Minor Hockey as Big Business

The disturbing shift from kids’ game to pricey investment

M on pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est le hockey would be an apt way to describe our identity. Whether the World Juniors, the Stanley Cup, international championships or the Olympics, our collective mood rides on the efforts of athletes who give their heart and soul to do this country proud. Christine Sinclair and the Olympic women’s soccer team followed a majestic path of true grit last summer, inspiring a generation. Yet hockey has been, and will be, our first love. It has united us across lines of language, politics, culture and class.

And who are these players upon whom there is so much expectation to perform? According to Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels in Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and Their Kids Are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession, they are elite players who have ascended the ranks of minor hockey through hard work and indispensable support from their parents’ sacrifices of time and money. Minor hockey has become big business, with exorbitant costs waiting for those who wish to pursue a career in the National Hockey League.

Selling the Dream does a masterful job of providing rich human context of the disturbing trend that “hockey is becoming an increasingly exclusive club.” Love for the game is in danger of being replaced by a single-minded goal: make it to the next level, no matter what it takes.

Campbell and Parcels should be congratulated for providing parents with a reality check about the miniscule chance of playing in the NHL and the soaring costs of minor hockey. Since 1965, less than 0.05 percent of boys born in Ontario have made the NHL, with the number dropping as foreign-born players compete for coveted line-up spots.

Bobby Orr believes that current elite–development programs are a mistake, for they do not allow an individual’s natural love of the game to run its course. The adults, the parents, have become so wrapped up in chasing the dream that they have lost sight of what is truly important. As Brian O’Reilly, life coach and hockey parent observes, “all we’re doing is developing fragmented people.”

One tragic story is that of Mitchell Davis of North Bay, Ontario. At age seven, he broke Wayne Gretzky’s record, scoring 109 goals in 17 games. By age eight, he was lifting weights, guided by his father. At Peewee level, his team was playing to win its division at the Capital Cup, a premier international tournament held annually in Ottawa. But Davis was ejected from the semi-final game for making physical contact with an opposing player while diving during a backcheck and was automatically suspended from the finals. He was devastated. More telling is his father’s “pep talk,” in which he reminded Davis of the inferiority of his teammates and their indebtedness to him:

“All these kids that are on your team, they’ll probably never get a shot like this again. They’re not really going to go anywhere with hockey. You made this happen for them. This will probably be the best moment of their lives in hockey and you made it happen. And you’re probably the only one on your team who’s going to get a shot to play [in the NHL].”

Davis never made it to the NHL. His weight training made him too bulky and slow. It also contributed to chronic back problems requiring surgery.

Sadly, there are many similar stories. With the proliferation of spring and summer hockey, hockey schools, private instruction and personal trainers, there is pressure from an early age to play hockey 24/7 for those aspiring to the elite ranks. Very few actually make it. No doubt the $322,000 sacrificed by the parents of NHL star Matt Duchene contributed to his success. Yet how many parents can afford such a path? Does it make sense? Listen to Bob Turow, founder of Prospects Tournaments: “As an entrepreneur, I said, ‘If these parents are going to be stupid enough to pay to have their kids play 12 months a year, I can put something together’ … I’ve made a ton of money.”

The book does provide inspiring examples of players (such as Glen Metropolit, Joel Ward and Claude Giroux) from modest backgrounds who struggled to make it without having access to elite training at Cadillac prices. But could these players make it today given the current financial filter of minor hockey?

While the authors focus on the financial pitfalls of minor league hockey, there are a number of important issues that could have been given more prominence, such as the relative age effect and the unaccountability of elite-level coaches, as well as mental health and addiction.

The relative age effect is the well-documented phenomenon where players born in the first six months of a given calendar year are more likely to be selected for advanced training than those born in the last six months, due to natural differences in development and a cut-off date of January 1. As children progress through the ranks, a seven-year-old born in January will often advance faster than one born in December of the same year. The percentage of players by birth month that have played in the NHL since 1917 reflects this trend (see table).

This is further evident by the all-time leading scorer in each birth month. French-Canadian players, shut out from January to July, dominate the five months between August and December (Dionne, Lafleur, Lemieux, Perrault and Bourque). This is not surprising since the cut-off date in Quebec was either August or September 1 until 2001, thereby confirming the relative age effect. Unfortunately, the authors try to refute these facts with a poor analysis of Malcolm Gladwell’s numbers from The Outliers. Clearly, birth month, along with finances, plays a role in minor hockey advancement.

While Campbell and Parcels remind us about the horrific abuse by coach Graham James, it seems that elite-level coaches still hold all the power. When it comes to concussions, coaches often overrule medical professionals, ordering young players back on the ice. In the United States, legislation has been introduced in many states to prevent such occurrences; no such laws are on the books anywhere in Canada. It is somewhat odd that the authors have placed the hot-button topic of concussions at the end of the book.

There is also surprisingly little discussion about mental health issues in this book. A few anecdotes tell us about players feeling depressed or suicidal. This suggests that minor hockey needs to face the issue head-on, as the wider society begins to tackle teen mental health openly. And little attention is paid to addiction. We are told of Ryan Sittler (son of Darryl) who had to enter rehab twice to cure his addiction to pain killers, suggesting that this, too, is a topic that needs to be addressed in more depth.

Demographics indicate that by 2016 there will be 30,000 fewer players between the ages of 10 and 14. If costs continue to soar, expect even fewer players, with the middle class squeezed out. It would be interesting to see if reducing the costs, coupled with wider outreach, would bring youth from immigrant and aboriginal communities, into the hockey -landscape.