Making hockey fun
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The idea for IT PAYS stems from Dan's operating a hockey school for the past eight years in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich., and from the research he did in writing four books, including So Your Son Wants To Play In The NHL, and So You Want To Play In Tthe NHL.
The fourth of four boys and a girl, Bylsma grew up in a religious household and is proud to be identified as a values-oriented person. He and his wife, Mary Beth, lost a baby daughter nine days before her birth, then started a foundation to help raise funds to better study stillbirths. They have a son, Bryan. Dan became concerned about the environment in youth sports and felt there was room for a sportsmanship initiative.
"I get 10-15 emails a day about situations in amateur hockey that are alarming to me and my father," he said. "I was getting frustrated by what I was seeing. We heard of players getting a minute or less of ice time; the same five kids playing the whole third period; coaches grabbing kids by the mask; alcohol on a team bus for 14-year-olds and nothing done because they were going to the state tournament. We've heard of coaches sending kids on the ice to maim other kids. We learned of a game in which four teams were battling for two available spots in a playoff and the coach of a winning team pulled his goalie late so the loser would score more goals and block another team from advancing.
"I was asked if I would let my son play amateur hockey and my answer is, 'Not with what I'm seeing. That's not the atmosphere my child should be in and won't be in.'"
Bylsma is a highly unusual NHL player in that he played only one year of travel hockey. He spent the rest of his youth-hockey career in a Grand Rapids house league, albeit usually playing in a higher division. He played four years at Bowling Green University and worked his way to the NHL after starring in the ECHL. He's a muscular 6-foot-2, 215 pounds with a handshake like a vice. He's made his mark as a checking winger and he's in his eighth NHL season. He's no wimp.
"I told my dad to write down some ideas and I did the same. We gave our list to 25 people that we trusted in hockey around North America and they added some suggestions. That led to IT PAYS organizations forming in California, Michigan and Pennsylvania," Bylsma said.
What bothers Bylsma most is what a positive experience sports can be for children and how it is being corrupted by some individuals.
"Amateur sports is designed for kids to have fun, compete among their peers and learn life lessons," Bylsma said. "If you deny them these lessons, including winning and losing, you're denying them the opportunity of learning positive life lessons like respecting the authority of coaches, how to interact with teammates, how hard work fosters better play and that how you play is more important than the outcome."
Bylsma noted the Whalers program in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia that instituted a "Fair Play" policy in the mid-1990s. By enforcing many of the principles put forward by IT PAYS, including equal ice time, Dartmouth greatly improved its program, winning four titles in five years after winning four in a decade before the adoption of the program. Dan learned from his dad's coaching that if you give the top line a lot of extra ice, they'll get marginally better, but if you give the third line extra ice time, they get significantly better.
The goals of IT PAYS are to continue to provide children with an opportunity to have fun and learn life lessons in a wholesome environment through ice hockey; provide children with an opportunity to develop their athleticism and skill; provide parents with guidance as to the role of youth sports in general and ice hockey in particular and assist them in being able to use youth sports as a parenting vehicle for teaching life lessons; provide adults with guidelines and assistance to enable them to develop leadership skills to coach, administrate, and referee youth ice-hockey programs in a responsible and wholesome manner that puts the needs and aspirations of the participants first; provide a mechanism to report and encourage, commend, and reinforce positive conduct by players, coaches, referees, or administrators; provide a mechanism to report, correct and or eliminate behaviors by players, coaches, referees, administrators, and parents that are inappropriate to the goals and aims of youth sports; and eliminate the idea that scores should or can be settled in the tunnels or the lobbies, either by players, coaches, or parents by confrontational or violent means.
IT PAYS' goals do not include taking away any of the competitive nature of the game itself; taking away anyone's right to direct their child to the developmental path of their choosing; limiting any child's developmental path by limiting the number of games played, the level of competition, the practice-to-games ratio, or the length or timing of the season; limiting a child's dreams by pointing out that the odds are too great to be successful; changing a single rule of the sport.
"The sport is fine as it is," Bylsma said. "The goal is to foster a positive experience."
Players and parents sign contracts prior to the season, pledging to abide by IT PAYS' principles. Each club files a report on the behavior of the other team after each game and files it with the local IT PAYS organization. The Los Angeles Kings and Mighty Ducks have agreed to host an annual tournament comprised of teams compiling the best IT PAYS results.
"The goal is to foster a positive experience so kids can enjoy the game that we think is so great," Bylsma said.