I really can’t recall the last time I did a WFAN show on the sport of youth and travel team hockey. Which is curious, because for years, ice hockey was the poster child for everything that was wrong about over-the-top and obnoxious sports parents…concerns about a kid’s playing time…travel team tryouts…the expense of travel team play…concussion worries….and on and on.
But the good news is that instead of trying to downplay or deny that these were real concerns, USA Hockey — the governing body of youth and amateur hockey in this country – stepped up and started to address these issues head on. And they did so with a sense of real commitment.
Unlike some other national youth sports organizations, which have either shunned critically important issues or stuck their head in the sand, USA Hockey has become a real leader when it comes to putting its priorities in order.
To that end, I asked Mike Bonelli, who has been involved in youth hockey for years and is the East District Coach in Chief for USA Hockey in NY (covering Long Island, Westchester, Putnam, and Dutchess counties) since 2012 and oversees the education for over 900 coaches each year in that district to be guest this AM to talk about the proactive approach of USA Hockey. Here were a few of the highlights:
1 – A reminder that fighting in all youth, HS, and travel team hockey is strictly forbidden.
Too many NHL games are still marred by fights on the ice. Players drop their gloves and bang away at each other like prize fighters until they run out of steam. Problem is, the number of these players who suffer serious concussions from these confrontations continues to grow, and unfortunately, they too often lead to mental issues and presumably the build-up of CTE in their brains. Dementia and even suicide has become too common with these players who make their living with their fists instead of their skates.
Bonelli emphasized that not only is fighting not allowed in amateur hockey, but that kids grow up these days understanding that if they do get in a fight, they are not only disqualified from that game, but also for the next game and sometimes more games beyond that.
For enthusiastic hockey players, the idea of being banned for a couple of games usually deters them from fighting. That, of course, is a good — and safe — thing.
2 – Let’s talk about travel hockey and tryouts
How does USA Hockey view tryouts for their youth programs….what’s the best way to run these tryouts?
With hockey becoming more popular, most programs DO offer A or B or even in-house teams where kids can continue to play….
In my experience, kids – especially young kids – just want a place where they can get out on the ice, learn skills, and get a chance to play in games – it really doesn’t matter at what level.
Tryouts still exist, but USA Hockey is doing more to give feedback.
As one of the callers said today, tryouts in sports are inevitable. And kids are disappointed if they don’t make the “A” team. But as Mike Bonelli pointed out, USA Hockey does not want kids to walk away. That’s why more and more youth programs are offering B and C teams, and if necessary, house leagues where any kid who has the desire to keep playing hockey can do so.
Just like in other sports, the world of hockey has lots of examples of young players who were cut at an early age but who kept playing and eventually blossomed into a top player. Dom Chara, the 6-9 defenseman, was once cut in his youth league program. But he wanted to keep playing, and along the way, he grew another 10 inches which of course helped.
But more importantly, USA Hockey coaches are encouraged to provide real feedback to young skaters – to let them know what their strengths are, and more importantly, what they need to work on in order to develop. That’s a great plus.
3 – Getting up real early for hockey practice?
It used to be common place for young skaters to have practice and games at 6 AM or earlier. The good news is that’s becoming less and less of a standard routine as more rinks are popping up all over.
Trust me, for any hockey parent who has had to brave frigid temps to drive their kid to a rink in pre-dawn hours, this is very welcome news.
As Mike pointed out, “You don’t do much to encourage kids to play hockey when they have to get up at 5 AM to go to the rink. And the parents don’t like it either.”
4 – No need to specialize at an early age.
Turns out that Mike not only played hockey as a kid, but also baseball, soccer, tennis, and so on. As such, while he does believe it’s important for a youngster to learn how to skate at a young age (simply because it’s so much harder to develop that skill later on), it’s always a good idea for a kid to play a variety of sports.
Only when a youngster is around 15 or 16 should he or she start to think about just specializing hockey. We’ve heard the same advice from other coaches in other sports as well, i.e. not need to specialize at too young an age.
I recall a chance encounter with Marcel Dionne, the NHL Hall of Famer, whose son was playing on a mite team with my son some years ago. I asked Marcel about when he was growing up in Canada, did he play hockey all year round, which many hockey parents still think is the right path for their kid.
Marcel looked at me and patiently explained in his French Canadian accent that “In the fall we played either football or soccer, then in winter we played hockey, and then in the spring, we played baseball. Nobody played hockey all year round.”
5 – A sport for life.
One last note. Of all the sports, there’s something about ice hockey that seems to attract players for their entire lives. Whether it’s the thrill of going fast on the ice, or of handling the puck, or just playing pond hockey with your buddies on a cold wintry day, there’s something about this sport in particular that keeps players coming back for years and years.
It’s hard to explain why, but anyone who has played ice hockey just seems to get that bug into their veins and it lasts for a lifetime. My son John is 34 and has been skating for most of his life. In fact, I have a sense he’s going to keep skating for the next 34 years of his life.