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Playing for Home: Are Club Sports Taking the ‘Team’ Out of Youth Sports?

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Having coached for years I have witnessed many noteworthy circumstances involving youth hockey. Leading this list is the emergence of ‘for profit’ hockey programs and the impact of such on youth players and other community hockey programs.

Far be it for me to be critical of ‘for profit’ programs. Indeed, I am certain many parents seek for their children to be part of a program which delivers additional ice-time and more seasoned coaches. Be it on the ice or in the classroom, I leave it to others to expand on the relative merits of varying approaches to learning as I’m hardly an expert on either.

However, I am writing to express the amazing experiences – shared by players and coaches alike – of being involved in a middle school team which proudly represented the city where we live.

Tryouts

To make this middle school team we conducted an open tryout. Players came from a host of programs. There was one stipulation; each player trying out had to be attending one of our city’s middle schools. The total number of players trying out was 50. A total of 18 players (16 skaters and two goalies)

At our first team activity I was awed at the multicolored range of helmets, socks and pants.

These players – all from the same city – represented no less than 10 teams. Some players on this team were used to commuting four times 4 x per week to rinks as far as 60 miles away.

It was remarkable to listen to the kids share the realities and the myths of the various programs their colors represented. Yet, amid the boasts of ice time and traveling to distant rinks for tournament play, there was a distinct loneliness in the words. What was being shared was overwhelmingly individualistic and lacked any sense of camaraderie.

Had hockey, the ultimate team sport, become an individual pursuit for the players?

The Season

As coach, I felt an immediate unifying act was in order: all players, at a minimum would wear our city’s color socks. It would be economically impractical to insist that players swap out pants and/or helmets; socks represented a reasonable insistence. No player protested, and our season got underway.

The middle school season is an accelerated season. Teams practice only if free ice time is presented and typically play one game a week for 10 weeks. The regular season is followed by a ‘one-and- done’ single elimination playoff format. The teams we would face would be from cities in our part of the state.

Our middle school team had a remarkable season. Winning 7, losing once and tying twice. The team gelled almost immediately, and, while I’d like to take credit for putting the right combination of players together for success at any given situation, I believe something greater was at play, namely that the kids were playing for something. Something immediately tangible that they could experience with their city peers and classmates who came to watch their games.

Our first playoff opponent was very familiar, as we had beaten them twice handily during the regular season. It was during warm-ups I noticed we would be facing a team vastly different than the one we twice defeated earlier. The socks! It was a dead give-away. Indeed, the opposing players were wearing the socks of the ‘For Profit’ hockey programs. We ended up getting bounced in the first round to the team that ultimately won the championship.

The price of winning is important to many. However, the coaches and players from our team experienced something the ‘for profit’ squads can’t deliver. As I see our kids at the rinks around down, they continue to share how much they enjoyed the short – but wonderful – season playing for the ‘Home’ team.