March and April signal the end of another ridiculously long youth hockey season. And, unfortunately, the beginning of the next. Starting with Labor Day, the season usually runs for more than seven months. Why? Because youth hockey is driven by people who own the rinks, the leagues and the teams. They want those sheets filled.
Let’s not sugarcoat this — today’s youth hockey landscape, in large part, isn’t designed to transform little Johnny into an NHLer or Division 1 player, or little Jennifer into an Olympian. It’s designed to make big bucks for grown-ups.
As too many professional athletes say these days, “It’s a business.” We need rinks, which means rink owners need to make money. I get it. The problem, though, is that this “business” traffics in young boys and girls, and the dreams of parents.
Youth programs are actively recruiting kids as young as 10. Once one program starts advertising championships or high-profile “alumni,” they all do. Then the goal becomes “winning,” and “marketing.” Somewhere along the line, the ideals of “childhood” and “age-appropriate development” get trampled.
It’s time to stop this madness. Or at least scale it back to a “reasonable” level. Playing hockey year-round, whether you’re a goaltender or a positional player, isn’t automatically going to make you an all-star (especially if you don’t have the natural physical gifts). It won’t even automatically make you the best player you can be. We’ve been sold a bill of goods that most experts acknowledge is misguided.
I guarantee you this much — year-round hockey isn’t necessary. Your child won’t be banished to some hockey hinterland if he doesn’t play all summer. Do you think Bobby Orr played year-round? Gordie Howe? Patrick Roy? Orr, in his recent autobiography, practically begs parents to come to their senses and bring some sanity back to the youth game. Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.), the coach of the Merrimack College Warriors, has told me repeatedly that the number of D-1 prospects on any “select” team can be counted on one hand. With fingers left over.
Worse, it’s far more likely that these programs, while churning out little automatons who “look” good, fail to cultivate any true love for the game. The kids can skate, shoot and stop the puck, but are they having fun? I honestly fear that that soul of the game is being compromised by this Faustian pact that parents agree to, which essentially states that if they pay top dollar for “top-level” programs, they ensure their offspring a spot on at least a college or major junior roster. Yet anyone who is familiar with the German legend of Faust knows how badly that arrangement ends, with Lucifer hauling the old man off to Hades.
The youth hockey corollary is a child who says “the heck with it,” and simply walks away from the game. No one wins in that scenario.
Here’s what I suggest to parents. First, lighten up. A once-a-week program (maybe twice) in the off-season, supplemented by one or two full-week camps, is plenty to keep your child’s skills sharp. I’m a big proponent of instructional programs, whether clinics or camps, provided they’re done in moderation. I’ve heard stories of parents lugging their kids from one goalie camp to another over the course of the summer. That’s just nuts.
A once-a-week clinic, or occasional camp, can be tailored to a specific need, such as skating, stickhandling or defensive play. For goaltenders, weekly clinics will maintain their current ability level. A concentrated camp, on the other hand, can correct bad habits that crept into their game over the course of a long season. The repetition of a good weeklong camp provides the building blocks that goalies need to improve their game, without going overboard.
Second, encourage your kids to play other sports. Ball and stick sports like basketball, baseball/softball, tennis, soccer, lacrosse or football. Lifetime sports like hiking, cycling (road and mountain bike), swimming, trail running or rock climbing. Have them play tag, or hide and seek. Get them outside, and let them have fun. No systems, no drills, no structure. As long as they’re active, it’s all good.
The best all-around player on my daughter’s high school team “dabbles” in hockey in the offseason. She might attend a summer camp, or skate the occasional weekend game in the fall, provided it doesn’t conflict with her soccer schedule. But when hockey season starts in November, she is “all in.” I firmly believe this impressive young woman played so well because she was hungry for hockey once the season rolled around.
That’s what you want; Hungry players, who love hitting the ice. It’s the rare player who can maintain that passion throughout the year. Forcing them, under the guise of constant improvement, often has just the opposite result.
The Letter: My daughter is just 15 and a high school freshman. She has been playing hockey for five years. She mostly plays defense, but this year her high school team needed her to play forward. She is a strong skater. She will be teaching with Laura Stamm at our local rink this summer. However, she is strongly considering learning how to play goalie. She plays goalie in field hockey and has been exceptional. Can you give us some suggestions for off-season training and summer goalie camp ideas? Thanks.
My Reply: Working with Laura Stamm will remind her of the importance of skating. Goalie-specific skating is the foundation of everything we do, because getting to the right place at the right time is the key to making saves. With new goalies, I recommend a four- or five-day summer camp, one that offers at least two hours of on-ice instruction per day. A good goalie camp provides not only repetition, but proper repetition (assuming quality instruction). Also, look for camps that have paid college shooters, not volunteers. Better shooters make better drills, and better goalies. Camps, like hockey programs, should be about development, both in terms of skill, and love of the game.
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.
This article originally appeared in the April edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.