contributed by Jacob Birch (Niagara Falls, ON)
IT WASN’T THE TRAVEL. IT WASN’T THE COST. It wasn’t the time or the fights, or the early mornings. None of these reasons were why I quit playing rep hockey. It was minor hockey politics that drove me from the game I still love, while still in my teens.
I was playing on a Major Midget “AA” rep team in a city that had a standing tradition of playing a friendship tournament with an American counterpart during Christmas break. The locations alternated each year: One year it was in our city, the next the folks on the other side other side of the border hosted.
The “friendship” end of things was accomplished by billeting players with families of the hosting team. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? It wasn’t for us.
One year, at the beginning of our season, our parents asked for a meeting with the local minor hockey administrators/executive. We were schedule to travel to the American site for this year’s tournament, but our parents wanted permission to change from the arrangements of the past. While the team still wanted to participate in the tournament, our parents wanted to stay together, in hotels with parents and siblings, rather than having the kids stay with the host families while the parents slept in hotels.
This wasn’t simply a matter of irrational, overprotective parents. Our parents requested the change for good reason.
The last time this same group of players and parents had visited, two years earlier, some problems developed with off-ice activities sponsored by some of the hosting families. After the tournament ended parents and players alike traded stories of late nights, underage drinking, adult movie watching, and general rowdiness.
Despite our parents providing their reasons for not endorsing the usual billeting practice, our local minor hockey board refused to allow any changes to the decades-old tournament format.
Our parents may have had our best interests in mind, but what they failed to account for was how their actions might be perceived. It seemed that their request to forego billeting went against the very heart of our American friends’ concept of a friendship tournament.
Off-ice skills are as important as on ice development
Indeed, when our parents insisted on staying with their sons in hotels, the action was perceived as offensive by our American counterparts, so our minor hockey board did what they could do to reprimand our parents for challenging the board, for challenging the status-quo, and upsetting relationships with our sister city that the directors punished the only group they had any authority over —the players on my team. And they did so in the harshest of ways.
Because we were unwilling to stay in the homes of our hosts, we were banned from playing not in the tournament that Christmas and banned for ALL tournaments for the remainder of the season.
That team was the best team I ever played on. Two of our forwards went on to have long and impressive OHL careers. We won our league, as well as, our zone championships, and we went all the way to OMHA finals that year.
There’s little doubt that we could have tallied up a number of tournament wins and trophies for the minor hockey association. But we were unable to represent our city because a group of bureaucrats deemed us “unfriendly.”
To those involved in the minor hockey world, my story likely comes as no surprise. Off-ice politics seem to dominate the rep leagues. It also affects house league level.
Its impact on me, as a 15-year-old player, ended my desire to play rep hockey. I played house league the next year and then quit hockey all together for nearly ten years. It’s a sad commentary on the incidents that prompted the initial request (by parents whose primary concern was the well-being of their teenaged children) and those who doled out the punishment.
Kids love the billeting aspect of tournament hockey
Tournaments are something players look forward to. They look forward to the challenge of playing new teams, to travelling to new cities and towns, and to hanging out with their teammates in hotels. To have the opportunity to play taken from us because of a justifiable request was too much for me to understand, much less, to accept.
Not one member of the association took the time to explain the Board’s decision to ban us from tournaments. Instead, our coach and our parents were left to try to explain positions for both sides of the argument. And they were left to deal with our disappointments.
There are myriad reasons that parenting a rep hockey player is challenging, and dozens more that playing rep hockey is challenging, but politics should not be one of them.
Those involved in the minor hockey decision-making level ought to work hard to ensure that politics stays out of the game of hockey.
After that incident, my teammates and I got down to playing the game we loved and we played it well, but our anger at being banned from tournaments simmered beneath that team spirit and competitive spirit for the rest of the season. The anger may have even fuelled some of our league-play excellence.
Still, punishing players for legitimate concerns, raised and presented in a formal and legitimate way, by caring parents, is never warranted in minor sports.