© — Submitted photo
Author Ken Campbell
It’s only natural for parents to want what is best for their children. It’s why we push them to do homework, to work hard in the classroom. It’s also why we encourage them to do their best in their other daily activities, be they sports, dance, music, drama, etc.
But there’s a fine line between supporting children to reach their maximum potential, and being overbearing, bordering on irrational.
It’s in the hockey arena where we primarily see that slippery slope snowball.
Because it’s hockey where we see parents spending obscene amounts of money in a more-often-than-not futile effort to mould and perhaps even create the next Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos.
“The enormous amount of sacrifice a lot of people are making for their kids to pursue the dream of playing in the NHL is staggering,” says Toronto hockey writer Ken Campbell.
“As you know, it’s a very slim chance one is ever going to realize that dream, but I don’t think that deters a lot of people from putting an enormous amount of expense and resources and emotion, everything, into pursuing that dream.”
In 2011-12, there were 427,019 Hockey Canada-registered males playing minor hockey across the country. In the United States, the number dipped a bit, with USA Hockey reporting 305,453.
We do not know the numbers overseas, but we can assume the combined total of young boys and teenagers playing the game in Finland and Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Russia and former Soviet republics last winter pushes the final tally of registered minor hockey players worldwide last season to well north of 1.5 million.
Back in Canada, exactly 550 players (goalies included) appeared in at least one game in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2011-12. Of those 550 players, 55 were draft picks — or drafted last June — by NHL clubs, 10 per cent of the league’s player makeup.
See FACING, page B1
Only one out of every 10, in other words, were property of National Hockey League teams.
In the Ontario Hockey League — which together with the QMJHL and Western Hockey League makes up the Canadian Hockey League major junior circuit — 564 skaters and goalies played last season. Of those, 137 were drafted, or 24 per cent of the league, about one out of every four players.
And every last one of those athletes, from the itty-bitty novices to the seasoned overage juniors, dream of playing in the National Hockey League.
But dreams don’t always come true.
In 2000, the New York Islanders made U.S. collegiate goaltender Rick DiPietro the first pick in the NHL draft. Two hundred and ninety-three players were selected that year. One hundred and seventy-five have yet to play a single NHL game.
Ken Campbell’s been writing sports for years, once covering the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Toronto Star, and today as a senior writer at The Hockey News. He just finished a book now in stores, “Selling the Dream … How Hockey Parents and their Kids are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession,” published by Penguin.
Campbell knows what he’s talking about. He’s covered countless NHL drafts, and world junior tournaments.
He’s watched a legion of first-round picks parade from their seats in the stands to the big stage, where the ball cap is tugged down, partially covering their boyish faces. He’s watched the same kids don their new NHL jerseys, in many cases slipping off their not-yet-filled-out shoulders.
But it’s different today. Every young junior or college player, it seems, is an Eric Lindros, big and strong and ripped, a byproduct of strength coaches and nutritionists and sports psychologists.
They are, these kids, what Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher calls a, “new generation of machines.”
“The way it was when we played,” Campbell said this week, “was you played, and the best kids moved on. After that, a very select few went to an elite level like major junior. And the rest of us, well, we just did what we do.
“Now it seems to me more and more of the players are built, and fabricated and manufactured, all in that effort to get to the NHL.”
It used to be that hockey was a little more pure than it is today — skating on frozen ponds, Guy Lafleur sneaking into his town’s rink to shoot pucks before school, Bobby Orr recalling how he’d race home after school to grab his skates to play shinny. There were no refs, and certainly no parents watching.
Sure, the backyard rink concept is alive and well today, perhaps moreso than it was years ago. Back then, it was but a mere sheet of ice. Some of today’s rinks resemble a mini Maple Leaf Gardens.
But the backyard games today are often interrupted because Junior has private hockey or power skating. That’s in addition, of course, to his regular league games and practices. And the child is still 10 or 11.
“I remember talking to Daniel Alfredsson (of the Ottawa Senators) about that,” Ken Campbell recalls. “He has a son, Hugo, who plays AA hockey in Ottawa. The boy had 18 games in one month and Daniel was flabbergasted. He couldn’t believe there were so many games and so few practices.
“In places like Sweden, they don’t have kids playing at a super-high competitive level until they’re able to handle it, maybe when they’re 11 or 12. The little kids don’t play in a league. Instead, they have three cross-ice games going at same time and there’s no scoreclock or stats. The kids just play.
“And the last time I checked, Sweden’s done OK producing skilled players. Also, this is a country that’s a lot like Canada except a lot smaller, and look at the kind of athletes they produce — terrific golfers, great tennis players, good soccer players. They don’t seem to suffer.
“When you look at a Swedish athlete, you’re looking at a player who is, generally speaking, a pretty skilled guy. They must be doing something right.”
It used to be that hockey was a six- or seven-month a year sport. You packed away the ball glove or soccer cleats in the fall and broke out the skates, and the reverse happened in the spring.
Today, in some instances, youngsters are skating 10 or 11 months a year, never knowing what it’s like to swing a baseball bat, go fishing or swing a golf club.
“It’s impossible to do, but if I was the Hockey God, the first thing I’d do is outlaw spring and summer hockey,” said Campbell. “I don’t think it’s healthy.
“I talked to Michael Clarfield, who used to be the team doctor for the Toronto Maple Leafs, team doctor for several national teams and the Canada Cups, and I talked to Michael Stuart (father of Winnipeg Jets defenceman Mark Stuart and the co-director of the Sports Medicine Center at the Mayo Clinic) and these guys are telling me they’re seeing injuries in kids like hip flexors, knee injuries and groin problems that they used to see in 10-year veteran NHLers. Thing is, these kids are teenagers.
“And a big part of that is they’re on the ice all the time, doing the same thing, using the same muscle groups and they’re breaking down. That’s one of the things nobody ever thinks about, the injury factor, not to mention the burnout factor.
“You’re seeing kids walk away from the game at 15 because they’re burned out.”
What goes through the mind of parents who poke and prod and push their kids is anyone’s guess. Just as it’s baffling why those same people, in many cases, shout instructions to their child at the rink, as if the player can hear the parent through the glass.
But make no mistake — while they would never admit as much — an average NHL player’s yearly salary of just over $2.5 million is reason enough for some parents to lose all sense of reason.
“Where it really starts to go off the rails is when people start looking at the kids hockey as an investment,” Campbell said. “You hear a lot of people say, ‘If I could just get a scholarship, all of this would be worthwhile.’ As though they’re giving these things out like candy. They’re not.”
There are 64 NCAA Division I and II hockey programs with a total of 822 available scholarships, and many of those are partial scholarships. And there are tens of thousands of kids chasing those openings, the vast majority going to American kids now that USA Hockey has closed the gap between itself and Hockey Canada.
“Once it gets to the elite (minor hockey) level, things spiral out of control rather quickly, a lot more quickly than people even notice,” Campbell said. “The next thing they know, the money is flying out of their wallet and they don’t even know where it’s going.”
In his book, Campbell recounts the story of goaltender Max Strang. Strang was a 12-year-old when his parents opted to quit their jobs, sell the family home and everything in it in Pittsburgh and move to Toronto so young Max could play in the Greater Toronto Hockey League.
During the family’s stay in Ontario, they lived on a boat docked in Port Credit Harbour in Mississauga, a living space of about 200 square feet.
Today, Max Strang is playing college hockey at Mercyhurst in Erie, Pa. The hockey program won’t be mistaken for North Dakota or Minnesota, and Strang isn’t likely to go on to a pro career.
As for Newfoundland, this province has done remarkably well, given its size, producing NHLers. Considering the long odds, to have seven players from this province — Luke Adam, Daniel Cleary, Ryane Clowe, Colin Greening, Adam Pardy, Teddy Purcell and Michael Ryder — all playing at one point in time last season is quite extraordinary.
No doubt, some parents of minor hockey players have taken notice and silently asked themselves, “Why not mine?”
And, in fairness, they’re entirely correct to do so, just as we tell our children anything is attainable if we work hard, study hard and play hard.
But the reality is chances are their kids will not make the National Hockey League
For what people often fail to see is that it’s often not about how good the player is, but how badly the player wants to play.
Like Clowe, who was cut from the AAA midget all-stars his first time out, spending Grade 11 at Mount Pearl’s O'Donel High School playing high school and some midget house league hockey.
In terms of natural talent, Clowe probably didn’t have what it took to be a National league player. Rather, he willed his way to a pro career.
“If you looked at it real closely at what he did and how he sacrificed,” Campbell said of the Fermeuse native, “it would boggle the mind. Not everybody is prepared or able to make those sacrifices.”
And even if the player does meet the challenge head on, nothing’s guaranteed. Nothing’s carved in stone.
The proof of that is in the numbers.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org.