Letting go: An OHL hockey parent Q&A

Debby Sefton of Thunder Bay, ON, shares her OHL draft experience with MHL.

At the end of June 2011, Debby Sefton experienced firsthand the excitement of having her hockey-playing son Justin Sefton was drafted by San Jose Sharks.  In conversation with this hockey parent from Thunder Bay, Ontario, we discuss school and hockey, scholarships, and her reaction the day of the draft.

First let me say congratulations to Justin and to your family. Following an NHL draft, everyone is excited for the player and his family with phone calls and emails and non-stop congratulations from coworkers and friends.

What type of reaction you’ve been experiencing?

Thank you. It’s been a real whirlwind. We have received numerous e-mails, texts, and phone calls relaying congratulations to us all. Family, friends, and coworkers have been so supportive. Many of them have been watching Justin play since the beginning.

Debby’s reaction to hearing her son’s name was exactly what one might expect: tears, joy, and a bit of jumping up and down.

When Justin’s name was called, I was sitting right next to him in the stands at the Excel Centre in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the draft was held this year. I can remember hearing his name and immediately jumping up out of my seat, cheering, with my hands in the air and trying to hold back the tears. I turned to him as he was getting out of his seat and gave him a huge hug. Blaine Smith, the Manager of his OHL team, the Sudbury Wolves, was sitting on the other side of Justin and I hugged him as Justin was giving his dad a hug. I was so happy for Justin.

What was your reaction when Justin said he wanted to play hockey professionally?

Our family has never had any association with hockey until Justin started to play. He was on skates at an early age and wanted to play hockey. He was a very active child and we thought it was a great way for him to put his energy to good use. We never thought about it as a profession; it just seemed to fit at the time.

Justin was always the one pushing us into the hockey world and not the other way around.

I can recall being asked by someone who had a child in a different sport, “How do you motivate Justin?” I laughed and let them know that we have never had to do that where hockey is concerned; it was always a passion for Justin and we were along for the ride and to provide support as needed.

Playing rep hockey can sometimes get in the way of school work, especially for the active kids and those playing at the AA and AAA levels. I’ve heard stories first-hand where teachers have suggested the kids put away the skates and focus on their school work.

Was there a time when, as parent of a hockey-playing kid, that you faced challenges with Justin’s teachers or school? If they were resolved, how were they resolved?

There is sometimes conflict between school and any sports activities, depending on the view of the teachers. Some are far more supportive and accommodating than others.

Justin had excellent support from the principal and vice-principal of Bishop E.Q. Jennings in his grade seven and grade eight school years. Pepe Garieri, the vice-principal at the time, has continued to be a mentor to Justin and supporter of his hockey.

For his first two years of high school, Justin attended Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan.

This set-up is ideal to keep kids on track with school while supporting their hockey aspirations. When the sports teams are on the road for games, the coaches, of whom many are teachers at the school, set aside times for homework and studying.

The school is geared to fully supporting hockey and other sports while ensuring the students keep up with their academic studies. During the hockey season, their physical education class is hockey practice. The hockey rink and full workout gym is attached to the building housing most of the classrooms.

On the other hand, hockey dad Brian O’Reilly (hockey dad of Colorado Avalanche’s Ryan O’Reilly and Nashville Predator’s Cal O’Reilly), is reported to have said that his boys could always get a post-secondary education, but the OHL has an expiry date.

What is your take on OHL development versus the scholarship route?

We are so fortunate to have different options. I believe different routes work well for different kid and players can realize success through either route.

The OHL has education packages for its players, and teams encourage and support players to take university or college courses once they have completed high school. The education package supports players to attend college or university at the end of their OHL career.

The scholarship route has also been very successful for players. Completing their post-secondary education while playing the game they love is an ideal situation.

For Justin, the OHL route has been the right choice for him.

I totally agree with Brian O’Reilly. The window to become a professional hockey player is a small one, while education is and should be life-long. It is never too late to go to school and hopefully there isn’t a day that goes by where we don’t learn something.

For parents of younger players, it’s hard to imagine sending your kid so far from home to go to school (in Justin’s case to Wilcox from Thunder Bay); there must have been times when you thought it would be easier on his parents if he was a business major, not leaving home until he was finished high school.

Did you have any reservations at all? 

We definitely had reservations about sending Justin away. He was 14 years-old and heading off to school! We visited the school in Wilcox and we were very comfortable with the way it operated. The kids share dorm rooms, have chores, Internet connection is turned off at 10:00 p.m. on weeknights and 11:00 p.m. on weekends, house parents and coaches are teachers who, for the most part, live at the school and the school is in a very rural, farming area.

It is an excellent environment and our main concern was that Justin would be comfortable there. He made life-long friends and enjoyed having the rink and the gym right on the school property and having teachers who supported athletics.

These two years helped to prepare him for the next step, which was the OHL. He was used to being away from home, so that was one thing he didn’t need to adjust to. We had to adjust to him having more freedom and being part of a team that included kids from ages 16 to 20.

What was the transition like for him and you?

Today’s technology allowed us to keep in touch with him on a regular basis. The house is a very different place when Justin is home versus when he is away. The food bill is certainly different, but we miss the noise and his sense of humour when he’s not here. Knowing he is following his dream makes it a bit easier.

What advice might you offer other parents who are faced with the decision to allow their son to leave home at 14 or 15?

For parents who are facing the decision to allow their son to leave home at that age, I would say that it’s important to know where your son is going to be living and going to school.

I think most of us know our kids well enough to know if they are ready for this next step.  At this stage in their hockey careers, these young men have had to give up some things to get to this level and their level of maturity usually matches their experiences.

They are going to be making their own decisions and you have to be able to trust them to make the right ones. To allow them go away at this age is never an easy decision.

In short, Debby offers a short list of suggestions for parents who are adjusting to a long-distance relationship with their teenage hockey player living away from home:

  • Make your son a part of the decision.
  • Support them at a distance and see them when you can.
  • Listen to them carefully if they say there is a problem.
  • Build a relationship with the billet family; visit the school; keep in touch regularly.

Debby adds that “parents have good instincts when it comes to their kids. It’s usually more difficult for the parents than it is for the boys—they are busy following their dream and wondering what it is you are worried about.”

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