How much is too much hockey for youth players?

Ken Campbell
(Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Imagine the uproar if NHL players were suddenly told they’d have to play a seven-game playoff series in the span of three days. The NHL Players’ Association would take more umbrage to that than it would the prospect of goons being taken out of the game.

We can all agree that asking the best players in the world to do that would border on lunacy. That’s why the league has in its CBA that teams never, ever play three games in three nights.

So if it’s outrageous that the fittest, most mentally strong and highest paid hockey players in the world play that kind of schedule, why do we think it’s all right to demand that of our kids? Because that’s what we’re doing almost every weekend in rinks all over North America. Go to any elite tournament on a late Sunday afternoon, you’ll be sure to see a bunch of young men come off the ice who look as though they’ve been run into the ground. These are kids, barely teenagers, who need ice baths and chiropractors on a regular basis. And it’s wrong.

During the last weekend of November, the annual Silver Stick Tournament for minor atom, peewee, bantam and midget AA and AAA teams was held in Whitby, Ont. A total of 120 teams played 274 games over four days. But none of them was required to go through what a group of nine-year-olds from Connecticut had to endure. And if you’re not familiar with the structure of youth hockey, this is going to shock you.

The Mid-Fairfield Yankees are a group of nine-year-old players (born in 2004) that travelled nine hours to get there. They played their first game at 2 p.m. on Friday and last one in the final at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon. That game was their third of the day and followed two games Friday and two on Saturday. In just over 48 hours, a group of nine-year-olds played seven games. Then, get this, everyone jumped back in their cars and drove back to Stamford, arriving home at about 1 a.m. for school the next day.

Now consider the Detroit HoneyBaked AAA midgets, who played seven games in three days with just 12 skaters. HoneyBaked is one of the best midget teams in North America, which is why they won the championship game 6-0, despite losing their best defenseman, Nick McKeeby, to an injury in the tournament.

Kids, particularly in Canada, are playing far too much hockey these days. In fact, one parent who has a child playing for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens, the team HoneyBaked vanquished in the final, thinks playing minor midget in Ontario is more grueling than playing in the Ontario League. Mary Mete, whose son Victor will be a top-five draft pick in the OHL if he chooses the major junior route, says her son has played from mid-August until June since he was six. He has played summer tournaments in Europe and the family has spent more money on hockey than she cares to imagine. Suffice it to say the bill has been more than $10,000 a year, not including spending the summer working out with Gary Roberts.

“We’ve never thought about it, but it would be scary,” says Mete, who owns a banquet hall with her husband.

She also boards two other players for the Canadiens, including Jakob Chychrun, pictured above, the son of former NHLer Jeff Chychrun and the projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 OHL draft. With all those kids playing hockey so much, she has a chiropractor come in every week or so to work on the boys. A chiropractor. For 15-year-olds.

Dr. Michael Clarfield, who was once team doctor for the Toronto Maple Leafs and runs the biggest sports medicine clinic in Canada, told me recently for a book I wrote on youth hockey that 40 percent of his clientele is young hockey players. He sometimes sees up to 10 concussions a week, but leading the way is adductor strains, which comes from repetitive stress on the same muscles.

“The hip and groin area is probably one of the prime areas where I rarely saw injuries in kids and now we see them all the time,” Clarfield says. “You’re exposing the same muscle groups to the same stress over and over again and they’re not getting a rest.”

So today’s hockey culture is producing future candidates for arthritis and hip replacements. Parents often say it’s their child’s passion and it wouldn’t be right to deprive them of doing something they love. But who’s driving the bus here?

The parents are. Actually, like the families from Connecticut, they’re driving the cars, too. Every weekend. Even too much of a good thing can be bad.

This column originally appeared in the World Junior Championship Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.