Youth hockey would be a better experience if so many parents and coaches didn't mess it up
By Suzie DuCett
Suzie DuCett lives in Winona, Minn., with her two sons. She works for the Fastenal Company.
In only my second season of playing the role of "hockey mom," I have to say: I'm disappointed with what I've witnessed in this sport.
My son gained an interest for the game when his uncle introduced him to it via the Xbox. After playing a couple of intense games with his uncle, my son begged me to let him try the real thing. With some hesitation I agreed — and off we went to registration, with a smile on his face and a checkbook in my hand.
During his first year, he played at the Mite level. This consisted of practices and acquiring a basic understanding of the game. That year went well, and he couldn't wait to start the next season as a Squirt.
At the Squirt level you start to travel, and it becomes more competitive.
The first game was exciting. There's no greater feeling than watching your child on the ice and seeing his passion for the game. I watched these 10- and 11-year-olds out there, playing their little hearts out and skating the best that they have been taught.
The more we got into the season, the more I started to discover the unspoken politics of the game.
As a spectator on the bleachers I got an earful. Parents were yelling at their children rather than cheering them on. Parents swore when their kid missed a goal. At one game, the other team's parents were more concerned about harassing our parents than in watching their children play. The coaches encouraged the kids to play dirty, which resulted in tension on the ice.
After the game, as the kids were all exiting the ice at the same time, a fight broke out and kids were throwing punches at each other. The parents from both teams went ballistic on each other — at Squirt level. I was appalled.
At another game, one of our players was digging the puck out of the corner when a player from the other team skated across the ice and hit our player from behind, without regard for safety. In Minnesota, all youth players are required to have stop signs on the back of their jerseys to prevent this type of hit. The hit was completely unnecessary, and our player might have been severely hurt.
In a different game, a player from the other team took his stick and two-handed my son right to his collar bone. When my son dropped to the ice, my heart stopped.
I looked over and saw smug grins from the parents on the other team, and felt anger like I'd never felt before. Really? Is this what this sport is about? Grown-ups acting this immaturely, because they want to live through their children and get the win?
Yes, winning is great and there is no better feeling than watching your kids walk away with trophies and being able to tell your friends how great he is. But at what risk?
I have heard 10- and 11-year-olds use language that would put a grown man to shame. They swear at the coaches and at each other.
I saw one coach make his goalie cry because he had let a shot get past him. The poor kid was crying as he lined up for the handshake at the end of the game.
We were lucky enough to have some great coaches on our bench this year, who taught our kids how to skate — and not just win. But in my short time in this sport I have seen other coaches who act like they're coaching an NHL team, parents who act like 7-year-olds and kids who act like spoiled brats.
Parents need to worry less about "status" and star players and worry more about encouraging their children in a positive way — and letting them know that if they lose, it happens. Winning is not everything.
Anything you say or do will trickle down to your children. If you have an attitude and a mouth on you, so will your kid. If you encourage your kid to play dirty to win, you won't have a superstar; you will have the kid who gets the award for most time spent in a penalty box.
The coaches need to get back to teaching skills and sportsmanship. Where is the satisfaction in teaching kids to play dirty? Where's the talent? Does yelling or swearing at these 10- and 11-year-olds make them skate harder? No. It probably means these kids will burn out from the negative teaching, coaching and constant yelling and quit by the time they get to the Bantam level. Which is a shame, because what if some of these kids have real potential to play in college?
The love of the game starts with the child first. The passion for the game continues with the positive encouragement and teaching of proper sportsmanship from parents and coaches. Kids will shine with true talent and gain self-respect and confidence if they play as the game was meant to be played.
These are kids who just want to play hockey. Parents and coaches set the tone for them. At this level, it's not always about the win. It's for the love of the game.