Where’s the Payback?
An article published 15 years ago, in 1999, includes a phrase that makes me blood boil every time someone mentions it, and when a minor hockey player reaches a certain age — around Major Junior A draft eligibility — the article is mentioned quite a bit.
The article, “Chances of Making it in Pro Hockey” by Jim Parcels, addresses a problem he saw in minor hockey parents, and more recently, documented in Selling the Dream, a book co-authored with Ken Campbell, and while Parcels comes to the table with credentials and sound research, much of the article is ignored in favour of quoting statistics of “making it.”
Perhaps, on occasion, hockey parents need to have their parenting skills called out. Especially those foolish parents who support their kids’ desire to play at the highest level possible, for as long as possible, a moralistic judgement?
They are — we are — after all, a greedy and delusional bunch. At least, it would seem that way if you know hockey parents through media reports only.
The Chances of Making It article came to my attention, again, most recently when it appeared in my email in-box shortly after our son was drafted by a Major Junior A club. A neighbour-friend passed it along from her boss, who was working towards a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) scholarship for his goalie son. Beneath the article, my neighbour reiterated a statistic her boss highlighted about the improbability of my kid making it to the NHL. Despite the education packages offered by major junior clubs, the NCAA is still held in high esteem by many Canadian hockey parents as the preferred route for education, but Ken Campbell will tell you, as he did MacLean’s magazine, that chances of full scholarship offers have disintegrated. Ironic that he was focussing on the NCAA while cautioning against playing major junior, as if his son’s American education would trump my kid’s Canadian university education.
When I read the email, I felt muscles at the base of my skull twitch. I shot back a curt reply then collected myself and followed up with a tempered explanation. On further reflection, I explained, what set me off was the implication that we expect a financial payoff.
What really got me was the mention of ROI, as if the ambition is ours
It was not the statistics, I said, it is the assumption that all hockey parents are pushing their kids to a professional hockey career to fulfill their own ambition, and for their own financial benefit:
“How many of those elite junior players received some sort of financial return or end result of their investment of 10-15 year into the game of minor and junior hockey?” Parcels asks in the article. “Makes you wonder if a 15-year investment into minor and minor hockey is paying off doesn’t it?”
A payoff? What? Really?
My parents were not looking to profit from their daughters’ artistic endeavours
I was raised in the 1970s, and you can be certain that my parents did not put me in gymnastics because they believed I would become the next Nadia Comaneci, or a Nike-endorsing Olympic medalist, or a gymnast of any consequence.
I did not attend piano lessons because my mother believed I would one day attend The Royal Conservatory and/or become a world-travelling, concert pianist. A virtuosa.
Likewise, there were no expectations of fame of fortune as an outcome for my siblings’ participation in school choir, or their live theatre performances in the chorus of Oliver! The purpose of enrolling me, and my siblings, in extracurricular activities was so that we could explore different creative outlets, maybe even discover an artistically satisfying, life-long hobby.
My parents were pragmatic, with four kids and one income they had to be, but despite the constraints of our household income, we were allowed try different things.
If I had been the type of parent to live through my child, I would have tried to derail his athletic ambition by directing him toward an artistic vocation. And if I wanted to make money off my child, as it is believed hockey parents do, I could have pushed him into the performing arts, a career path I would have enjoyed.
Stage parenting is something I witnessed first-hand when I worked at a Toronto talent agency, so I understand how it’s done.
“Follow your bliss,” is not an effective motto for a pushy parent.
I could have employed my insider knowledge and used my connections with casting directors to aggressively pursue commercial and film/television work on my child’s behalf. I could have cashed session payments and residual cheques. I could have recouped expenses for headshots, union dues, and acting classes, written off parking and gas receipts, and collected a management fee for shuttling my child to and from auditions and bookings.
I would have been an informed, business-savvy stage mother, just not a true stage parent because my personal philosophy would have gotten in the way. “Follow your bliss,” is not an effective motto for a pushy parent.
Are there are hockey parents who want an ROI on their children’s extracurricular activity as if it were an investment product like a mutual fund, or stock? I suppose, but I do not know them personally, and it seems absent as players move up the ranks; parents of players I know who signed with major junior teams, attend NCAA schools, or were drafted by the NHL mention financial payoff.
“It is so important to have dreams and to work hard to fulfil them. You don’t know where you’ll end up,” Karl Subban told the Toronto Star (September 2, 2013). He could very well have been referring to any vocation. Subban’s sentiment rings true whether a child aspires to be a hockey player, a scientist, an actor, or a general contractor.
Our investment was not monetary, therefore we did not expect financial payback
If we as hockey parents are guilty of anything, it is of supporting a dream that is not our own, of raising kids who learn that it is okay to pursue their passions while remaining realistic about setting and achieving goals, about knowing when to push harder, and when to let go. The life of an athlete is filled with physical and mental and psychological challenges, and a career in professional sports is not for everyone. Minor hockey parents know that, even if they do not always behave as if they do.
For us, it may have been easier to keep our son at home, focused on high school and post-secondary education. I know that fight; I am prepared from having watched my parents, and practised from a steadfast position on the opposing side. Knowing both sides of the coin — parental push and teen rebellion — offers technique and insight. My husband and I could: lay on the guilt, spout statistics about the drop-out rate and joblessness, and dole out punishment for grades unbecoming; take away driving privileges. When it comes to academics, we are emotionally equipped for a battle of wills. Plus, we could peddle our influence until the kid relented. Then we could sit back and watch him immerse himself in a disappointing office career like his father and mother did in their twenties before they moved on to more satisfying careers.
” . . . steering them into a ‘real’ job.”
Instead, we encourage our son to be the best athlete he can be, and if, after playing one year, or four years, of major junior hockey, he plays for a Canadian university — or if he gives it up altogether — he takes with him to adulthood valuable lessons about perseverance, team-work, and discipline. Social skills, confidence, sportsmanship, are also outcomes of playing organized sports. The physical benefits, too, are well documented. How’s that for “investment”?
Around the same time I was emailed Parcel’s article, I read Michael Kinsley’s piece “The Least We Can Do” in The Atlantic. Kinsley offered insight and advice with these words: “self-absorption and entitlement are two of our important characteristics of the Baby Boom generation, or the ‘Me Generation’ as we are most commonly known. We are more narcissistic than other generations, and we expect success. We cannot accept failure and we blame our parents (the ‘Greatest Generation’) for that. But we can step out of blame mode and look at doing something our parents may not have done: allow our kids to follow their dreams. No matter what their dream is. Instead of tempering it, dismissing it, or steering them into a ‘real’ job.”
For us, as for many hockey parents, that’s the bottom line: allowing our kids to follow their dreams, no matter what their dream is.
Long after my friend shared her boss’ concerns with me, Jim Parcels told the Peterborough Examiner that “Only about 10% of the players now playing in Division I are Ontario kids. It used to be 25%.” And I thought of my neighbour’s boss. Part of me wanted to email a link to the online article to him, but I know that he doesn’t need my advice. He knows the odds. I’m sure of it.