Memo to parents: Hockey is supposed to be fun

Between the World Junior hockey championships hosted in my home province and coaching two completely hockey-crazy boys – along with a few other things – hockey has been on my mind a lot lately. That’s why a recent column by Joe O’Connor prompted me to write the letter below, that was today published in the National Post.

The original column is a fascinating look at the numbers around amateur hockey in Canada and how the US is catching up to Canada in terms of the number of kids taking the game up and then sticking with it to go on and play at high levels. The writer gives Hockey Canada, and all hockey-loving Canadians, a lot to think about, but I thought there was one part of the discussion he overlooked.

Re: Soon It May No Longer Be Our Game, Joe O’Connor, Dec. 23.

Joe O’Connor laid out some serious issues for Hockey Canada to consider as we look to keep “our” game ours. He’s right when he describes hockey as our national birthright, and the one sport we know better and care more deeply about than any other nation on Earth. What he didn’t address is what that passion means for Canada’s young players.

Unfortunately, passionate parents far too often turn into psychotic parents – and the pressure they put on young players can be crippling. Four-and five-yearold kids are pushed onto the ice and forced to show up every week – whether they want to or not. Young teens are pressured to perform and told effort and attitude are not enough – it is results that matter. Wins on the board and stats on the sheet are the only meaningful markers to many parents.

Canadians are justifiably proud of our hockey accomplishments, but that pride is perilously close to arrogance, and has the potential to end our dominance in the sport. Kids used to spend hours on the ice practising their skills because they wanted to – a simple love of the game and a passion for excellence. Far too many young players are putting in that kind of effort today out of a fear of failure instead.

Unless our hockey parents remember why they loved the game as kids, and remember that it is a game, we will continue to churn out technically sound players who have no heart. And that’s not the Canadian game that we are all so proud of.

Hockey is more than a game

Writing about anything more personal than my take on new technology isn’t something I’m real comfortable with. I tend to avoid anything more personal than bragging about my kids – or complaining about them, as the case may be.

But something touched my life last summer that stuck with me, changed my perspective, and inspired me to try be a better father, husband and coach.

A good friend of mine passed away while on holidays with his family at age 40. The story was covered in the media a few times, in part because Jason Turner was a hockey coach, and an overwhelming number of his hockey family came out to remember him.

But what those stories didn’t capture was just what an amazing person he was.

I was his assistant on the last team Jay coached – the ball hockey Pandas. The team was made up mostly of kids who didn’t know each other, and largely of kids who were new – VERY new – to hockey and sports in general. Our oldest sons played together on the team, and despite their lack of success on the scoreboard, Jay did everything he could to make sure every one of those kids had fun and learned something about teamwork, competition and character.

One of my fondest memories was when he stopped his endless cheering in the middle of a particularly bad game, turned to me for a second with a pained look on his face and quietly whispered, “Oh man, we’re just awful,” – and then in the next second turned back towards his team (the huge smile right back on his face) and started loudly encouraging his players again. He was a tireless and fierce competitor, but he was also the most loved coach I’ve ever seen. He quickly earned the respect of his players, and he used that loyalty to inspire them to push themselves to perform their absolute best. He hated to lose, but he loved his players more.

And that is why I love hockey.

 
Jason’s son (the goalie in the black KC jersey) and family are featured in the 2011 Canadian World Junior hockey theme song (about 3 minutes in). The Edmonton Journal and Paul Brandt did an absolutely amazing job of this video.

The game is unquestionably fun to play, but it is so much more than that. Hockey gives players a chance to learn what it means to come together and achieve far more as a team than they could ever have done apart. It teaches them how much they can accomplish when they strive for excellence and persevere. How hard work can overcome even the tallest obstacles. It gives players of all ages a chance to bond in locker rooms and on benches where support for team mates can be profoundly meaningful. At it’s best, it can teach respect, courage, strength, discipline and even love.

And that’s why Jay was remembered so fondly by his hockey family.

His legacy will live on in his wife and children who show strength on a daily basis that is humbling to everyone around them.

But it lives on as well in the many coaches, parents and players whose lives he touched. I know his example inspires me to work harder, care more about those around me, and to try and appreciate every moment I am given with loved ones.

I don’t always succeed – far from it. But even when coach Jay looks down and grimaces at how awful I’m doing, I hope he can also see how much he inspires me to at least keep trying my best – and how happy to I am to know he’s still cheering for me.

An Ode to Hatred (or, Why I Still Can’t Stand the Flames).

Calgary Flames vs. Chicago Blackhawks - Game 5 of the 2009 NHL Playoffs

Calgary Flames vs. Chicago Blackhawks - Game 5 of the 2009 NHL Playoffs

I found the conclusion of the Flames game last night to be unusually satisfying. I was watching the game with my son, who has taken a shine to the Flames because of family we have in Calgary that we all care about a great deal. Though it pains me greatly, he actually identifies himself as a Flames fan.

After cheering (overly?) loud after the Hawks built their lead to 4 goals (game summary here), he asked me why I hated them so much. Of course, I sent him to his room and took away video games for a week.

I should have done that, but what I actually did was think for a second, and realize that there’s really no reason anymore. You can’t help but respect the way Iginla plays, although Calgarians lose my respect by calling him Iggy. The franchise appears to have made a smart move in bringing in Keenan to coach, but he does make them much harder to like. But they are a generally likable bunch of players who seem to have a pretty good work ethic and a decent amount of class. So why do I still hate them so much??

I realized that the seeds of a truly great sports rivalry start in childhood, so I told my son about the once-in-a-lifetime brand of hockey Albertans were treated to in the 80s. I tried to describe the frequent bench clearing brawls, and how truly nasty were players like Jim Peplinski, Theo Fleury, Mel Bridgeman, Nick Foitu and even Stu Grimson later on. He didn’t have the rare privilege of seeing the tremendous intensity that these two teams brought to every game they played against each other, so I tried to explain to him that you couldn’t be in the building watching those games without hating one team or the other – they were both that good.

Then I tried to tell him that it was still OK to like the Flames, even if I didn’t, and that the important thing is that he stands up for his convictions.

But I still grounded him for a week.