Sports

CHASING THE DREAM

Never mind the NHL playoffs. The real drama is at neighbourhood rinks.

JAMES DEACON May 13 2002
Sports

CHASING THE DREAM

Never mind the NHL playoffs. The real drama is at neighbourhood rinks.

JAMES DEACON May 13 2002

CHASING THE DREAM

Sports

Never mind the NHL playoffs. The real drama is at neighbourhood rinks.

JAMES DEACON

Hang around hockey rinks during spring tryouts and one thing is immediately clear: hockey bags shouldn’t be bigger than the players who carry them. You see kids trudging in from the parking lots, bent double under the load like sherpas on an early Everest campaign. Sometimes a parent helps, but over a certain age, kids don’t often want parents lugging their gear or, way worse, helping them in the locker rooms. That is so uncool. And hauling a full bag in from the car is only part of the price these kids pay for minor-hockey glory. The hard part is yet to come.

In side-by-side rinks at Mid-Scarborough Arena in Toronto, for instance, two teams—one girls’ peewee (kids born in 1990), one boys’ minor peewee (1991)— are conducting tryouts to fill out the few open spots left on next season’s rosters. Most of the kids wear a kind of uniform:

jackets from a past, current or pro team, ball caps, ponytails (girls), blond streaks (boys). But in the locker rooms, you can tell the holdovers who’ve already made the teams because they’re the ones goofing around, tussling with buddies, having fun. The tryout kids are mostly quiet, grimfaced and off by themselves.

Take Stephanie O’Hara. She’s 11 and one of two dozen girls suiting up on a sunny Saturday to vie for four positions on the single-A Scarborough Sharks. Tall for her age, she stands a good chance: she plays defence and the Sharks need blueliners. But because she’s been playing competitive ringette up to now, not hockey, she needs work on her puck-handling skills. So she stands by the boards, fully dressed and aching to skate, watching the Zamboni and wishing it would just hurry up. How’s she feeling? She shrugs, her lips drawn thin in an attempted smile. Excited? Another shrug.

Nervous? She nods and says “Yeah,” the word bursting from her mouth as if she’d been holding her breath.

Next door in the same complex, Bill Triolo is hanging over the boards, assessing the new kids skating with his Toronto Aces. Triolo’s hoping to upgrade his team, which finished in the middle of the pack in double-A last season. He came to the arena thinking his best prospect might be a big defenceman who’d caught his eye at the first of three tryouts. But his plans change when two kids who didn’t catch on with a triple-A team unexpectedly turn up. They’re fast, skilled and, so long as he can work with the parents, excellent additions to the Aces. That means Triolo has to cut some players who had reason to hope they’d make the team. “Some people string kids along, but I tell them right away,” he says, a plain-speaker if ever there was one. “It’s rough, but it gives the kids who aren’t going to make my team time to find spots

on other teams before they fill up, too.”

In Toronto, the self-proclaimed centre of the hockey universe, the cheap-shot Leafs have been getting the ink. But it’s at tryouts for teams in the world’s largest minor hockey league (Greater Toronto Hockey League, pop. 40,000), and for a growing number of elite-level girls’ teams, where the real drama is unfolding. It’s nail-biting time: in the GTHL alone, an estimated 8,000 kids have been auditioning for new teams or trying to hold their spots on old ones. They want to play on the same squads as their friends; or they want to move up a level; or they want to make their parents happy; or they just want to belong somewhere.

There’s plenty of pressure to go around, and it’s not just hard on the players. Up in the stands are the nerve-wracked parents, clutching vending-machine coffee and fretting over every drill. They’re the ones who do the driving and buy the unbelievably expensive gear and take time from work to get their kids to the rink. One GTHL club actually scheduled tryouts for its triple-A teams—the elite level—during school hours on a weekday. It caused some controversy and league officials say it wont happen again, but hey, when your kid’s the

second coming of Bobby Orr, what’s more important than hockey?

Out on the ice, coaches balance a list of inherently incompatible and ulcer-inducing goals. They have to search for new talent while trying to keep their own better players from being poached by teams farther up the food chain. Coaches also have to stickhandle around difficult parents, especially the ones demanding that their kids get a certain position on a certain line with a certain amount of ice time. And hardest of all, coaches have to dole out the bad news to the kids who don’t make it as gently as they possibly can.

The tension can be excruciating, and bruised feelings abound. Yet part of why parents, kids and coaches keep subjecting themselves to it every year is the widely shared but crazily unrealistic dream of one day reaching the NHL. Never mind that they’d have better odds buying a lottery ticket: there are hundreds of thousands of

kids playing organized hockey in Canada, and hundreds of thousands more playing in the U.S. and Europe. And there are only 750 big-league jobs. But trying to dislodge the dream from the dreamer is like trying to knock Rich Clune off the puck. Clune’s a big, strapping 15-year-old who won his spot with the triple-A Toronto Marlboros (minor midgets) with a combination of goal-scoring, speed and physical play. He says he’ll do anything, even dropping the gloves and fighting, to get where he wants to go. “Making the NHL, the money— that’s what I want,” says Clune, who this coming season will be eligible for the Canadian Hockey League junior draft. “I believe that if I work hard enough, I have the skill to make it.”

The dream starts early. Kids as young as 7 audition for teams each spring. Some are so secure in themselves that the pressure doesn’t seem to affect them. Like Kelly Murphy. She’s 11 and has never played above the recreational level, yet she seems right at home during a tryout with the Sharks. Just off the ice, her face red from exertion, she’s happy with how she performed. “If I make it, I make it,” she says. “If I don’t, that’s OK.” She decided to push to a new level after watching the Olympic

women’s team win gold in Salt Lake City—“seeing that makes you want to go high,” she says. The kid can play, and coach John McParland signs her up for next season. “It is really different, a lot faster and more aggressive than the house leagues,” the grade-sixer says. “I liked it.” At Etobicoke Centennial Arena in northwest Toronto, Jason Natale went through a much tougher time. The 15year-old goalie played last season on the Marlboros, but was shocked at tryouts to find he was one of six netminders vying for two positions. Talk about pressure: his team, friends and self-esteem were at stake. And he had reason to doubt himself. “I didn’t do too well in the playoffs,” he says glumly, “so I wanted to do well right away, to prove that I could still play.”

Sure enough, he is terrific in tryouts and keeps his place on what stands to be one of the city’s best teams next season. But the tension takes a toll. “This was the worst tryout ever,” he says. “The worst.” It’s hard on his dad, too, but Nick Natale is philosophical. “I didn’t want my kid to play

hockey because I thought he could make it to the NHL,” he says. “It was for life skills. Tryouts are like job interviews, and he’s learning to compete. And at a young age, he’s better off knowing that things don’t always work out.”

Parents have a lot at stake at tryout time —some for the wrong reasons. Coaches tell horror stories of parents who spend games hurling abuse at coaches and referees, and who push their kids beyond any realistic evaluation of their talents.

Most, though, are like Lynne and Gary Koverko. They want what’s best for their kids, but under certain logistical conditions. The Koverkos have twins, Trevor and Tyler, trying out for the Marlboros, and sitting behind the glass in the lounge overlooking the rink, they explain that out of necessity the boys come as a package. Triple-A hockey is a big commitment— with tournaments, the Marlies will play 60 or more games next season. “They have to play on the same team,” Gary says, “because we don’t have the time and energy to be in two places at once and support two teams.” Turns out both boys make the Marlies. “I am always happiest when the

cards are signed and this process is over,” says Lynn, relieved. “It’s an emotional time for everyone. You see kids getting cut...” Her voice trails off. “I hate that.”

But it’s inevitable—the farther kids go in the game, the more likely they are to suffer disappointment. Even when they know it’s coming, though, they persist. “Every kid on my team still believes he can make it to the NHL, or at least get a college scholarship,” says Steve Cathcart, coach of the Marlboros. He doesn’t talk them out of it because, as he says, “it’s what drives them.” But Cathcart has another reason to encourage them: a few actually do make it. Over the years, four of his players have suited up in the bigs, and one of his graduates, Jason Spezza, was the second player taken in last year’s NHL draft. “So yeah, the chances of them playing at that level are maybe one in a thousand,” he says, standing along the boards watching the 14and 15-year-olds work out. “But think of it this way: when they first put on skates, it was one in a million. So in that sense, they have already beat the odds.” He looks back out on the ice. “Who’s to say,” he asks, “they can’t keep beating them?” ES]