So I was riding around the other day on my job and it began to occur to me as I weaved through some suburban neighborhoods. Kids just do not play street hockey or roller blade much at all in today’s world. Neighborhoods are like ghost towns and you cannot use the weather as an excuse. In fact, if there is a study out there, I wonder how many kids even go outside these days. Kids in 2015 are glued to the phones in an air conditioned atmosphere. The self-desire to play some unorganized, spontaneous street hockey or even ice hockey to build up a sweat is slowly dissipating. Now it’s all about Instagram, Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, just lying around playing Xbox 360, or watching the Disney channel 24/7/365.
Back in the day, we really played just about every sport in between too. We would either gather at the tennis courts behind the high school or in a friend’s driveway to play all day and night. Throw the stick across the handle bars of the bike and off you went to join the shinny on pavement. A tennis ball usually did the trick although sometimes we got a little crazy and used the colored Mylec® street hockey balls. No gloves, no helmet, no shin pads, no mouth guard, no mom with Band-Aid®. Heck if you played goalie, you usually went Terry Sawchuck style.
It was not about money or having the flashiest equipment. We were all buddies and loved playing the game. We played it so much the blade of our sticks would whittle down to toothpicks. No one-piece composites back in those days, just one piece of heavy lumber. I, myself, preferred to use the Titan TPM model (a.k.a. Gretzky’s stick) as it had a very hard plastic strip down the bottom of the blade making it most durable. Because if your stick broke you were out of the game, no half-dozen CCM RBZ or Bauer Apex back-ups like today.
The net was usually a section of the fence around the perimeter of the tennis courts with the metal poles being the crossbar and posts within reason. Sometimes if we played the other way again without the luxury of nets using the red, brick wall of the school’s gym sufficing for the goal.
We would all throw our sticks in the center and one designated person would alternate throwing the sticks to each side. This was how our teams were formed. There was no bitching and complaining, we were just happy to be playing with no homework or any real-life responsibilities. Sure there were some altercations when someone’s hand got chopped or dispute on goals, yet more often than not we developed our skills without even knowing it, made friendships for life, and had fun all at the same time.
The beauty of it all – no officials, no coaches, no parents. We all knew the rules and in the end win or lose, goal scorer or not, it was what it was.
Fast forwarding several years the hockey world has certainly gone out and changed in a big dam hurry. Today you seldom see kids on their driveway shooting pucks or a pick-up game in the streets, unlike decades ago in front of my house whereby you had to clear the road quickly or be subject to possibly being hit by a college kid speeding in his car. If I wasn’t with my friends it was endless games on the asphalt with my two older brothers.
It made you grow up. It made you be self-sufficient. It taught you about team work, respect, and dealing with the agony of defeat. In all essence, it made you love the game even more. In a way it prepared you for your future. Hey, the formula had to work somewhat as I grew-up in the neighborhoods with a former NHLer and now Assistant GM in the National Hockey League.
Today it seems it is all about the finish line that 95% of these kids will never cross. I cannot believe how many kids play the sport year around in specialization when there is resources and proof all-around showing mental and physical burnout can occur. But that’s right Jerry York and Red Berenson are both on the line offering a 4-for-4 at age 13 and there’s already 1st round draft chatter still some five years out.
The schedules are packed with off-ice conditioning sessions then a 1-hour specialization training that costs even more money. Not to mention the 3-a-week skates and then family advisor meetings, along with the combines and showcases. When does a kid have time to be a kid?
Then you listen to some parents speak to you like this is your first day in a hockey rink since they are now the supposed experts even though they never skated a day in their life, played, coached, or scouted. In fact it can be quite amusing at times hearing them ramble on because they are so drunk on the coach’s or family advisor Kool-Aid®.
No I get it. There are in fact exceptional players, yet the percentage is much lower than what parents believe and normally their kid isn’t one of them. And so stems your problem. The fun factor is being totally drained, squeezed, squashed, crushed, and wedged out by over-the-top parents who are making a job of the sport far too early then what it needs to be. Believe me the pyramid to the top gets more difficult each season as the cream always rises. Why parents want to expedite the process and add more pressure is beyond me. Sit back and enjoy the ride as childhood only comes around once.
It seems everybody has a hand in on the action and it is crazy some of the actions by organizations to gain self-fulfillment of income on the game, players, and parents. Everybody is in a rush and everybody thinks they have the golden ticket to cash in someday. I also understand there are excellent coaches, strength & conditioning outfits, as well as knowledgable and passionate family advisors that are in it for the right thing. I just think the sample size is alot smaller than many want to accept. Some players are better off not putting all their eggs in one basket so early.
The “Keeping up with the Gretzky’s” mentality is out of hand and too much hand holding. We rush players to get drafted and force feed the system instead of allowing the player to develop on his own terms and satisfaction.
I remember one parent telling me. “We didn’t join travel hockey for our son’s development, we did it because of our own social outlet.” As my jaw hit the floor I realized quickly that for many families money isn’t an object and will spend what ever it takes. Where it is taking them is another question. Yet again putting themselves in front of others and even their own child.
Perhaps I am in the minority here, although I signed my son up years ago because he asked me at age five that he wanted to play the game. He is the one that loves the game and wants to get better for his own self. It’s his plan, his path, his career not mine.
As I write this on a hot, summer night, he strapped on his roller blades to wheel around on the driveway working on his stick handling and shot. It’s his motivation, his determination, and his chosen path. I just wish one day a sandlot of hockey players would join across America to experience some laughs, bruises, challenges, and fun along the way. This practice alone just might teach more for their future endeavors then they will ever realize.
You can follow Russ Bitely for more hockey news, comments, and articles on Twitter: @russbites.
* Remember it’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice.