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Let’s keep the fun in hockey

There is next to no chance your son is going to play in the NHL.

Have a daughter? Well, there are only 25 spots on Team Canada, so she really needs to be a rare talent.

Despite our best attempts to ignore these blunt truths, it’s simply reality that, as none other than hockey legend and current player agent Bobby Orr recently told MacLean’s magazine, only 0.0057 per cent of kids playing minor hockey today will skate in even one NHL game.

Yet, if you take a stroll through any arena in Grey/Bruce (or on the rock-lined coast of Nova Scotia, across the plains of Saskatchewan or high in the mountains of B.C., for that matter) you’ll see and hear things from supposedly rational adults that are, frankly, shocking. Especially so when you consider who is on the receiving end of those shouts – children, officials (who are often children themselves) and volunteers who selflessly spend hundreds of hours teaching our kids the finer points of this wonderful game.

And here’s where I fully and openly admit that I can be an idiot. Although – even at age 34 – I am still working to temper it, I have a competitive streak that is notorious amongst my family, friends and teammates. As someone who has played, coached and/or refereed hockey for most of my 34 years, I have absolutely been guilty of getting caught up in the emotion of the game and lost my cool. Once, when I was a teen playing Midget hockey, I had an ongoing feud with a local referee that often resulted in an extra two minutes for me in the penalty box for shooting off from the mouth. I earned the target on my back and he was happy to hit the bulls-eye knowing I couldn’t resist. One night, it boiled over to the point where I called him some regrettable things and was sent to the showers. Just one week later, in my job as a referee, I sheepishly suited up beside him in the small changeroom set aside for the officials.

It’s not the last time I got lost in the moment as a player (I was just 16 and bulletproof after all), but it’s the first time I remember realizing how ridiculous I sometimes act when on a field of play. To this day, this humbling experience is one of those I reflect upon when I feel myself slipping into hyper-competitiveness.

So, this isn’t me shouting from my high horse at everyone who gets swept up in the excitement of a child’s hockey game (or dance class or soccer match) and shouts at an official or speaks poorly of a volunteer who is doing the best they can in a thankless job. This is, hopefully, a reality check for people (myself included) to resist the urge to take these activities too seriously.

I’ve been on both sides. As a referee, I’ve paused games to give arena staff time to escort irate fans out of the building, all the while knowing their child is sitting on the bench and listening to their parent’s outraged voice echoing throughout the cavernous rink. I’ve watched parents from the opposing team taunt and cheer while the irrational parent has made their exit, showing their own children it’s OK to jeer at someone if you don’t agree with their behaviour.

Unfortunately, instead of taking the opportunity to pause and reflect on why we’re in the building in the first place – the youngsters wearing the skates – we resume the game and conveniently ignore the impression we just made on the most impressionable people in our lives. As any referee will attest, the players are often the quietest ones in the rink until the coach and parents decide the official is at fault for the way the game is going. Then, following the example set for them, the kids feel they’re entitled to express their opinion too.

As a player, I know I’ve let down my parents, teammates and coaches by taking this game – and yes, it’s a game, not a life-or-death matter – too seriously. I also set a poor example for my players on occasion when I coached houseleague hockey, though I never went too far over the line thankfully.

Today, my oldest daughter has no interest in playing hockey, but it looks like my youngest will in due time, so I’ve yet to feel the parental pull of protecting my sporting child, while demanding to right any perceived wrongs on their behalf as we’re naturally wired to do. Yet, if you ask a parent why they enroll their kids in hockey, there’s a good chance they’ll say it’s because they want them to have fun, learn to be a part of a team, and experience a wonderful sport in its purest form.

But, once we’re in the rink, is that really the case? We don’t yell and scream at them to try harder, accost their opponents or whisper mean things about their friends when they’re playing hockey on the street, horseback riding or frolicking at the beach, and those things are a lot of fun too.

More likely, we want our kids to thrive, succeed, enjoy the thrill of winning and be the best at all they do. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s why families spend thousands of dollars annually for their eight-year-old to play Triple-A hockey, and then spend summers travelling to practices in the far reaches of the county so they can get to know their teammates before heading to city-based tournaments on weekends.

Parents invest incredible amounts of time and money into their kids during a hockey season, so it’s no surprise we get emotional about the outcomes of the games, and we’re always going to think they sky’s the limit for our beautifully brilliant children. Although not interested in athletics, I believe my oldest when she dreams of being an astronaut. I’ll do all I can to help her along the way, but will I yell at her high school physics teacher in the hallways when I’m told she’s not cut out for the difficult math necessary to pursue this path? Will I speak poorly of her classmates who are naturally more gifted in the subject and receiving more attention from the teacher, who sees their natural potential and wants to nurture that talent?

Of course not – that’s unacceptable behaviour for an adult.

Why then is it OK to do so at the hockey rink?

There are too many cases today of the fun being sucked out of children’s organized sports. Believe me, those of us who aren’t sublimely skilled know there’s virtually no chance we’ll play at a professional level or get a scholarship – we just want to have fun. We’ve all played with those whose natural talent and work ethic make it obvious they should be playing at a higher level or even achieve a scholarship that puts them on a path to success in life. We absolutely should challenge these special kids to be better and provide them the opportunity to play with their athletic equals if at all possible. They are the rare amongst us and their talent should be cultivated in a positive manner. As Orr also told MacLean’s, if they’re good enough, the talent evaluators will find them.

But do the kids who simply want to play for the love of it and enjoy the camaraderie and bond that comes with playing organized sport with friends, still receive the same joyful adrenaline rush of blades cutting through ice when some adults and coaches in their lives are acting like every game is a life-and-death, must-win moment even though the stars of the show have yet to begin shaving?

It’s hard to imagine they do.

And yet, at the root of the very reason we pay the money, burn the fuel and get up early on our hard-earned weekends to go to the rink and drink terrible arena coffee is so our children can feel the pure joy that coffee commercials, Hockey Night in Canada and our own childhood memories tell us hockey provides.

Hockey is a fantastic game. It cultivates friendships that last a lifetime. It can be exciting, heartbreaking and exhilirating all in the same shift. Kids make fabulous plays and, just as often, costly mistakes. Yet, at the end of the game, what treats they’re allowed to get at the booth is what most will remember on the ride home.

So let’s cheer and encourage a good effort, remember why everyone is there, and enjoy the game as it’s meant to be.

Fun.

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