What is the real purpose of playing minor hockey?

By STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

Memo to parents with a hockey dream:

Quit your dreaming.

The reality of your minor hockey star making it big is as cold as ice, and maybe just as hard.

There are more than 1,800 AAA hockey players in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, from minor atom age to juvenile, and the odds are severely stacked against even one of them having a successful National Hockey League career.

The numbers from a study of 32,000 Ontario minor hockey players, born in 1975:

- Only one out of every 3,000 minor hockey players will play more than two seasons in the NHL.

- Only 1.3 out of every 1,000 player will earn an American university athletic scholarship.

"And what you have to understand about the study is, this is a best-case scenario. This isn't even an average," said Jim Parcels, who did the research while working for the Ontario Minor Hockey Association. "This was the best crop of hockey players in 15 years. If you even go one year later, you'll find the numbers a whole lot worse."

"It's important to get those numbers out and get them out there loudly," said Bob Nicholson, president of the Canadian Hockey Association. "You never want to take dreams away from kids but you have to set realities for the parents. Too often, it's the parents who are thinking of the futures, not the kids.

"It's the parents who are looking at kids' games and seeing them as a business, seeing them as a future. That's an attitude we have to change. The whole idea that a kid is playing minor hockey to play in the NHL is ludicrous. The truth is, not many of them are going to make it. And if that's the only thing they're setting their sights on, there are going to be a lot of disappointed people out there."

John Gardner, the president of the GTHL, the largest AAA hockey market in the country, would like to see the study results posted on the wall of every arena in Canada. But even then, he isn't naive enough to believe that anything will change.

"Parents won't listen," Gardner said. "They won't read. They don't want to know that something is standing between their kid and a couple of million bucks. And it's not just their fault. It's the way the game has gone.

"You go to a rink and 14-year-olds are playing and who's in the stands? It's guys representing agents and it's junior scouts. People are being exposed to things way too soon. And they make themselves noticeable, which only adds to people having false dreams.

"I had a parent contact me recently asking me how their kid would get on the OHL draft list. I looked at him and said, 'You don't contact them, they'll contact you.' One time I told a parent of a young kid, if you need guidance, why don't you contact the NHL Players' Association and ask for it. I was joking. The parent wasn't. The parent called. It's a wonder (NHLPA president Bob) Goodenow hasn't come down the street and poked me in the eye for facetiously pointing people in his direction."

Neil Smith, a former general manager of the New York Rangers, grew up playing minor hockey in Toronto and never thought of making the NHL as a kid or even about making hockey his life. It just happened.

"The only time we were NHL players was on the driveway," Smith said. "I was Jean Beliveau and the goalie was Glenn Hall. It was more kids play than anything else. In those days there were only six teams in the NHL, so realistically what chance did anyone have of ever getting there?

"But what you're getting today, from coaches, from players, from administrators, from parents, is this thinking that you're planning your way to the NHL. They're teaching the kids to be checkers. Kids are becoming third-liners at 11 and 12 and they and their parents are buying into it. Why? Because they and their parents think they have a future. Someone has convinced them it's the only way.

"At 12, I want kids to think they can be Gretzky or Lemieux. But I don't want parents thinking it. You should still pretend you're an NHL player, that's part of the fun. That's what hockey is. It's part game, part fantasy. That's when it's at its best."

The trouble is, everyone seems to be in a rush. A race that usually leads to nowhere. You take a AA kid and push him into AAA. You take an atom and push him into peewee. Pushy parents, and there are many of them, are willing to spend almost anything to get their kids ahead in hockey.

"One of the problems I have with minor hockey is that kids don't make any decisions, it's all parent driven," said Tom McCarthy, one of a number of former NHL players now coaching AAA hockey in the GTHL.

"Whose hockey dream is it? That's the one thing I don't remember when I was a kid. I have parents come up to me sometimes and ask, 'What do you think of my 10-year-old? And I say, 'He's a fine boy.' So they say, 'No, what do you think his chances are?' And I say, 'Chances for what?' And they say, 'Making it.'

"You just walk away shaking your head. You wonder what these people are thinking."

It is not uncommon for a AAA family to spend more than $5,000 during a hockey season, and that's not necessarily including the cost of out-of-town travel, which can be significant at that level. If a young boy begins at minor atom in AAA and plays all the way to midget, it is not unreasonable to assume a family cost of $50,000 or more just to push a child through the system.

That's roughly the equivalent of five years tuition, room, board and books at a Canadian university.

"The next time you hear a hockey parent say they can't afford to send their kids to university, that's it too expensive, you can turn it around on them," said David Branch, president of the Canadian Hockey League. "People get so wrapped up in getting ahead in hockey they tend to lose perspective. Through experience, we need to tell parents who think it's a sprint as opposed to a marathon. Faster isn't better. That ain't life.

"The game of hockey starts out as fun and should end as fun. What I'm worried about is we're going to have a lot of kids out there who have been told from too young an age that they're going to make it someday in hockey. I think you're going to reach a point where maybe their goals aren't going to be reached, and you're going to have a lot of bitter kids. I don't think that's good for anybody."

And for all the negativity that surrounds aggressive hockey parents, it doesn't begin to bring perspective to the entire hockey population. If in the GTA alone, there are more than 25,000 minor hockey players, then problem parents are, in fact, in the minority: They only garner the headlines.

"God bless the parents, they're unbelievable," Gardner said. "The sport would not survive without them. They're paying, they're coaching, they're volunteering. Remember, hockey in this country is almost entirely volunteer driven. And the costs of things? Everything is going up.

"I see kids out there at 10 years of age wearing $300 skates. I see young kids using those Synergy sticks, how much are they? Two hundred and fifty dollars? What does a kid need with a $250 stick? When I made my presentation to the Mills commission (on sport in Canada) I made the point that parents should be getting some kind of tax break for putting their kids in hockey.

"If you say that hockey is a $1-billion a year industry, and I believe it's much, much, larger than that, then that's $150 million generated for the country in taxes alone. I'd like to see some of that money go back into hockey across Canada.

"It's rather sad what's happening with the growth of sports. We have house leagues so full of kids that are conducting lotteries to see which players get in. We have girls' hockey leagues fighting for ice. It's doesn't matter who winds up winning, the truth is, there is not enough recreational facilities to go around.

"Even the NHL could help here. I do have a problem with Mr. Gary Bettman (NHL commissioner) when I go on the Internet and read how much money the NHL pays European nations for the development of their players. And do you know the Canadian Hockey Association doesn't get one penny from the NHL? There is a connection between the grassroots levels in Europe with the NHL, why isn't there a connection in Canada?"