Hockey parents need to chill

First published:
Dec. 4, 2002

No doubt conversations in arenas across Northumberland eventually turned to the new public education campaign aimed at out-of-control hockey parents launched last week by the Canadian Hockey Association. It is called “Relax, it’s just a game.”

In a clever role reversal, the radio and television advertisements depict children blasting parents for screwing up at various activities. While humour takes the edge off the message, the bottom line couldn’t be clearer. The association wants to reduce parental pressure placed on kids playing hockey in leagues across the country.

It is easy, over a cup of hot coffee at the arena, to dismiss this kind of behaviour. It is always somebody else who is the rotten apple in the barrel. But there is growing concern.

The Canadian Hockey Association introduced a code of conduct for parents last year. And there is a growing list of news headlines. Just last month a judge in Mississauga dismissed a lawsuit filed by a nine-year-old boy accusing a coach for putting a bounty on his head. At the same time a New Brunswick father filed a $300,000 suit against a community hockey league for passing over his 16-year old son as most valuable player.

Similar suits have been launched in the past. A Saskatchewan family sued a league for not allowing their son to be on an elite team. In another case, a family sued a league for benching their son.

The most extreme case was in July 2000 when a man beat his nine-year old son’s coach to death during a game in Massachusetts.

But before going too far, it is important to stop and think. Local leagues like the Cobourg Community Hockey League and the Port Hope Beaver Athletic Association, among the others, play a vital role in the community.

Hundreds of families and thousands of children in the county enjoy playing Canada’s national game. There are all kinds of opportunity from house league to elite and rep teams.  Many distinguish themselves.

It is far too easy for local hockey leagues to be smug in the knowledge this extreme kind of parental behaviour does not make headlines in Northumberland.

Yet the pressure exists for the children. It is not unusual to speak with parents to hear stories of the “politics” of the various leagues as some children are selected for the elite teams and others are not. While these comments can be easily passed off as sour grapes, it reflects the kind of attitude the Canadian Hockey Association is trying to stamp out.

A study done in 1995 called the Chances of Making It in Pro Hockey looked seriously at the opportunities for young players to make it to the National Hockey League. The study looked at 22,000 children born in 1975 and followed them through the various leagues. Of all those players, 232 were selected for the Ontario Hockey League draft. From those, 105 played in OHL and 90 finished the three to four year stint.

The study found 42 of players tracked in the study went to the United States to play in the NCAA Division 1, a goal for many aspiring young hockey players looking for both an education and a possible hockey career.

For those with NHL dreams, only 39 of the group in the study signed contracts with major league teams. Fifteen played more than one full season. Less than one percent makes it to the major leagues.

Six from the study group stayed long enough in the major leagues to draw a pension; in other words, have a career.

But the pressure is immense, and not always obvious.

The Cobourg Community Hockey League keeps a list of players on its web site, about 33, who are known as notable graduates. Many of these are people who have gone on to play NCAA or OHL. Go into any arena in the county and see the pictures on the walls of well-known alumni.

But there are other messages. Look at some of the schedules for young players. Children with school the next morning are playing hockey at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. Parents are dutifully showing up, but what does this say about the values being promoted.

Hockey is more important than school? No. Not at all. That will be the answer from parents. It is the only time available. The child loves to play. He/she wants to be with friends. Those are the arguments. And the peer pressure is not only on the kids, but also on the parents.

This is not hockey-bashing. No sane individual would dare say hockey is not important. Playing sports is a fantastic way to develop important skills. Certainly there are not only the physical benefits, but there is also the chance to develop team skills, interpersonal skills, mental agility and a long list of others.

The Canadian Hockey Association is right to be pressuring parents to cool it in arenas. It could be some hockey parents in Northumberland need to take a take another sip of coffee and relax.

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