August 22, 2010

Winds of change can blow both ways

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Every offseason at its annual meetings, USA Hockey makes some changes that affect its hockey-playing members and their families. Every year, these changes become a topic of great discussion and debate.

What most people typically look at is how the change affects them. What’s in for me? What’s been taken away from me? What they often fail to look at is the potential impact on the game itself.

That is the important thing. The game itself is much bigger and much more important than any one player, any one family, any one team or any one organization. That is what USA Hockey has to keep in mind when making decisions and implementing changes each year.

One of the more hotly debated topics this summer was the elimination of USA Hockey national championships at the Under-12 age level for both boys and girls, effective in the 2012-13 season. Curses! What an opportunity lost for these young players -- whatever will they play for now?

OK, so those comments were slightly tongue in cheek. Some people actually ask those kinds of questions, and I understand why they ask. But I also understand why USA Hockey made the choice that it did in the best interest of the game and the players playing it.

First of all, I would hope hockey players play the game because they enjoy playing it, not because of the quest to win a national championship. If that was the case, 99.9 percent of us would be failures every year.

What most people don’t consider when it comes to national championships is that the teams from all over the country are formed in a number of different ways and can “run the gamut” in terms of their ability to be competitive or not. From a strictly “best competition” standpoint, many teams actually get better competition in tournaments that they go to throughout the year.

Don’t get me wrong. I think a championship of some sort is good. But a national championship in a youth sport is really not that important. And I would argue that it has a more harmful affect on the game than it does a positive one, especially within the younger age groups.

Unfortunately, a national championship opportunity can very heavily influence the decision-making of coaches and families when teams are formed. Long-term athlete development and age-appropriate coaching methods get thrown out the window, replaced by what will win a championship now.

Some people just can’t help themselves. Ultimately the win-at-all-costs coaches actually get rewarded (at least in the short-term) for their actions because they do things perceived to be successful -- even though what they are doing is not in the best interest of their players. Most parents have a hard time judging what makes a coach a good coach, but if the team went to nationals he must be good, right?

Not necessarily. He might be, but he could just as easily not be.

The truth is we don’t need nationals at these younger age groups. It is way too young to be led down the wrong path. I am not so sure we need them in any age group. Canada, the leading hockey-playing country in the world, and one that we often look to for guidance, doesn’t have national championships. They seem to get along just fine without them. All in all, it’s a good move by USA Hockey, one that is better for the game and the players playing it.

The second significant change from USA Hockey this year is the new Locker Room Supervision policy that addresses the concern with “locker room activities between minor players; minor players and adult players; adults being left alone with individual minor players in locker rooms; and with non-official or non-related adults having unsupervised access to minor participants at sanctioned team events.”

This also could very well be called the CYA policy (not for Chicago Young Americans, but something to do with covering something). Or it could just as easily be called the Uncommon Sense policy, because I really am starting to believe that common sense is not common at all.

I get why USA Hockey is introducing the policy. It has to be something that they are telling people to adhere to. Some lawyers live for opportunities presented when policies aren’t spelled out.

What is scary is that there actually are some people who need to be told. The wording of the policy is a little vague -- maybe intentionally so -- to be open to interpretation. Does an adult actually have to be in the locker room supervising? Or just outside the door? Maybe I am dense, or maybe I just don’t want to believe the policy actually mandates that an adult needs to be in the room at all times.

I am a little old-school on this one. I firmly believe that the locker room is a sacred place. A place for the team. A place for the individuals on a team to interact and grow together. For kids, it should be a place where adult supervision is not necessary. Absolutely, coaches should lay down the ground rules of what is expected and what is unacceptable in the locker room. Absolutely, coaches should be a presence, in and out of the locker room like a cop walking the beat. But they don’t need to be there all of the time. They can guard the door and pop in and out as necessary.

We have to give kids some space to grow and experience things for themselves. We can’t be constantly smothering and micro-managing and nit-picking. We have to let them figure some things out on their own. What safer place is there to do that than in a locker room?

For younger kids, there might be a greater reason to have more presence, to help them with equipment. But I also know that young kids can do incredible things (like dress and undress themselves in hockey equipment) if we let them. Maybe not tighten their own skates – but they should at least be able to try.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com