‘The State of Hockey” is a moniker you hear a lot in Minnesota this time of year. With the high school hockey tournaments around the corner, NHL season back in full swing and, of course, the Olympics just wrapping up, hockey is in prime time.
From all reports, we are just crazy about hockey in this state. And I understand why — hockey is a great game. The sport requires speed, skill, smarts, endurance and a certain level of toughness not found in many other sports. Nothing better than watching two evenly matched teams battle it out on the ice. If there’s some brutal checking or a fight … even better.
I get where the prima donna attitudes of the hockey players I grew up with came from. It may even be necessary if one wishes to play.
I respect the drive it takes to become a high-level player. As a competitive athlete my entire life — I just completed my 12th American Birkebeiner, and added to the list of more than 100 endurance marathons in various sports — I understand training and commitment at a very deep level.
But at the youth levels, the “State of Hockey” is a really, really sick state indeed.
When my son was in fourth grade, he came to me one fall day and said: “I want to try hockey!” When I was young, my folks taught us to skate at a young age and made sure we got to the rink for pickup games whenever we wanted, so I was excited for him.
I visited the youth hockey website in my town to check on fees and sign-up dates. There, I found the names and numbers of a few of the age-level coaches. After placing a few calls, I reached a “team secretary,” the wife of a coach. That was the first red flag.
I asked her about the schedule, and she said she did not recognize my son’s name. I told her it would be his first year, and I was met with a long pause.
“Well, if he’s never played before, he’ll have to be on a “C” team,” she said, and gave me the number to that team secretary.
When I reached the “C” secretary, she nicely listed the practice, game and tournament schedule, along with dates of supplementary camps as well as strength and conditioning training times offered at the rink. Turns out that for 9- and 10-year-olds, practice is four to five days per week, with one to two games each week, and five to six full weekends of tournaments — some in town and some involving statewide travel.
Digesting that, I asked what time the practices would be. She was necessarily vague, because there are no set times … it could be 6 a.m. or 4 p.m. or even 9 p.m. On school days. Ice time is a scarce commodity, so teams take what they are given.
At the time, my son was into Scouts, band and downhill skiing, and he had a healthy book and Lego addiction to feed. We were into building snow forts and cross-country skiing, and his homework habits were improving. So I asked if it would be possible for him to participate, say, three days a week. The secretary said that she would have to ask the coach, but that she was certain he wouldn’t get much game playing time if he were not fully committed.
I confessed that we did not anticipate him making a run at the NHL draft — he just wanted to try hockey.
A second long pause.
I started doing some mental math, then asked how many “C” teams there were.
How many boys on each team?
“We only have room for 15.”
I asked: “If there were more spots offered, would more boys sign up?”
I was assured that if there was more ice time, probably twice that many spots could be filled at the “C” level.
Quick at ciphering, I offered: “Just a thought, but what if there were an option to play half of the normal time, and thus make ice available for twice as many boys? This is ‘C’ level hockey — maybe more guys just want to try it out.”
She said: “Hockey is a big commitment if you want to get better, and the full-time team is the only option.”
That evening, I sat down with my son and explained the level of commitment and time required to “try hockey.”
His response was: “Ha! I’m not doing that! When would I ski or do Scout stuff or homework? Forget it — most of those hockey guys are jerks anyway.”
Then it dawned on me: We don’t have to spend any time with those people. We’re prima-donna-free!
Dale Vaillancourt lives in Burnsville.