Sam and I went to a lot of minor league baseball games this summer. Our favorites were the Lowell Spinners games. The franchise has struck the perfect balance of baseball, kid-friendly entertainment and family-friendly prices.
It’s interesting that even an 8-year-old can see the heart on the field at these games. I explained the farm system to Sam, that most of these guys will never see the big leagues, do their traveling by bus and make very little money. But the fun they have on the field is contagious and he gets to see professional athletes in progress, as opposed to the largely finished products he sees at Fenway.
Sam also benefits from the jawboning going on among the seniors who surround us at these ballgames. These guys look like they were alive to watch Babe Ruth in action, and they know everything about baseball. They keep score religiously and argue constantly — about attributes of the current batter, about the quality of the pitcher’s cutter, about the decision of the manager to swap DHs the night before. Sam eavesdrops and I encourage him. You can soak up a lot of knowledge in the time it takes to polish off a box of popcorn.
What does this have to do with hockey? Well, we found a lot of similar benefits from going to watch Bruins development camp. Held during a week in July at the nondescript Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington, Mass., the invited Bruins prospects get the chance to work with the Bruins coaches, while those coaches get to assess and mold their upcoming talent.
It’s hard to believe how young most of these guys are, but some of the standouts this year couldn’t even legally drink a beer. The quality of skill was high, but there were a lot of equally spectacular flubs, miscues and some obvious areas for improvement for most of the players. I could see Sam drawing the mental line in his head from his teammates, to their older brothers’ teams, to the BU hockey games he’s seen, to development camp, to the Bruins. In fact, he was most intrigued to watch the prospects spend the first hour doing drills he’d done himself.
Sam was already in learning mode from those Spinners games when we hit development camp. So we sat down at the end near the media pen, listening to reporters chat with players and coaches trying to get a good quote or the hook into an intriguing story angle. It also gave us good acoustics to listen when the coaches barked orders and worked one-on-one with players. And just like the baseball stands, we were surrounded by old-time hockey fans who had plenty of wisdom (some of it quality and some of it not so quality) they didn’t mind sharing.
Sam came away with some important lessons:
* No matter how good you are, you can always get better.
* No matter how good you are, there is always someone better than you or someone who will be better than you and take your place if you stop working.
* Players at every level have to work hard and put in long hours to compete.
* It is as important how you listen to, understand and respond to your coaches’ criticism as it is how talented you are to begin with. A good coach has feedback for everyone.
Every NHL team that I looked up had at least a portion of their summer development camp, as well as preseason training camps, free and open to the public. Some tips if you want to take your kids:
If you have younger kids, go on the first day. The players are just getting their feet wet, the media are out in force, and the coaches are especially vocal, making it an entertaining circus. Bring food, snacks and something to distract them during some of the longer breaks in the action.
If you can’t stay for the whole thing, go toward the end. There is usually the chance to meet players and coaches after the practice ends and get autographs. You can often watch some of the most informative media interviews taking place then, too.
If you have an older kid who really wants to soak in the whole thing, go on a weekday. I had to take the day off work and pull Sam out of camp, but I found it worth it to go on a Wednesday when there wasn’t much of a crowd and we could get close to the action.
Take a Sharpie and something to sign. There is nothing more fun for a kid than to be able to say, “I met him!” when a prospect someday becomes a Bruin and makes a play. In my experience, following a player’s development through the ranks often makes them a favorite.
If your kid is especially devoted, bring a video camera. It was really fun to go over film of the drills with Sam and have him tell me what they were doing and what they did well and not so well. Resist the urge to play coach here … even if you know what you are talking about (which I mostly don’t, so it was an easy urge to resist). Instead, listen to them play coach and teach you.
In this hectic day and age, I treasure events like these as a chance to hang with Sam. It’s a bonus that he can have fun, learn about sports he loves, and I don’t have to spend a ton of money. And how great is it to watch baseball and hockey with your kid in the same summer week.
April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.