Edmonton prospect Nail Yakupov does a drill with kids during the Top Prospect Clinic at Ice Castle Arena on June 20, 2012 in Castle Shannon, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images)
There’s nothing quite like the start of a new season for a minor hockey player. It’s like the first day of school, except you’re eager to get it started. You see seasonal friends you maybe haven’t seen since hockey ended last and hit the ice doing what you love most for the first time in months (unless you go non-stop in the summer, since that might take some of the excitement out of it all).
It’s also the time when overbearing parents come out of the woodwork and do their best to (ignorantly) ruin what can be a great and educational childhood activity.
Rep tryouts can be a harsh experience if you’re cut and that’s when the blindest of parents tend to step in and make their presence felt. They either think they have all the answers or take the misguided approach to try and protect their kids from the bad news by blaming others. They’ll puff their chests out and have an open conflict with the coaches, which only ever results in one thing: an even worse, more humiliating experience and no lesson learned for the youngster.
As an Ontario Minor Hockey official for 10 years, Lord knows I’ve seen some of these award-winning parents at their finest. Most of the time they’re oblivious to how ridiculous they sound and that they’re even doing it. One could be reading this right now and not even realize I’m talking about them.
For most of my undistinguished hockey career I played on the rep team of my age group for the Coldwater Minor Hockey Association north of Toronto. It’s a very small town and we don’t have many banners. But I was cut from the team in my first year at the body contact level and I didn’t take it too well. It was upsetting to see most of my friends stick around while I, despite the fact I thought I was one of the better skaters out there, was relegated to house league. It was crushing.
Years later I learned my lack of size had a lot to do with it. My dad could have taken the path of the know-it-all parent and complain about the unjust ruling. But rather, as I leaned against the arena wall, clutching my stick with my bag at my feet, failing despite all efforts to hold back tears, he told me to prove them wrong.
The message wasn’t to hold bitter feelings to anyone. It wasn’t to sulk and whine because I felt I had been wronged. It wasn’t to stomp my feet. It definitely wasn’t to quit or move to a different organization. The message was to put my head down and work harder, so that mistake wouldn’t be made again. I never missed another cut.
If my dad had taken the opposite route, my relationship with hockey, the Coldwater organization and the coaches of that team wouldn’t have been the same. And that would have been the worst shame of all.
I went on to play for one of the coaches responsible for that decision a couple of times, became friends and even earned crucial ice time under him. The other coached my younger brother’s team for a couple of years and I’d go practice with them. His name was Barry Norris, the best coach I never played for, one who I became friends with and one who has so many legendary stories attached to him I doubt the kids playing in Coldwater today believe he actually existed.
I ran into Barry at a Tim Hortons near work a couple of years ago. We chatted, reminisced and then he offered to drive me the three or so blocks back to my office. It was an unexpected and welcoming run-in that would have been nothing more than negative, bitter emotion if my dad had reacted more than a decade earlier the way some overzealous parents do now.
Trying to control every facet of a child’s minor hockey experience will do nothing but ruin it. It will rob them of an opportunity to make life-long friends who they might not see for years, but then instantly reconnect with as if they just saw them yesterday.
Perhaps more importantly, it will deny them valuable life lessons on dealing with disappointment that will cultivate a work ethic and resolve few other childhood activities can offer.
Just let the kids play the game.
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.