of the people who work with kids have the right intentions,” says Rice. “But if this game can make the best-intentioned parent go a little haywire, it can do it to the most well-intentioned coach.” Jutting knows too many youth coaches place too much emphasis on the short-term satisfactions that come with winning and not enough on the long-term successes that come with skill development, teamwork and having fun. It‟s a message he tries to get out whenever he gets an opportunity to talk with youth hockey coaches, parents and players. “Down the road it doesn‟t matter if you were the Peewee A champions of the world. That will have no bearing on your quality of life when you‟re 20,” says Jutting. “What will have a bearing on your life are the coaches who helped you become a better person.” So if most kids don‟t have a future playing a game that can be expensive, time consuming, fraught with overbearing parents and crazy coaches who exert too much pressure, why would anyone in their right mind want to play hockey? The answer can be found in all the reasons you decided to play hockey in the first place. It‟s the feel of gliding across a fresh sheet of ice, the sensation of catching a tape-to-tape pass, the feeling of a puck rocketing off your stick, the locker room laughter, camaraderie on the bench, and the thrill of scoring a goal. It‟s a game that stays with you no matter your age, occupation or address. It creates lasting memories and forms lifelong friendships. It can teach you about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, sometimes on the same shift. It‟s about individual effort and teamwork, sportsmanship and intensity. It‟s a great game to watch and even more fun to play. And everything else is just details.
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