Young 10-year old Jeff Bilton, of the Tim Horton’s Minor Atom Valley East Rebels, is all smiles as he sits out a two-minute penalty during one of his recent hockey games. Jeff enjoys everything about the game of hockey, but so do most other players at his age. So what happens to kids like Jeff as they get older? Why is there such a high drop-out rate among hockey players in Canada?
I don’t think we have to look much further than the adults in the stands to find the answer. We have recently heard of a man in the United States sentenced to six years in jail for killing another man in a fight at an arena. A bantam game in Toronto had to be halted because of an altercation between two coaches. And during a tournament last year in Valley East, witnesses overheard one parent threaten to kill another father and his son at the end of the season. During Minor Hockey Week in Canada we heard stories about parents trying to attack referees; coaches almost coming to blows with each other; fights in the lobby after the game; a linesman being speared in the leg by an angry high school player; referees walking off the ice; and accusations of teams trying to use illegal players. George Armstrong, a former Toronto Maple Leaf Captain who grew up in Skead, was recently quoted in the Toronto Star, "Hockey in Canada will be in good shape when parents decide that it is being played for the children’s benefit and not their own."
As we head into each new season of hockey, with great expectations and excitement, it is important that we keep our priorities straight. Therefore, I think it is time to once again bring out one of my favourite letters. I rank this letter right up there with "Yes, Virginia...there is a Santa Claus". This letter too, first appeared in a large metropolitan newspaper and hits right at the very soul of every parent who reads it. Take a few moments to reflect upon the message.
Dear Mom and Dad:
Don’t get excited. I’m not running away or anything. I hope you won’t be mad that I left you guys this letter, but I don’t have the guts to say all this stuff in person.
It’s about our hockey team. I was really excited to make the traveling team this year. The uniforms and hockey bags are pretty neat and we get to travel all over the place. But I know you are disappointed in me.
It started when Dad called our coach after the second game to tell him he was taking me off the team. I know you used to like to tell the guys at work how many goals I scored last year in house league. I guess you haven’t got too much to tell them this year.
But after the coach talked you out of taking me off the team I was really nervous to go back. The coach told me he thought I was good enough to play on the traveling team and not to worry. He told the other players I got sick and they all kept asking me if I was feeling better.
I know you really like it when I score goals. I guess that’s why you said you’d give me five dollars for a goal and a dollar for an assist. But the coach says an assist is as good as a goal. The coach wasn’t too happy when I told him you gave me two dollars for a penalty though.
I try to be more aggressive, like you said, but the other guys skate pretty fast. You told me to carry the puck more, like Jimmy does, but I can’t seem to go fast enough to get away from the other guys.
You should see me play street hockey though. When they pick teams I always get picked nearly first and I score a lot of goals. The other day I hit one of the guys in the elbow with a tennis ball and we couldn’t stop laughing for about a year. But before our real hockey games I always get so nervous.
You know a lot about hockey, Dad, but I just can’t remember all the things you tell me in the car on the way to the game. By the time we get there, I always feel sick in my stomach.
I don’t mind you screaming at the games because all the parents scream. But don’t yell at John to pass the puck more. He’s the best player on our team and without him we’d be dead.
After our game yesterday, I felt bad when you yelled at the coach for not putting me on the ice in the third period. It was a close game and he wanted the best players out there. The coach is a pretty cool guy really, and he doesn’t get any money or anything for coaching us.
I know you were both pretty upset after we lost the game. You were surprised when I started crying in the car on the way home. It wasn’t because of when I got hurt in the second period, like I said. I just couldn’t help it.
I love you both a lot, so I think I better quit hockey. It’s costing you a lot of money, like you said, and you guys don’t seem to enjoy coming to my games any more anyway. I can’t go back to house league, because all of the guys would laugh. I hope you understand why I can’t play hockey anymore. I think it’ll be the best thing for you guys.
If you are a hockey parent, do you recognize yourself in any section of this letter? Have we forgotten why we put children in a hockey program to begin with? Is the pressure really worth it?
Let us pause to reflect about what we, as adults are doing to our children. We may have all the best intentions in the world, but what do our words and actions portray? Could your child have written this letter? If so, it’s not too late to change. Do it for the kids!
Let’s remember kids like Jeff, and let’s try to keep the smile on their face for many years to come.