October 30, 2013

Goalie Guru: Wanderlust is not the best trait

By Brion O'Connor

The youth sports landscape has become increasingly complicated these days. Spring and summer have transformed into bizarre migration seasons for young athletes, where players and their parents move to a new school, a new team or a new program in the hopes of finding a “better fit.”

A better fit, of course, is parent-speak for “a place where my kid will get a fair shake, because he hasn’t gotten one yet.” I’ve seen this phenomenon happen at all ages. Many coaches have.

“Yeah, kids are jumping everywhere. If they don’t like what’s going on, they go somewhere else,” Boston University legend Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) told me recently. “I will give you an example. When I was recruiting Tony Amonte (in 1987), he was a terrific player at Thayer Academy. He was 17 years old at the time, trying out for the Junior Olympic team. Now, they let him try out, because he was such a talent and they knew he was going to be on the junior team in the future. But there was no way he was going to make the junior team as a 17-year-old kid.

“But they let him try out, and there was a game on the South Shore, and they were playing a junior all-star team,” said Parker. “Tony came out after the game with a long face on. His father said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And Tony says, ‘What’s wrong with me? I didn’t play much. Didn’t you watch the game?’

“And his father says, ‘That’s what’s bothering you, Tony?’

“’Yeah, I didn’t play enough.’

“’Well, Tony, let me ask you something. Do you want to play more?’

And Tony says, “’Yeah, of course I want to play more.’

“And his father says, ‘Then play better, Tony.’ He didn’t say ‘The coaches are screwing you,’ or ‘You’re way better than those other kids.’ He just said ‘Play better.’ And that was it.”

Youth hockey could use more parents like Mr. Amonte. Jump ahead 22 years, to June 2010, when a 39-year-old Tony Amonte was named the head coach at Thayer Academy. His athletic director, Matt McGuirk (Thayer, Class of ‘92) knew things were going to be different when Amonte returned. Very different.

“When you and I were playing, there was one all-star team in town, and if you didn’t make it, you played for your youth team,” McGuirk told me three years ago. “Now, there’s 55 all-star teams, a lot of for-profit organizations that will, quite frankly, tell you anything you want to hear if you’re going to give them $5,000.

“Tony is all about the Old School meets the New School, and I think that’s really important,” said McGuirk. “In this age of enablement, this age that there’s always another option, this age of materialism, Tony is all about getting to the core of it. You show up, you go to work, and you go home. The message is so important now, especially with kids today. If you want something bad enough, you can get it. Tony is of the school that you have to earn it. You’ve got to earn everything you get.”

Amonte agreed with his former teammate, noting that the landscape, and its inherent wanderlust, has irrevocably changed, “not only high school hockey, but hockey in general. There are different forces pulling these kids everywhere. Keeping these kids in school is going to be a task, and I think it’s going to be a task for every coach.”

The hockey landscape is filled with bedouin players, nomadic tribesmen roaming from rink to rink, program to program. The situation is particularly applicable for goaltenders, for one obvious reason. While there can be 12 to 18 positional players per team getting ice time in a game, there is usually just one goaltender. Most teams carry two or three goaltenders, but too many coaches, with their blinders firmly fastened on in their relentless drive for wins, will ride their No. 1 netminder upward of 80 to 90 percent of the time – sometimes every minute – which can lead to disappointment and bruised feelings for the kids who aren’t playing. And for Mom and Dad.

“Parents are part of the picture now,” said McGuirk. “Being able to solve a problem by moving laterally rather than actually solving the problem through work ethic and determination, is more of the trend now.”

I’ve seen it firsthand. One glaring example comes to mind, a young man who I’ve coached since he first strapped on the pads at age 6 or 7. I’ve watched him grow and become a very solid young netminder. Not spectacular, but solid. His freshman year, he attended a nearby prep school, but transferred to another for his sophomore year because his prospects of varsity playing time looked dim. After his junior year, a season in which he was the clear-cut starter, the young man was on the move again, leaving his prep school squad for a junior team. “We felt it was in his best interests,” I heard, admittedly second-hand, from a “family advisor.”

Really? I’d like to know just what those “best interests” are. I know it’s a subjective term, but being the starting goaltender at a prep school with a good academic reputation seems like a pretty sweet arrangement to me. But junior teams offer more games, and supposedly more exposure, which supposedly equates to a better chance for a college scholarship or other opportunities. Clearly, going the prep school route didn’t hurt Cory Schneider (Phillips Andover) and Rick DiPietro (St. Sebastian’s School), but I recognize that they were exceptional talents. It has to be tougher for the middle-of-the-pack goaltender.

This is where character comes in. Developing character means learning to deal with adversity. And the best way to deal with adversity is to work harder. A determined work ethic is the gritty sandpaper needed to create an exquisite piece of furniture. It is the resolve that will sustain you as you get older when life throws you curve ball after curve ball.

“That’s the big dilemma: Do you take the kid with the heart, or the kid with the skill,” said Amonte, when asked what is the greatest character trait he looks for in recruits. “I go for the heart every time. You can teach the skill, you can teach the systems, you can tell them where to be, but if they don’t have the work ethic, it’s never going to be there.

“It’s a learned skill too,” he said. “Every day on the ice is a day you can get better. That’s the way I look at it. You can try something new, you can try to get better, and do something you didn’t do the day before.”

Amen. You don’t measure heart or work ethic by the miles that you’ve logged transferring between programs, or the number of teams you’ve played for. You measure it in effort you put in during practice and games, and in the weight room, off-season and in-season. As you start your season this fall, recommit yourself to that work ethic, and to your team.

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a longtime hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com.

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