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Minor hockey a way of teaching major life lessons

Wednesday, 01.09.2013 / 9:00 AM / Hockey Skills presented by Canadian Tire

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

Former NHL player Steve Webb is often asked why he decided to volunteer his time as a youth hockey coach and travel throughout the country last season with the Long Island Royals' Under-16 National Team.

His response is simple and to the point.

"Because that's what people did for me in my hometown," Webb told NHL.com.

"When I reflect on when I was in minor hockey as a 14- and 15-year-old, I remember having NHL guys helping out the team," he said. "It was actually Doug Gibson who, over time, was the one who connected me with assistant general manager Gordie Clark to get my tryout with the Islanders. And it all goes back to sitting on the bench as a 14-year-old, not playing that much, but here I am. Gibson and Bill Plager assisted me along the way and provided advice."

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Webb also mentioned another former player, Paul Crowley, who never reached the NHL but spent seven seasons in the American Hockey League with Binghamton and Rochester. Crowley, drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1975, dedicated many mornings in the summer to assist then-youngsters Cory Stillman, Mike Fisher and Webb.

"All these former players and coaches were amazing influences who assisted me when I needed assistance and dedicated their time," Webb said. "In return, that has made me feel that this is what I want to do. I love to see guys achieve their goals in life, move on and have successful careers."

It's just one example of how minor league hockey can not only help players with the skills needed to advance in the sport of their choice, but how it also provides lasting life skills.

"That's the reason I like coaching hockey in general," said Jon Greenwood, the director of hockey development at the Maritime Hockey Academy in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. "I think there are so many life skills to be taught, whether it's teamwork or being on time, listening to directions or just getting along … all those types of things are huge life skills.

"As kids get into junior high ages, that's when time management becomes so important with balancing school, family and hockey. Playing a sport and staying in shape is great, but I think those life skills are the No. 1 aspect and the reason I'll put my daughter in team sports … I want her to be physically fit, but it's the life skills that go along with it."

Author and youth hockey advice columnist Christie Casciano Burns offered NHL.com first-hand proof of the impact minor league hockey has had on her 17-year-old son, Joe Burns.

In an essay titled, "Challenged and Inspired by Hockey," Joe Burns explains to readers how he "defies convention through my work ethic, which developed and grew through my years of playing hockey."

Burns, who began playing the sport when he was 8 years old with the Lysander Youth Hockey program in Lysander, N.Y., admits he never wanted to be labeled a "generation now" teen.

"When I started playing hockey, most of the kids around me were more advanced. They started skating as soon as they could walk. This certainly didn't give me the edge in this fast and furious sport. But instead of hanging up the skates, I was motivated to work even harder," Burns writes. "I became determined to catch up to the kids who could literally skate circles around me, and [eventually earn a spot on] the elite travel team."

The essay is undoubtedly one of his mom's greatest treasures.

"For my son, hockey encouraged him not to give up," Casciano-Burns told NHL.com. "He started late in life with hockey, and couldn't keep up with kids when he first started. But he didn't give up and made him realize that if you really wanted to achieve something that you're passionate about, don't give up and believe in yourself."

Just about all of today's NHL stars began their careers as promising teens skating alongside their friends. Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk started playing hockey at an early age for the Brick Hockey Club down the Jersey shore. He starred for two seasons at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, N.J., where he earned All-State as a sophomore in 2004-05. His breakaway goal with 6:17 remaining in overtime in the 2005 NJSIAA Non-Public final gave CBA a dramatic 2-1 decision over Delbarton.

"For my son, hockey encouraged him not to give up. He started late in life with hockey, and couldn't keep up with kids when he first started. But he didn't give up and made him realize that if you really wanted to achieve something that you're passionate about, don't give up and believe in yourself."
-- Author and youth hockey advice columnist Christie Casciano Burns

"I look back on my time playing high school hockey and while growing up, my goal was just to make the varsity team at CBA," van Riemsdyk told NHL.com. "I remember going to all their games and watching coach Mike Reynolds. I wanted to play for them, play with all my friends and play in front of a lot of my friends who I grew up that went to school there. It will always be one of my fondest hockey memories."

P.K. O'Handley, the head coach and general manager of the Waterloo Black Hawks of the United States Hockey League, is a tremendous proponent of having minor league hockey act as a building block in life.

"I think mites, squirts, peewees … that's a large part of the foundation and those coaches don't get enough credit," O'Handley told NHL.com. "We enforce and enhance what they were brought up with in youth hockey and high school and take it to another level. I think we've taken great pride as an organization over the years that Waterloo is kind of a mini-pro [league]."

Burns wrote in his essay that earning a roster spot on the traveling team after dedicating entire summers to practicing every day was one of the most fulfilling experiences of his young life.

"Hockey provided a good life lesson for me," he said. "When I now set a goal for myself, I not only want to reach it, I want to exceed it and reach heights that I didn't even know were possible. That is how I defy convention in my life."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale