Sometimes I wonder how I ever made a life in hockey. If ‘becoming a hockey player’ really requires 10,000 hours of training, and thousands of dollars, then how did I do it? How did I play four years of major junior and travel the world as a professional earning a living for another seven? Are the top kids today infinitely better than we were, and guys like me got a lucky break being born when we did? How did my friend, Dan Nakaoka grow up practicing once per week in Langley Minor Hockey, then go on to play ten years professionally, including scoring 20 goals one year on a line with Slava Bikov, Russia’s Head Coach in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver?
Yes, kids are more skilled now then when we were back in the day. However, hockey was able to teach us life lessons of: discipline, drive, and accountability, that helped us make up for a lack of extra programming and financial backing. The amazing coaches I had in numerous sports helped us become well rounded, multi-sport athletes, and probably saved some parents thousands of dollars in private lessons. I don’t think hockey has to be as expensive as some people make it out to be.
I have witnessed the true value of our sport cost much less. In my travels, I have had the honour and privilege to work with young hockey players in some areas of the world you’d least expect. I am not sure we have helped many of those players reach the NHL, but I am 100% certain that we have helped keep kids on the right track, and given them a chance for a great life.
While living in Baltimore, Maryland we volunteered with a program called ‘Hockey In the Hood’. One of the main rules was ‘no weapons at the rink.’ The main objectives of the program were to give young boys and girls a chance to follow a structure, be a part of something unique, control their aggression, and feed them a real meal at the end of the morning. I can’t remember if I taught a saucer pass or a one-timer, but I did make a very angry young boy smile and say thank you.
While living in New York City I was the hockey director at Riverbank State Park, an outdoor rink on 145th St on the Hudson River. My position was funded semi-privately by a few fortunate families that wanted to see young boys and girls from West Harlem get access to the same professional coaching as their own sons and daughters a few subway stops south on the Upper East Side. Our program, for $150 per season, gave every kid three on ice sessions per week, and with the help of a tireless volunteer Lewis Burgess, we grew the program from 15 kids to 150 in three years. The last I heard, Lewis had the number as high as 200. My fondest memory at Riverbank was taking our ‘Bad News Bears’ bantam team to a tournament in Delaware. Some of the kids had houses in the Hamptons, and some of them had never slept a night in a hotel before. With socio-economic status out the window, we played our hearts out and won the ‘C’ level tournament in overtime. Parents were crying in the stands watching their children hug and celebrate with their teammates. Imagine for a moment having never slept in a hotel, played on a team, or had a friend from the ‘other side’ of town, and sharing this moment together. It was quite unique and touching to say the least.
Under the pressures of our competitive youth hockey landscape, I sometimes wonder if I should care more about how many A’s a team should have (A, AA, or the coveted AAA). However, then my gut instinct brings me back to earth. The voice in my head reminds me, “Be a good coach. Care about every kid. Help them get better, no matter their level. Help them respect the game, their teammates, and their families. Help them shoot the puck harder, but keep them humble. Remember to enjoy the game, like a Riverbank Ranger.”