The challenges of the good old hockey game

By Derek Abma

With skyrocketing fees and scheduling dilemmas, many parents tripped up by the demands of competitive hockey

hockey-1So your kid is into hockey. How cool is that?

It’s fun to see them go from the initiation level — otherwise known as the Timbits league — where they stumble around so cutely, to actually resembling real hockey players a few years later at the novice level.

Then things might get serious. They might want to try out for a competitive league. Well, you didn’t think he or she was going to become the next Steve Yzerman or Hayley Wickenheiser by honing their skills in house league, did you?

This is where that saying about a rock and a hard place applies. Let’s consider the worst- (or possibly best) case scenario that they don’t make the team. You’re still putting out an extra $100 or so just for the privilege of them attending a handful of tryout sessions on top of your regular registration fees of around $500. Then there’s dealing with your little player’s heartbreak at being left out of something because they weren’t good enough.

On the other hand, they might make it.

Let’s rewind. Remember that first year of novice house league when you were shocked by the extra few hundred dollars tacked on for “team fees,” which went toward things such as extra ice time, tournaments and parties? Think of that as the good old days of hockey being affordable.

Team fees now start at about $1,500 at competitive levels for players as young as seven and go as high as $7,500 or more at the most elite levels for teenage players.

The irony is that you might need an extra job to pay for all this, but with all the time you’ll be spending getting your child to hockey games, practices and other team events, you’re kind of unemployable.

An information sheet for Nepean’s novice and minor atom competitive programs indicates one can expect 30 league games, plus a handful of exhibition and playoff games, on top of 40 to 50 practices.

Then there are five tournaments, a couple of them out of town, to consider. That’s over a season that lasts about five months. Do the math and realize that, more days than not, hockey is part of your life.

“You’re probably, on the low end, on the ice maybe three, four times a week, and probably six times a week on the high end,” says Jeff Baker, technical and marketing director of Hockey Eastern Ontario, which oversees all the minor hockey programs in the Ottawa area.

But he says that’s how parents want it.

“Most of the time the complaint is that they don’t get enough ice time,” he says. “The competitive parent will always want their kids to have more ice time. Seven days a week isn’t enough for a lot of them.”

He says ice time associated with extra practices, exhibition games and tournaments are the main source of high team fees.

Chris Therien played for elite teams in the Canterbury Hockey Association before going on to a career in the NHL.

Chris Therien played for elite teams in the Canterbury Hockey Association before going on to a career in the NHL.

Someone who’s not a fan of Canada’s competitive hockey system is Emile Therien, former president of the Canada Safety Council, whose son Chris Therien played for elite teams in the Canterbury Hockey Association before going on to a career in the National Hockey League.

Among his complaints is that the expense of it excludes some children.

“I remember Chris growing up with certain kids who could play hockey,” he says. “They’d make the team and then when push came to shove, you’d have the meeting about the costs and the tournaments, and you never saw these parents again.”

Therien adds that the time demands are “disruptive” for families and this serious brand of hockey is pushed on kids at too young an age. He says Chris was 10 when he started competitive hockey.

Paul Carson, vice-president of development for Hockey Canada, says there are children who miss out on opportunities to play at certain levels of all sports, not just hockey, because of financial reasons. Recalling his experience with his son, Carson says his family had to manage their finances carefully so his son could play competitive hockey.

“As a former school teacher, I was the only one earning a salary; my wife was at home looking after our kids,” he says. “We didn’t have a whole lot of discretionary income. My son had a lot of potential and he had opportunities to play, but we made decisions based on the income that we had.”

Then there’s a whole new level of team discipline that’s enforced in competitive hockey. There are dress codes requiring kids to come to games in ties and nice shirts, rules about getting there up to an hour early, certain times of the year when vacations are forbidden and other times when permission must be requested in writing for a family getaway.

Players will be given warnings for infractions and subsequently penalized with the loss of ice time and possibly suspended or released from the team if rules continue to be broken.

Baker says there is a clear difference in the philosophy behind how house leagues are run versus competitive programs.

“The competitive structure is really run predominantly more like a business than the house league system is,” he says. “Competitive teams and competitive organizations, rightly or wrongly, are judged based on the win and loss columns.”

He adds: “The goal of every minor hockey competitive organization is to get their kids developed and graduate as many of those kids as possible out of minor hockey and into junior hockey.”

Jim Parcels, who has done communications and marketing work for Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm franchise and the Ontario Minor Hockey

Association, did a study of approximately 30,000 people born in 1975 who played in the Ontario hockey system. Of this sample, just 105 ever played in the OHL, the highest level of junior hockey in Ontario and a key source of players for the NHL, and only 32 ever saw action in the NHL.

Despite his son having made the big league, Therien gives little credit to the competitive hockey system for getting him there, saying it was Chris’s natural talent that carried him.

“The Davey Keons of this world, the (Maurice) Richards, the (Jean) Béliveaus, they never went through that system,” he says, referencing players who made names for themselves in the NHL during the 1950s and ‘60s.

But Carson says there are lifelong benefits to be gained from competitive hockey, even for those who don’t end up with a career in the sport.

“I absolutely feel that life lessons in the sport at the competitive level are discipline, commitment, accountability, building relationships,” he says. “You’re accountable to a schedule. You’re accountable to a group of people. You’re accountable to discipline that’s set out by the team’s code of conduct and then the broader code of conduct by the league or the association.”

Baker adds that it’s ultimately up to the parents and child to decide for themselves if the demands of competitive hockey are worth it.

“If you don’t want to play at that level then you don’t have to,” he says. “The option is yours.”

Photo: © Ekaterina Paladi