Let’s Stop Wrecking Hockey

Although we would normally divide-and-conquer the usual weekend gauntlet of two kids in hockey, one in gymnastics, my husband is away on a business trip so it was just me and the boys last weekend. I adore my boys and love spending time with them, so tried to embrace the challenge while also wondering whether I’ve become the mom in the Canadian Tire commercial (everybody in the car! everybody out of the car!). Also, some very sweet friends stepped in to help with Elliot, giving him lunch and getting him into his gear when I was at Mac’s tournament game. Hockey friends are the best.

In case we hadn’t had our fill of ice with -30 temps and six arena times, it warmed up a bit so we threw in a Family Day Rideau Canal skate for good measure, covering the full 15.6 km. Although it was very crowded, I only knocked down one person, who had the misfortune of skating backwards into me while I was moving full steam ahead. Mac gave me heck but I really can’t see how it was my fault since I was looking where I was going.


I was especially proud of Elliot, who at age seven covered the distance like the hockey-playing boss that he is.

Elliot is at the very beginning of recreational hockey, in our league’s IP (for introductory program) level. IP is structured to teach kids the basics but is entirely focused on fun and making sure kids love the game. IP is the time-share sales presentation of hockey. Look how much fun your child is having! Look at these parents laughing in the stands because the kids are so darn adorable! Have a Timbit!

On Saturday, my son’s friend skated for what seemed like an eternity in a slow-motion breakaway, unbothered by the defenseman who has a little crush on her, and finally scored. The fans went wild cheering for her. Technically, she was on the “other team” but it didn’t matter. She’s a great kid, we could see the Herculean effort it took to get the puck in the net, and we knew how excited she was, so we were excited too. I remember when my oldest was in IP thinking that all those stories of horrible hockey parents must be about parents in leagues in other towns, because look at all these nice people enjoying all these wonderful kids.

I’m sorry to say that those parents weren’t far away, they were right there, in our league, working on their own A-games of sideline coaching and reffing as the kids got bigger. After a quick stop at home to collect my late-riser, I went directly from Elliot’s feel-good game to Mac’s tournament game. Mac (he’s called Malcolm more often these days, but is still Mac to us) is 13, which means he plays at the bantam level. He’s always played rec because he does lots of other sports, and is a great musician too. While he enjoys hockey, it’s never taken over his life in a way that suggested to us that we should be encouraging him (and frankly, spending tons of money on extra ice time and camps) to try out for competitive. He’s a consistent, respectful and positional team member, and he fits very nicely at the Rec B level where he is placed each year. He’s also right around the age where his sport, and all sports, lose about 70% of their athletes, and we’ve started talking about which of his other activities might eventually overtake hockey.

If or when he does move on, we’ll be fine with it because we know he’s a busy kid with lots of talents and options. As long as he stays active and fit, we don’t really care which sports he chooses. According to this article from the Globe and Mail about the impact of terrible sports parents, our laissez-faire attitude might place us in the minority.

For many young athletes, the end result of all this bad behaviour is that they lose their love for the game – the dropout rate peaks in early adolescence in all competitive sports. “Imagine if 70 percent of the customers who went to Tim Hortons walked out one day and said: ‘I am never going back,’” Hyman says. “In youth sports, we seem perfectly satisfied with this result.”


Why are we losing so many kids right at the age when it’s been shown that sports can help keep them out of trouble?


What I’ve observed in my many years as a hockey parent is a steady decline in the focus on fun, with a steady increase in pressure to perform as my son moves through each level. In one day this weekend, I travelled between the two extremes. The little guys got pats on the back and a re-telling of their glory moments in the dressing room while enjoying a juice box and a rice krispie square.

In addition (thankfully) to some solid coaching and post-game dressing room encouragement, the big guys got a parent who yelled instructions from the stands for the whole game, because everyone knows that games are won by armchair coaches, and a few others who just yelled a never-ending critique of the kids. The refs, young guys themselves, got an hour of invective and criticism, which in my opinion was reflected in our team’s penalty minutes. Our team was not catching any breaks.

I can’t even imagine yelling at an IP game that way. You’d be run out of the place. So why do we allow it for our older kids?

Leaving the arena after our second loss, I overheard a dad walking behind me vowing to give his son, who would “know what he did” the silent treatment during the ride home. What? Seriously? You know what my son got after the game? A hug and a pop and a “good game son, you played well.” They lost the game, but they played really well, and who cares anyway?

I should have said something to that dad. Why didn’t I say anything? Maybe I could have spared that kid a horrible ride home. Or maybe I would have made things worse.

Somehow between age 7 and age 13 some parents morph from “way to go! you really tried your best” to “you owe it to me to do everything I said on that ice or else I have no son.” You know what I’ve never seen? I have never seen a parent scream at their kid during a practice scrimmage. Granted, I try to avoid practices, and when I have to attend, it’s with my nose in a book, but my ears work just fine. I don’t hear parents sideline coaching or howling in outrage if their kid takes a hit or trips over a stick. They’re playing their own teammates, it makes sense that you wouldn’t scream at a kid who’s parents are sitting right beside you. But I have seen coaches from the same club get into it from their respective benches, and parents shout down players from the other teams populated with their kid’s classmates, friends, and former teammates.

There’s a weird thing that happens to some parents during the excitement of games that allows them to see the other team as enemies to be vanquished, instead of their children’s peers. Here’s the thing. It’s not enough to look out for your kid. If you love hockey (or any other sport) you have to care about all the kids playing it and you have to care about the integrity of the sport. That means not cheering for a cheap shot, because that was someone’s kid. It means holding back on applause and cheering when your team is up by more than five goals, because that’s someone’s kid in the other net and he’s having a miserable game. It also means being respectful to the refs, especially when they make lousy calls, because that’s someone’s teenager and they could just as easily go work at Best Buy where they are much less likely to be verbally abused by crowds of angry parents (the Christmas season excepted).

I used to think it was asinine to introduce touchy-feely practices like not keeping score. Hockey is by nature, competitive, and I felt there was nothing wrong with winning and losing. I still think kids learn more from losing than winning, and it’s unnecessary to insulate them from a loss.

Now I feel differently. A few years ago, after a few concussions (one following a deliberate cheap shot) I decided not to return to my hockey league. I signed up for women’s shinny and have never had so much fun playing hockey. As with Elliot’s hockey, no one keeps score. Everyone brings a dark and a light jersey, and we just sort of figure it out as we go. I always know how many goals I get, or not, and I track my incremental improvements, but I honestly have no idea who “wins.” It’s great exercise, I feel like I spend the whole 90 minutes smiling and joking with my teammates, and I look forward to it each week. I’m not saying all hockey has to be shinny, but maybe we need more of it. It has really changed my mind about the value of playing for fun. Our outdoor rinks are packed on the weekends with kids and teens playing hockey just for the hell of it. No one keeps score, and more importantly, no adults are hanging over the boards telling them what to do.

It makes me think  that when it comes to our teens, we might do best just to shut up and get out of the way. Maybe then we wouldn’t lose 70% of them to their phones and video games right at the time when sports could really help.

Since it kind of wrecks the game for me when parents yell and complain/criticize, I asked Mac if he can hear what’s going on in the stands, and whether it affects his game. Really, if my kid is fine, that’s what matters. He says no problem for him, it’s hard to hear and he doesn’t pay attention anyway. The friend who helped me out with Elliot pointed out that anyone who has ever played hockey knows that the glass turns all external sound into one dull roar, and that the armchair coaching dad is really just trying to make sure we all know he’s a hockey expert, and the only one present. It’s an interesting theory.

Here’s my theory. If you play hockey you know how hard it is. You can’t just “take the puck” if it’s out of your reach or the other guy is faster. Digging in the corners consumes massive amounts of energy. Your attention is on many things at once, and you make a hundred small decisions each shift, which may or may not pan out. It’s not easy.

I love watching the bantam boys play. It’s fast, physical hockey, and they’re at the age where most of them have developed some pretty amazing skills. I passed on the parent-player shinny game because I was a bit intimidated by their size and abilities relative to mine. In my opinion, the purpose of rec sports is fun, fitness, teamwork and sportsmanship, and to develop enough skills to have access to that sport when you’re older. That’s pretty much it. If you’re ruining the game for your kid by living vicariously through them instead of putting on some skates yourself, you’re violating your key task; to help them love a sport enough to want to keep doing it when they’re your age.

Interestingly, a gymnastics dad pointed out the complete absence of obsessed, overinvolved dads in boy’s gymnastics. His theory is that there are few, if any, dads who wanted to be gymnasts themselves growing up (men’s gymnastics being only the seventh most popular sport in Canada, less when you separate boys from girls) so no risk of parents living out their dreams through their sons. From what I’ve observed, the same isn’t necessarily true for some girl gymnasts and their moms.

This blog and other articles suggest you limit your comments to “I love watching you play _____.”


I feel like my kids can handle some discussions about off-sides and how to get physical in the corners. The dog is another story. She can’t handle any kind of physical confrontation, no matter how staged, between the people she loves best, so we’ve had to eliminate hands-on demos, but I make a point of asking first if they’d like some feedback. The only time any of my kids experiences a silent ride home is when they’re too tired from playing to say much.

I had a great moment when Mac came out of the dressing room, grinning and chuffed because he’d scored a goal and been named game MVP. He may be taller than me now, but he’s not so big.





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