Justin Bourne played 16 games for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2007-08, scoring two goals and five points. (Photo courtesy Justin Bourne)
In every small town of every hockey-playing country, some kid is chucking up ridiculous numbers. Like, five-goals-a-game numbers. At least.
And it’s only five because the coaches have tried everything they can to limit the mini-stud’s dominance – they’ve got him playing defense, playing wrong-handed, playing blind-folded, just anything so the other kids can play. Other parents paid for their kids to play hockey and they want their little guys to touch the puck on occasion, too.
So the mesmerizing mini-Malkin moves up the minor levels quick. He starts playing with older kids and he’s still good. Simple as that. He can’t explain it. But he ends up playing at the highest level a kid of his age and size is allowed.
He starts to get the free gear, the praise and the type of coaching that comes with the best teams. And he gets even better.
At some point, he starts to actually believe he’s the second coming of Sidney Crosby and he gets to turn off the rest of the real world and enjoy the ride that is his blessed little life. Bantam draft, selected, boom. Junior hockey, recruited, boom. And maybe, if he’s extra special, he gets to miss a class or two that other kids have to attend.
Before he knows it, his name is included in the NHL draft…not as high as he’d like, though. He played against one guy who was drafted in the first round and that guy was brutal. Pfft. What a joke.
And just like that, management’s little nightmare is born.
But this is how it works in all sports. You take the best players from all the cities and towns and villages and subdivisions, states and provinces. You lump them together, pare them down and take the best from each. Professional sports are made up of people who have grown up hearing they’re the best at what they do. And to some extent, they are.
How we get from there to clips of media blowups where baseball’s Randy Johnson is yelling at a media member “Don’t you talk back to me!” is completely insane.
Somewhere along the line, the kid grew from confident to full belief in himself, to belief that no matter what, he can’t mess this up. He’s officially entitled.
Confidence is a necessity for athletes – they’re frequently challenged, they need to take chances and they need to genuinely believe they can beat their opponent. In most cases, players are extremely confident, but by the time they move up a few levels, they realize: Wow, I’m not so “special” after all. A lot of people were given this gift. It takes an intelligent person to make that connection and adapt to be better. Players such as Rod Brind’Amour and Michael Peca are great examples of guys who came up as goal-scorers and developed into valuable two-way players to keep their dream alive.
And realizing your gift isn’t “special” isn’t a bad thing – you can still be an amazing, hard-working, talented athlete – but for most non-Ovechkin/Crosby types, you’d have to be a fool to think you’re a one-of-a-kind shining star for the sporting world to cherish.
Yet, like in every profession, there are the fools.
The dark side of the pro sports empire is made up of a group of people who are talented, but were overhyped for years and got stuck on that. They’re somehow unable or unwilling to see their gift is not as unique as their parents thought it was at eight years old and that not everybody passing them by is getting “lucky” (note: the “greatness” they demonstrated as a youth often has something to do with being eight inches bigger than other kids, thanks to that early growth spurt).
This sense of entitlement occasionally turned me off one of the best places for conversation on earth: the dressing room. Between watching these “coulda-been-a-contendas” talk down to the training staff and hearing their stories of stolen success every time they got in the same room as a beer, I’m left bitter. It’s always the same thing:
• Our (free) post-game meal sucks.
• You did a crappy job sharpening my skates (for less than minimum wage, if you broke it down hourly).
• It sucks being at the airport two hours early (for our paid-for flights to go see a new city and play a sport for a living).
And you know what? It’s often the same thing from the guys who coulda been a contender, but had this attitude sour their reputation. The big picture is entirely foreign to those blinded by the glory of their own being.
We all bitch because we’re bored, because we’re tired, or because, let’s face it: bitching is fun. You can’t take that away from our culture, or we’d all kill ourselves. Or each other. Or worse: both.
But the guys who sincerely mean it do an unjust job of representing the majority of players who’ve figured it out, though the jackasses seem to be the ones people often remember. Other sports have their problems and prima donnas, too. People aren’t perfect and for that, they are to be forgiven. What’s unforgivable in hockey is the sense of entitlement kids pick up from being good while they’re young.
So congrats on your kid doing great, moms and dads of towns A through Z. Now it’s your job, as a parent, to make sure the kid knows “hockey skill” is of secondary importance to things like “reality.”
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. He will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.