Selling the Dream

Book Review:  Selling the Dream:  How Hockey Parents and Their Kids Are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession by Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels (2013, Viking, Penguin Group (Canada), Toronto)

Reviewed by Sheryl Normandeau (Calgary, AB)

FROM THE SECOND you crack open the cover on Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and Their Kids Are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession, it is evident that authors Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels are concerned about the future of hockey in Canada. In this 2013 release,

Selling the Dream book cover

Published by Viking Canada, an imprint of Penguin Canada

prominent hockey writer Campbell and Ontario-based minor hockey authority Parcels express their worries about what they consider the increasingly limiting nature of playing minor hockey and its negative effects on young players. They suggest that the current emphasis on the dream of making it into the NHL at all costs is detrimental to the game itself.  The authors fret about elitism in the sport, and the amount of time and money that is sunk into it.  But most of all, they wonder if the children playing the game are having any fun, or if they are simply cogs in a machine driven by eager parents and a massive hockey-hungry audience, buying into the “infinitesimal” chance that they will make it one day into the big league.  According to Campbell and Parcels, there is certainly no shortage of money makers bent on “selling the dream.”

Much of the book is devoted to the number crunching that comes with the financial cost of hockey, at any level.  As expected, the authors focus on the most extreme cases, the ones where parents mortgage their homes and sacrifice careers (and in some cases, marriages) to ensure that their children obtain the best training and playing opportunities. But in a less sensational way, Campbell and Parcels also break down the average costs that any parent would be expected to pay to have their child play hockey for a given number of years — and it’s definitely eye-opening. While the authors cite cases where the investments pay off and the goal of NHL hockey is ultimately realized, it’s clear where they lie on the whole notion of unlimited piles of money begetting success:  one chapter is titled “Crazy is Like Cholesterol” and there are several examples of devastating financial and personal failures when the dream fizzles out for one reason or another.

Campbell and Parcels also tackle the structure of minor league hockey, offering a frank and occasionally unflattering view of the programs offered by the leagues and the training schools, where the disparity between expectations and reality for young hockey players and their parents can be overwhelmingly large. Again the huge price tag comes up, as well as the considerable emotional stress if children are forced to play or study away from home and their families.

Physical cost is addressed as well:  in the chapter “Canadian Roulette,” the authors talk about the long-term impact of serious injuries such as concussions. Some of the most startling admissions in the book come from parents and coaches who have encouraged young players to play through the pain, or kids who wanted to perform despite being hurt. Examples of such behaviour are carefully balanced by interviews with concerned parents and safety advocates.

I was surprised to find that the authors spend only twenty pages of ink on proposing solutions to their perceived problems with the game. Perhaps there aren’t many solutions — and certainly few that are cut and dried.  The idea about arena development was particularly interesting to me.  Building barebones arenas without seating and concession or encouraging the use of outdoor rinks may be money savers, to be sure, but it’s difficult to imagine that players, parents and fans used to the status quo (heat, hamburgers and indoor plumbing) will go for that. Plus, as the authors acknowledge, in the case of playing on outdoor rinks, the weather can be a formidable obstacle.

Despite making no bones about where they stand on the issue of where hockey is headed in Canada, I believe the authors did a good job of presenting their case with several viewpoints from all sides.  As Campbell notes in the Acknowledgements, he interviewed hundreds of people for Selling the Dream, everyone from NHL players to doctors, to parents, coaches, teachers and children. Whether or not you agree with Campbell and Parcels’ perspectives, Selling the Dream is bound to get anyone involved in hockey thinking and talking about the state of the game and its future.

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