5 Ways to Address Minor Hockey Flaws in North America

Minor Hockey

From rising costs to heartbroken children, there are many flaws that currently plague the minor hockey system in North America.  As we transition into a new era of holistic development, how can we help change the system for the better?

Here are 5 ways we can address major flaws plaguing minor hockey today:

 

  1. Change the Vision

Mission statements aside, the vision of today’s minor hockey system is focused around selling the NHL Dream.  There is nothing wrong with dreaming big, it’s what kids do best, but, we need to remember or realize that the NHL dream is a 1 in 1,000 shot.  It’s a lottery dream.  The problem with making this a focal point is all of the negativity that comes along with it.  From an obsession with winning and statistics to status and fights over playing time, everything that is negative about minor hockey can all be linked to the pressures of chasing what is essentially a pipe dream.

I’ve spent the last few days, scouring minor hockey sites from Prince George, BC, to Fort Myers, FLA and there are a lot of similar themes.  Almost every home page has pictures of kids celebrating victories and championships.  Some of the overarching organizations are promoting graduates currently in the NHL, with posts celebrating the careers of the 0.001%.  I totally get it.  We’re selling the dream, and it’s dreams that keep us motivated.  But, is this really the best model?  The business analyst in me can’t help but look at the vision and see the flaws. Why can’t we change the vision to be more inclusive and celebrate the transferrable values of youth sports.  Why can’t we celebrate the fact that individuals from all vocations can use the tools and values they learned in minor hockey and successfully apply them to everyday life?

The fact is kids are being setup to fail in a system that sells the NHL dream as its main focus.  Even reaching the high levels that I did in hockey, I was extremely disappointed in myself because I didn’t reach the NHL.  It is an all or nothing mentality that is a major part of the culture of hockey development in North America.  It wasn’t until much later that I understood the hidden transferrable values that hockey had given me—something that just wasn’t a focus and still isn’t in minor hockey.  It’s a backwards approach.

 

 

  1. Align Development with Priorities

Every year I get asked to coach AAA minor hockey in my community and every year I politely decline.  When asked why, I simply state, “Firstly, my wife would kill me (it is a huge time commitment).  Secondly, the way I would run it would piss too many people off.”

“What do you mean?”  They replied.

“Well, I would hold a meeting at the beginning of every season and tell all parents the following:  I am a big believer in developing all players so everyone is going to play in different situations and have fun.  Everyone has a right to learn and develop and it’s my job to make sure each kid has fun, develops on and off the ice as a well-rounded person, learns valuable transferable skills and values, and plays with peak confidence.  My priorities are:  Fun, Development, Respect, and Teamwork.  Winning is a by-product of successful development.  Winning is not the priority for me.” I said.

They replied, “You can’t do that, man.  It’s AAA.  You have to promote your top guns and play to win.  Winning has to be a priority, that’s why it’s called competitive hockey.  If you want to play everyone, you should coach house league.”

To me, that is such an old school mentality and is debilitating to youth sports.  I hear hundreds of stories each year from people about kids coming home crying after playing two shifts of a game.  When I was 13 years-old, my coach told my dad he should stop wasting his money and pull me out of rep hockey because I was never going to do anything with it.  I used to be the kid who was the “grocery stick” (sits in the middle of the bench between the forwards and the defencemen and doesn’t play).  I sat and watched 16 other kids play, game-in and game-out.  21 years later, myself and two other kids on that team played professional hockey.  The fact is you never know when kids are going to peak.  To promote some and not others is short-sighted and detrimental.

 

 

  1. Fix the Ratio

I’ve mentioned this before in other articles.  Kids are playing far too many games and not practicing enough, in comparison.  I asked a parent of a AAA peewee player how many games his son played during the winter season last year and he said, with tournaments, exhibition games, regular season games and playoffs, it was around 65 – 70 games.  He said they practiced on average twice a week, usually 3 games a week and sometimes travelling three hours to games on school nights.  During his minor midget AAA season, Connor McDavid participated in 88 games during the winter season.  These numbers don’t even include spring or summer hockey games, which a large portion of kids partake in after the winter season.

The biggest complaint I hear today about minor hockey is the cost.  Annual winter season registration for AAA is between $3,000 – $5,000, not including additional costs like equipment and travel and accommodation.  After a season, it’s not uncommon for families to be out $10,000.  One way to help reduce this is to reduce the amount of games played and tournaments entered.  As it stands, the only league in the world that plays more games in a calendar year than AAA minor hockey is the NHL.  Games cost more than practices, yet it’s in practice where kids develop more.  Reducing the games played from 70 to 40 and scaling back from 5 tournaments a year to 2 or 3 will drastically reduce some of the associated costs and allow more families to afford to put their kid into competitive hockey.

Hockey is still packaged and sold to families as a “blue collar” sport.  Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby came from blue collar families, rose up and achieved glory and riches beyond their wildest dreams.  This view is all a big part of selling the dream.  Unfortunately, most families today are being priced out of the sport.  Not too many families can set aside $10,000 a year for recreation.   This is all due to a quantity over quality model.

As a development specialist, I see a lot of burnout today in hockey.  I see highly-stressed parents, worried about status and finances, and I see kids who are under an enormous amount of pressure.  I hear the word “investment” a lot when it comes to minor hockey careers, a word that should never be tied into youth sports.  Financially, minor hockey has reached a serious tipping point.  Something’s got to give.

 

 

  1. Develop Partnerships

Hockey in North America is big business.  This isn’t going to change anytime soon.  With the growth of hockey development, we have seen a meteoric rise of hockey development companies.  More and more families are purchasing the services of these companies for skill development clinics, power skating, private lessons and other specialized hockey services.  Many young players now have advisors or mentors and are engaged in off-ice training.  The three-sport athlete is fading and the emergence of specialization is the new rage (whether this is right or wrong is an article for another day).

These companies greatly capitalize on the “Keeping up with the Joneses” mentality.  If Johnny Superstar is going to XYZ Hockey School, then everyone else will follow suit.  This new era of development has pulled strong coaching candidates from the minor hockey coaching ranks. Why coach for peanuts and deal with constant headaches and pressures when you could make more money, commit less time, and run things the way you want without restrictions?

If these hockey development companies aren’t going anywhere and provide good services, how can we make it work so that costs aren’t going through the roof?  The answer is partnerships.  If minor hockey associations start partnering up with these hockey companies to provide high-level development services, you will see a stronger, more integrated development experience.  The fact is, most volunteer coaches (all great people) aren’t usually equipped to handle high-level specialized skill development.  For years, goaltending development suffered in Canada due to the lack of expertise in minor hockey organizations.  By partnering up with a hockey development company, organizations can benefit from a roving goalie coach who works with all the goalies in the system throughout the season, limiting the need to shell out thousands of dollars on the side for private lessons.

Another way to help reduce overall costs is to create partnerships between youth sports organizations within the community.  When I was playing pro hockey in Europe, I was amazed at how they conducted business when it came to youth sports.  In many areas in Europe, there are “club” organizations that include multiple sporting teams spread across several levels.  For example, I played pro hockey for HK Partizan, which was part of the Partizan sporting club family.  Partizan had pro teams in hockey, soccer, basketball, and handball, as well as youth sports levels under the Partizan umbrella all the way down to tyke.  It was much easier to secure major corporate sponsorship through this model and allowed families to register their kids in multiple sports throughout the year at reduced costs.

 

 

  1. More Transparency and Accountability in Governance

Too many people are able to play God in youth and amateur sports.  From league convenors to coaches, it’s far too easy to be sleazy.  The amount of corruption and abuse of power I have seen over the years in minor hockey and at the amateur junior levels is enough to make me swear my kids away from ever playing hockey.  It has to change and the reason it hasn’t, despite knowledge of the corruption, is due to the “ol’ redneck judge and jury” setup.  It’s an old boys club and everyone has each other’s back.  It’s a broken system and needs more transparency and accountability.  From the selection of teams to the way grievances are processed, there needs to be more transparency and a formalized process in place that ensures objectivity.

 

Hockey is a great sport filled with many great benefits.  Check out how hockey’s key values translate to the workplace in “Hockey to the Workplace: 10 Transferable Competencies”, and take a hilarious ride through hockey’s back roads in “Tales from the Bus Leagues”.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

42 thoughts on “5 Ways to Address Minor Hockey Flaws in North America

  1. Excellent article Jamie. I can relate to number 2 (actually all of them). Maybe that’s why I am not coaching minor hockey myself!

  2. That was a great article. The point that most coaches are volunteers and are not equipped to coach at the competitive leave was a great point. I love the idea of partnering with these outside hockey organizations and coming up with a business plan that works for both. The cost to play competitive hockey is one that does not have to be the expensive, but many times it is the parents who do not want to “work” to reduce that cost. There has to be an middle-ground somewhere that works.

    • Thanks for commenting Anthony! Most of the problems I see in hockey comes down to laziness and resistance to change. The game is still governed by alot of people who have the “old-school” mentality and often revert to “When I played, we did it this way…This is the right way…” These people are often resistant to change and looking outside the box.

  3. Very well said. I have been a board member for our organization for 5 years and have seen all of these…and at a BB level..not AAA. It goes all the way down to small town hockey. There has to more emphasis put on house league hockey, keeping the kids learning and developing as people. We need more people to realize that in minor sports, the majority of kids play for fun first and winning second. Thanks for this and I will be sharing it with all I know.

    • Thanks Kevin! I am a firm believer that if you develop kids the right way and make it fun and inclusive, the outcome will be success. The opinion that “winning cures all” is a horrible cliche. I was on successful teams as a kid where 6 of us would play 2 shifts a game. We won, but I certainly didn’t have much fun and spent alot of time thinking about quitting.

  4. Jamie, great article! You nailed it right on the head! I played a bit myself…followed the same path as you, NCAA, ECHL, Europe…but I don’t coach today for a lot of the same reasons as you. I’m definitely going to be sharing your article. Good on ya!

    Randy Dagenais, MBA

  5. Great article. Our son loves hockey and plays spring. This season our son (2004) is playing up with a 2003 spring team and the team philosophy is development. We are doing 3 tournaments, 8 or so exhibition games with lots of practice. The families were all sat down at the start of the season and told that the bench will not be shortened, win or lose, everyone made the team. The bench has never been shortened and the kids and parents are incredibly supportive of each other. Best hockey experience we have ever had.

  6. Awesome article. Our association is very ‘old boys club’ and there have been many rumours of kids making higher tiers over better players based on where the association wants that kid’s dad to coach and even manipulating how evaluations are done to ensure certain kids tier high enough to have an opportunity to try out for AA/AAA teams.

    The biggest thing we need is transparency, and many are calling for independent evaluators so there is absolutely no bias, good or bad, whatsoever.

    Our boys play spring hockey and the thing they love about it is it’s primarily about development. They play 3-4 exhibition games maximum and never more than two tournaments. Unlike winter season where we’ve had coaches who put their teams into 5-6 tournaments (3 out of town) without even consulting the parent group on what they would like.

    I hope coaches, board members, parents, etc from associatons all over North America read this and take it to heart.

    • You’re totally right. Definitely not enough transparency and objectivity. A few of my friends, all positive, experienced hockey people, tried coaching minor hockey and were ultimately given the boot after they wouldn’t “play by the rules”. It’s disgusting and, unfortunately, happens everywhere. Change is needed.

  7. Hi Jaime, this is an excellent read. I established an independent spring hockey club because of most of the same issues you highlighted. We have grown from 1 team to 13 in just 3 seasons. We focus more on development and fair play and less on winning. Our teams have good success as we try to encourage kids to focus on their own personal victories and less on game victories. The kids are easy, the parents are the challenge. http://www.okanaganallstars.com

  8. totally agree but let’s do an article on recreational hockey and stop telling the every day parents that hockey is too expensive, it isn’t… we have hockey for 6.5 months with an average payment of only $70 per month..parents need to know they can afford FUN hockey. Rep hockey is a choice parents make for their kids. Parents need to know they can choose to just enjoy the sport. Sit back and watch their kids play for the love of the game, and get some great exercise, team mates, etc. too much emphasis on the bad of hockey instead of the good.

    • That is true Vicky, there are great hockey programs that are affordable. And, yes, most house leagues are very affordable with much more emphasis on fun and inclusion. However, rep hockey is big part of hockey in North America. Kids who have a strong passion for the sport and dreams to achieve higher levels (AA, AAA, junior, NCAA, pro) can use rep hockey as a way to chart their journey and challenge themselves as they express their desire. The main point of many of my articles is that although the level of hockey increases for kids, the vision and priority should still be based on development and fun as priorities. Parents have a choice if they choose to register their kid in rep hockey, but they shouldn’t be sacrificing safety or fun while doing so. While rep hockey is and always has been more expensive than house league, the gap has increased exponentially due to a quantity over quality approach to developing elite youth athletes. Simply put, there is a better, more cost-effective way to develop youth athletes while promoting inclusion and fun.

  9. An excellent article ….. and sooooo true! Our daughter has played hockey for 8 years … and hopefully it will take her through middle and high school and university. She loves the sport and we love watching her play. Wonderful parents and great kids … but …. like you said in your article … there needs to be change.

  10. Great article from the first word to the last. I kept yelling to myself, “He gets it! Why doesn’t anyone else???” I coached for nine years but the dictatorial way some hockey directors and or hockey boards run their program finally drove me out.
    As the parent of a very gifted 16 year old goalie I really cheered when I read your section on the escalating cost of hockey. There is no way we can afford the $10,000 it costs in our area to play AAA hockey, even though our son is good enough to play at that level. Our kid really would like to play juniors or college hockey in another year. But opportunities to play at the next level, especially D1, dwindle if your kid can’t afford to play AAA. Exposure is next to nothing for AA players, NO MATTER HOW GOOD. There are a lot of quality, skilled players who are relegated to the AA level just because their parents don’t make enough money. So what ends up happening? The kids who try out for AAA teams are the kids who can AFFORD it and not necessarily the BEST players available. In fact, I had a AAA coach tell my son last year that players who didn’t participate in the team’s off season program (at over $1,000) would probably not be considered for a roster spot for the fall/winter season.
    Keep discussing all the pros and cons of this great game. It’s the best way to keep making the greatest game on earth even greater. Thanks for the well thought out, articulate article!

    • Thanks for sharing your story. You are so right when it comes to families being priced out of the higher levels in minor hockey. It frustrates me because hockey has truly become a rich man’s sport when it really doesn’t need to be. There is an interesting statistic that I read somewhere recently that showed the per capita percentages of kids who emerged from certain communities and backgrounds and it showed that a much higher percentage of kids come from rural communities that play less games, experience more “unstructured play”, and pay substantially lower fees to compete. There are great models of success all over the world in different sports, unfortunately minor hockey in North America seems to be resistant to change.

  11. Jamie this article hits the nail on the proverbial head. Thank you for writing something so straight forward. I will share this for sure. Being a female coach in “boys” hockey I run into the old boys club an awful lot. Thank you.

  12. I have been coaching hockey for over 25 years here in Minnesota. I honestly think we are one of the states that get it. We have a 3 to one practice to game ratio and truly focus on the basic skills players need. When I talk to other hockey parents across the country and see their young kids playing 70 games a year it makes me want to pull my hair out. Everyone knows that playing games do not improve hockey players skills. If having your child play professional hockey is your goal…look at how many professional hockey players are out of the state of MN.. No other state comes close. I’m not trying to be arrogant about this. it just proves working on skills and small area games will help bring out the best in your players. Playing in tourney’s and traveling all over the country won’t.

    For what it’s worth

  13. Experienced #2 this past weekend, was pretty disappointing! A development program and Ethan sat, not cool!

  14. If Hockey Canada reads this and reacts according to what the writers opinions are best for kids playing hockey, then Team Canada at ANY level and age would be good as France. This article is pretty useless imo. sorry of you disagree. There’s always Hockey in Japan and France for half assed efforts in minor hockey like this.

    • I’m not sure if you really understand the article Mr. Anonymous. We all believe that hockey is competitive and yes there should be AAA hockey available but there is other factors that HC should or could be looking at. Now if you really would like to voice your honest opinion here why don’t do let us know who you really are or maybe you might be just another director with HC?…just saying. Thanks for sharing though. Coach Nye.

  15. You know Jamie I really appreciate your article and precisely the last point you made. Problem is how do you ever effect change in that old boys club, when you fear repercussions for your child when you stand up and say enough is enough, that judge and jury set up insulates those who are responsible and keeps the cycle going…. Why is there no open forum within hockey canada that governs or police’s the executive’s in each association?

    • Hi Kyle! This is a great question. I’ve thought alot about this but haven’t really come to a decent conclusion as to what would be a good fix for this. There are so many layers to it.

      • #5 is all too common. Something has to change here. It is disgusting how some organizations are run. We saw the clear corruption and attempted to address it. What was the end result … no meeting. No transparency and we are being called crazy. Not to mention our son at 7 years old will now be blackballed as we had the balls to speak out. Sad Canada. Very sad

  16. Great article…..I agree with everything…especially #5….as this rings true for me.

  17. I have two sons who play hockey, and they love it. While their love and skill at hockey have brought about invitations to play spring / summer hockey, we have always put our foot down, and said “nope…summer in Canada is for everything you can’t do in the winter”!

    The biggest problem I have with minor hockey today, is that there is a dangerous loss of priorities that can have a profound impact on the rest of an child’s life. If you’re one of those kids who plays AAA throughout their hockey career, and advances to the Junior Hockey ranks, the sacrifices are significant; Players compromise their education, adolescence, relationships with family and friends… all to chase a dream of the NHL. For those who aren’t skilled enough to make it, they finish their junior career, maybe play overseas for a few years, and eventually wind up back at home with a compromised high-school education and a reduced spectrum of life prospects. Young athletes (and their families) who come close, but don’t make it to the “bigs” have bet the house on a dream. They’re left to figure out how to get their formative years back, and find a new path for their lives.

    Minor Hockey makes kids choose between hockey and everything else. They must forgo high school football, basketball, volleyball, soccer… not to mention the Arts, and most importantly, compromise education to be in a rink 150 days a year. I’m always guarded that Hockey doesn’t end up taking more from my kids than it gives back.

  18. Great article Jamie…I come from NB where 99% of minor hockey coaches are mot paid and there are some good coaches that have moved on to Junior, College and Pro…that is reality here minor hockey is volunteer driven…the problem arises when the coach is involved for the wrong reason…and that can happen at all levels….priority in minor hockey SHOULD BE DEVELOPMENT!!!

    For me the problem is after Minor Hockey Season…Spring and Summer Hockey! The large majority of those programs are money makers, plan and simple! You mentioned it we have very few athletes who play multiple sports! Bobby Orr just mentioned last week in MacLean’s how kids no longer play 2 or 3 sports…kids need time to be kids!!! Just to much hockey!

    You mention 1 in 1,000…it is actually 1 in 15,000 hockey players who make it to the NHL, an article from 2011 used those numbers!

    Once again great article!

  19. Great article. I completely agree with you regarding developing all players. My son only plays for fun, with no expectations of going to the NHL. He just loves to hang with teammates on and off the ice. Financially, he plays at a YMCA league in the winter because of the cost and plays with a club in the spring. It doesn’t matter to him, because he just loves hockey. I hope at some point you can implement your plan. Good luck and thanks for thinking of the kids m.

  20. Jamie,

    I enjoyed this article very much. I live in Montana and am a parent, coach and volunteer. Currently in Montana we have the backwards way of thinking about hockey and that is competition first development second. I and others are attempting to get the message out there that we need to change our hockey culture because our current system is broken and leading to disfunction. We are losing to many kids in the state because of cost, politics, and lack of having fun! Currently we are drafting a plan for a program that places the emphasis on development first and competition second. This program is based off many of the studies that USA Hockey and other hockey associations around the world have conducted finding that younger hockey players are playing way too many games compared to quality practice sessions. This program will be met with resistance because it is a drastic change in the way of thinking about hockey and hockey development! But for our culture to change people are going to have to be willing to look at what is best for the players now and their development as well as the longterm development of hockey in the state. Thanks again for the article it really hits the points we are trying to make!

  21. Excellent article. We are currently right in the middle of a huge dispute with a coach of our child who’s ideas of respect are totally backwards. It’s good to know that there are people out there who share are beliefs and thoughts of minor hockey. Keep up the great work.

  22. I happened on your site because I was searching bad hockey coaches and read “Don’t be that guy article”. Which is an excellent read and describes my player’s novice coach to a T unfortunately.

    I am a mother of two young boys (first year novice & atom) in minor hockey in Calgary, Alberta. I wish Hockey Calgary would put these two must read in our Hockey rule book.

    Your articles are so insightful for a reluctant hockey mom that is learning the ropes of Hockey. Thank-you

  23. This guy tells it like it is. We need more current or ex pro players to step up to the plate for minor hockey in this country. Minor hockey—-I’ve been there and am still there. It’s broke. A

  24. Hey we have an extremely talented nine year old who is blocked by the so called parent/coaching squad and co.
    These people need to start being denounced and only then will they think twice of blocking kids for whatever self serving reasons whether for money or kids.

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