SPORT

MINOR HOCKEY: PLAYING FOR FUN NOT FOR KEEPS

John Robertson October 1 1974
SPORT

MINOR HOCKEY: PLAYING FOR FUN NOT FOR KEEPS

John Robertson October 1 1974

MINOR HOCKEY: PLAYING FOR FUN NOT FOR KEEPS

SPORT

John Robertson

Your kid’s hockey league is starting up for the new season which means it’s a good time to find out exactly what’s wrong with amateur hockey today.

So ask your son.

And if the kid’s got a little chutzpah, he just might reach out and drum a finger off your chest and say: “Now that you mention it, Dad, part of the problem is you.”

Much has been made of the excessive pressure to excel that some parents exert upon their hockey-playing sons, exhorting little Egbert to skate faster and score more goals than the kid next door, to win that championship and to always be mindful that Mommy and Daddy are up there in the stands, screaming at the referee, at opposing players and at other parents, because that’s their kid out there, see, and nobody is going to push him around.

But all too often more sedate parents who abhor such crude behavior are guilty of an equally harmful if far more subtle sin — crass indifference.

Little Johnny may be getting a raw deal from a system that caters only to a select, pampered few — those athletic hopefuls who get most of the ice time in community-owned arenas while his little house league team is lucky to play once a week — but the only thing Dad complains about is having to get up at 6 a.m. to provide Johnny’s transportation.

As a parent of a young son of average athletic ability — which means he plays house league instead of on the elite neighborhood team in his age group — I know firsthand about the tearful trip home from the rink after being told, at the age of eight, that Timmy wasn’t good enough to play for the big team. If that’s not outrageous enough, I saw my son benched in his second house league game because the score was tied and the coach didn’t want to use his spares.

There is a gross misconception, perpetrated by the people who run minor hockey in this country, that the major reason we spend millions of dollars each year building rinks, organizing leagues and freezing our feet in snowbanks is to produce hockey players who will be good enough to make the NHL and keep beating the Russians.

Yet statistics show that less than 1% of all players in amateur hockey will ever play the game professionally. Doesn’t this suggest to you that we should tailor our amateur hockey programs to better serve that 99% who are just playing the game for the fun of it?

The government of Saskatchewan not only thinks so, its Department of Culture and Youth commissioned an exhaustive study on the ills of minor hockey, and the resulting Hockey Task Force report serves as a devastating document for parents concerned with amateur sports.

The study revealed that the average child in an urban area is fortunate if he gets to use the local indoor-hockey facility for one hour per week. And since this hour is usually used exclusively for game-type action, it is estimated that a boy might average only 12 minutes of actual ice time.

All of which leads to an obvious conclusion. There is a shameful shortage of indoor rinks in this country.

The Saskatchewan government’s Task Force recommends 108

that the standard should be one indoor-rink per 5,000 people and that the provincial government should provide to assorted municipal governments a capital grants program and/or a revolving fund for the building of new facilities or major renovations to existing facilities.

This gets around the old method of attempting to finance rinks through a municipal referendum. You stick a rink on a referendum, along with a library and maybe additions to school facilities, and the voters wipe out the rink almost every time as a protest against rising taxes.

Most of the community indoor rinks we have now are far too ostentatious and expensive, including lavish glassed-in waiting rooms, seats for up to 1,000, and architectural design aimed at pleasing the eye rather than just providing the bare essentials. But a Montreal firm called Sports Administration Inc., in conjunction with Howie Meeker, may have found the solution to the cost problem. They have developed the Howie Meeker Ice Dome, a bubble-type enclosure which can accommodate an indoor artificial ice rink in winter and can be readily converted to tennis in the summer. Sample rinks will be erected in Ontario and Quebec this winter with mass marketing plans aimed at the fall of 1975. The cost is less than half that of a normal indoor rink.

The Task Force Report doesn’t just deal with the problem of facilities; it also comes down hard on the abuses of pre-teen players, recommending that there be no provision for or registration of any player below 10 years of age, and that there be no formal competition at this level. It also suggests that we take much more time to teach these children the fundamental skills of the game before forcing them to play under game conditions. This means giving all children equal ice time and opportunity — instead of giving it mainly to a talented but pampered elite.

It also suggests, as a means of providing everyone with an equal share of ice time during games, that a buzzer be sounded at two or three-minute intervals, making it mandatory that both teams change lines.

The big problem of insufficient ice time occurs most often in the major urban areas. As a classic example of how much better off your child is if he lives in a small town, I moved the Robertson brood 50 miles north of Montreal to the tiny, Laurentian town of Ste Agathe des Monts. The population is less than 5,000 in the winter, and the children’s recreation is a model of low-key excellence.

My son still plays house league hockey, but it’s two games a week now, in a new indoor arena with adjacent swimming pool. His team played more than 40 games last season in a four-team league which was created by taking every boy who showed up, putting him on a team, and giving him equal ice time all winter. He also plays baseball in a 10-and-under league so beautifully low key that the catcher on the team he pitches for is a girl. My daughter, Patricia, who is 11, figure skated all winter in a club with accredited instructors, for less than $20.

It’s an idyllic existence compared to the rat race we endured in cramped urban arenas catering to the select few.