Contributed by Neal Purdon (Thunder Bay, ON)
Hockey is supposed to be fun.
I dreamed of playing in the NHL. So does every Canadian and American kid who plays hockey. Like those thousands of kids who dream of it, 99.98% of them, like me, won’t ever make it.
With statistics like that, why even play the game?
The simple answer is because hockey is fun. It’s a game meant to be “played.”
Unfortunately, many coaches out there mentoring our minor and youth hockey kids forget that. Instead, they focus on the win, and coach more for themselves than the kids who play for them.
I’ve heard these same coaches articulate time and time again, “It’s all about the kids,” but in the end, it’s not. It’s really about the win.
I played the game. I actually played it pretty well.
Like hundreds of other kids in the hockey hot-bed of Thunder Bay, Ontario, where the Johnson brothers, Staal brothers, Pyatt brothers, Norm Maciver, Tony Hrkac, Patrick Sharp, Trevor Letowski, Carter Hutton (the list goes on) all played, I also played. Unlike them, but like those hundreds of others from Thunder Bay, I played beyond minor hockey. I played junior A for the local junior team with former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson, and eventually earned a scholarship to Kent State of the former CCHA, where I earned a degree. After my university career I, like my former teammate in junior, Sean Pronger, who wrote a book about being one, was a journeyman of sorts. I played in the minors. I didn’t play for the money, because it wasn’t much. I played because I loved the game, and it was fun! That’s something I haven’t forgotten when I coach today.
See, in the game of hockey, you can have all the tools and no tool box, or you can have the tool box and be missing some tools. Very few have all the tools and the tool box all at once. Those that do, well, they’re millionaires in the game of hockey. When I played for the Thunder Bay Senators we use to sit on the bus, or in the dressing room and lament on the fact that if I had your hands, or if I had your size, or if I had your speed, I’d be in the NHL! We all knew what tools we were missing. Instead we were in the UHL, which was an equivalent of today’s ECHL. Believe me, it really is a fine line between Hockey Night in Canada and Saturday night in the UHL, chartered flights, and long bus rides. Most of my fellow teammates knew they’d never get a sniff in the NHL, even though we wore a Senators jersey. A few I couldn’t believe weren’t wearing an Ottawa one. Some did though, like Trent McCleary, but most didn’t. And that was okay, because we were having fun. You never heard anyone complain that they weren’t playing in the NHL.
A player can handle being a bench warmer, or a healthy scratch later in his career if he loves the game. It’s those players that have had the fun pulled out them at an early age, that can’t make the best of a hard situation. And for all you minor and youth hockey coaches, that eternal love starts young. Kids need to love and enjoy the game, participate, fail, and struggle, to eventually succeed. You need to make sure it’s positive and keep it fun, even when they lose, because later in their career when they don’t play a regular shift, or maybe at all, they won’t give up and will continue to battle on. There are so many stories of guys who’ve risen from the lower ranks of hockey to become not only NHL players, but stars. They didn’t give up, and most likely it’s because they were happy just playing.
Coaches, there is no reason in the world that makes sense for a 10 or 11 year-old to be sitting on the bench, because the coach feels he can’t win with them on the ice. At this point, it is no longer about the kids, but about a coach’s ego and desire to win being placed above what is important. Keeping the game fun. There will come a time in their hockey lives where it’s all about winning, then again maybe not. Don’t rush it for your sake.
Hockey gave me a lot of things in my life to be grateful for. A university education, an Allan Cup, a junior ‘A’ national championship, an identity, a job when I couldn’t find one as a teacher, but most of all, it gave me happiness. Even if you take all those things away, hockey always made me happy. It was a place to escape, where I met friends that have lasted a lifetime, where I learned about teamwork, sacrifice, determination, and hard work. But most of all it gave me— and still gives me — joy! Thank you coaches from my past. I remember you all for allowing me to have fun.
I don’t play hockey anymore, and some days that makes me sad. The reason is I can’t. My body has said stop, and reluctantly I have listened. But I have found joy again through the eyes of my son and the children I coach. Every day I teach them about hard work, sacrifice, teamwork, and sportsmanship. But above all we have fun!
Seeing their smiles brings me as much joy as when I played.
Because hockey is supposed to be fun.