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Parents play major role in youth hockey experience

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

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One of the most important aspects of a child’s ability to play youth hockey lies with his or her parents - without their commitment and support, it would be nearly impossible for their kids to get very far as a hockey player.

The dedication and commitment of parents, who devote countless hours driving their kids to and from the rink, not to mention the considerable financial investment, has been instrumental in helping grow the game in the Metroplex from the ground up over the last 15 years. 

As part of USA Hockey’s ‘Hockey Weekend Across America,’ the Dallas Stars would like to salute all of the hockey parents in the area, because without them, the true volunteers of the sport, this could not have evolved into a thriving hockey hotbed that has keeps producing more and better elite-level players every year.

The devotion of hockey parents goes far beyond those of other sports, if only for the monetary aspect, because, let’s face it, hockey is an expensive sport. Just about every other sport requires minimal equipment and an open patch of land - and fields or courts can be found just about anywhere. For hockey, with the high costs of ice time and the many pieces of protective gear, the cash parents have to shell out for kids to play adds up quickly, especially as they get older and reach the higher levels.

“I work two full time jobs to help pay off all the hockey debt,” noted Rita Mitchell, a single mom in Crofton, Maryland with second and third mortgages on her house to help pay for her son Adam, who left home at 17 this season to skate for the NAHL’s Texas Tornado out of the Frisco Dr Pepper StarCenter. “(Last year), we paid dues to play on the Tier 3 Junior A or B team of $8000 per year, plus we paid our own travel and equipment. Equipment, if you need everything, is about $1000 for a player if you buy good quality, not including sticks. The composites run anywhere from $150-$200 a piece and you go through several a year.”

Of course, in addition to the association fees and the cost of the equipment, there’s the travel.  Especially for the high-quality teams in Dallas at the AA and AAA levels, the travel can be extensive in order to face-off against other top-quality teams.

“A lot of these teams in Dallas now are having to travel anywhere between six to 10 times a year,” reported Ron Jacobs, whose 14-year-old son Colin skates for the local Texas Attack Midget AAA travel team and is currently ranked among the best in his age group in all of North America. “You figure, if the season starts around August and it ends around March, basically, you’re going on a trip about every third week. Obviously, the airfare, that’s steep. Up until about 14 or so, you’ll see most parents go on the road with the kids, so when the family goes, it’s probably $1500-$2500 a trip.” 

To elaborate on just how extensive the traveling required can be, Jacobs listed places such as Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, Saskatchewan and Quebec among the destinations that his son’s team has traveled to this season. 

Then there’s the fact that while the season usually ends sometime in March, that’s not the end of hockey. There’s spring hockey and that means even more expenses.

“Now, it’s pretty much a 10 to 11-month season, because after (the season ends in March), they get a two-week break and then spring training starts and that goes another eight weeks and that’s another $2000,” Jacobs said.

“We also pay to play year-round, meaning summer activity all spring and summer running about $5-6K with all the tournaments and travel,” Ms. Mitchell added. “So we are looking at $15,000-20,000 per year to play at the high levels once you hit the Bantam, Midget and Junior ages. Most of this, except for travel, has to be paid in cash, not often credit cards, but we managed to acquire quite a bit of travel on our credit cards. Therefore, I work two full-time jobs!”

She indicated that her overall credit card debt was around $100,000. So obviously, having a child play hockey and improve enough to play at an elite level can get expensive.

“To summarize all those dollars, if you put all of these on a line item and call it ‘hockey budget,’ AAA parents are probably spending anywhere between $10K and $20K a year,” Jacobs said. “It’s easy to do the math and say, ‘If I just put all of that into a college fund, my kid would have $100,000, compounded and interest and all that stuff,’ and you need, easy, $60-70 grand to go to college...” 

The other component of all the traveling, of course, is the time consumed by it all, whether it’s the relatively short drive to the home rink for practice or longer drives to games or entire weekend trips to tournaments all over North America.

“The time commitment is very big too,” Ms. Mitchell said. “Since Adam was eight years old, he played Tier 1 travel hockey and with travel hockey you travel 50 percent of the time. He played for the Washington Little Capitals (the same club that current Dallas Stars’ center Jeff Halpern skated for as a kid), and for the first year of his time there, we commuted from Richmond, Virginia, so even our ‘home’ games were travel games for us. Then we moved to the DC area to eliminate that commute. Then, as we were in an eastern league, our travel was pretty extensive, sometimes playing in Connecticut or New Hampshire. So the driving to and from games could take half a day or more.”

Dallas Stars center Mike Modano, who grew up in Livonia, Michigan, just outside Detroit, remembers the traveling and the time put in by his parents to help him advance as a youth player as positive experiences.

“Yeah, the 5 am, 6 am practices, traveling to Toronto probably every other weekend and Montreal every other weekend and out east to Boston and New York and Chicago,” he recalled. “We put tons of miles on the vans and stuff, but they seemed to always love it and do whatever parents would do to make their kids happy and enjoy what they’re doing. They were always just about having fun and enjoying it and getting the most out of your time when you do it.”

And if a family has multiple children playing at the same time, transporting them to practices and games could turn into a logistical headache.

“With three kids playing hockey, the hours were many, and often at less than desirable times of the day,” said Norm Kruse, based in Eden Prairie, Minnesota and father of three hockey players, including son John, an 18-year-old forward for the Texas Tornado. “3-6 days a week per child was not an unusual week during the winter season. The ice times were between 6 am and 11 pm on the weekends, 4-11 pm on the week nights. This didn’t include the outdoor ice the kids took advantage of, as we also kept a rink on our pond for 10 or 11 years. During the other three seasons practice and game time dropped to 2-4 days a week, all while they participated in other seasonal sports, too. 

“My wife Stacy is an incredible organizer. She kept a color-coded calendar on the kitchen counter so that we knew what was what after school and on weekends. It looked like a rainbow!  As you might guess, we were always on the run.”

Turning the travel into family togetherness is common among hockey parents, partially out of dedication and partially out of necessity.

“I know many families in my 20-some years of coaching have basically made a commitment to a child’s hockey as also an opportunity,” noted Keith Andresen, the Dallas Stars’ Senior Director, Hockey Programs and Ice Scheduling. “When the child travels, that’s where they’ll take their family vacation, so they can pile all together and it becomes a real family commitment, when a kid starts playing hockey at a high level. I think that’s the biggest commitment for the parents, the time, because it does take a lot of time.”

Some technological advances have made the time sitting in cold rinks for practices or games a little more productive for the parents than it used to be, with the advent of cell phones and laptop computers and the like.

“Most of these teams practice at least three times a week,” Jacobs pointed out. “I would say 70-80 percent of the parents drive them and a good portion of them stick around. They bring their laptops, and a lot of these rinks actually have wireless (internet access), so people bring their work to the rink. You’ll see contractors making their phone calls, you’ll website designers programming - they do their work from the rink. You see a lot of that going on.”

With all the sacrifices and alterations of family schedules due to hockey, of course, the big question then becomes, is it all worth it? Not too surprisingly, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’ for a variety of reasons.

“As a parent, it has more than been worth it,” Ms. Mitchell said without hesitation, despite all her debt. “My son is living a dream and playing a game that he is passionate about! Watching Adam play, especially when he is on his game, is such a high for me. It’s not like living through him, but more of a pride in what he can accomplish. It gives me great joy to see him score a goal or make a great play and know that he is overwhelmed with pride and happiness. He lives for this game and to be able to play every day at this level is a dream come true. He has worked very hard for 15 years and has continued to stay passionate about the game and it is great to see him get rewarded.”

“It’s always worth it,” said Jouni Lehtola, coach of the Squirt Prep and Peewee Prep teams for the Alliance Bulldogs, as well as father to 18-year-old son Carl, who plays for the Alliance AAA Midgets. “As long as the kid enjoys it, continues practicing, training, makes some of those sacrifices - skips a fast-food meal, goes for the healthy serving of protein and carbohydrates, skips a night out, a sleepover with friends when there’s a 7 am practice the next morning - little things that go a long way in teaching life lessons to these kids. As long as your child loves the game, talks the game, sleeps the game, nothing makes it unworthy.”

The issue of how hockey helps shape a young man’s demeanor and attitude - and seems to improve his schoolwork - is also a key benefit that the parents pinpoint as another reason their sacrifices are worth it.

“Because of the dedication that hockey demands at the high levels, it has made him a very hard-working, dedicated individual,” Ms. Mitchell said of Adam, who has seven goals and 11 points for the Tornado this season. “It demands a healthy body and mind and has helped him on the path to stay away from things that are not good for a strong, healthy body and mind like partying and staying out late like some of his high school friends do. To play Division I college hockey, you also have to make the grade and that has encouraged him to do his best in his high school studies and to take classes in Advanced Placement and honors that he may not otherwise be inclined to do.”

“I honestly said that I was glad that I spent that money, just because I feel that this game builds a lot of character in these kids,” Ron Jacobs added. “I feel there’s a lot of lessons going on. The biggest lesson that Colin has learned is that if you want anything, you have to work hard. After being in this for about 8-9 years now, I can honestly tell you I do not know of one kid who is having what we would call grade problems. 90 percent of the kids are honor roll kids. Those guys are all disciplined, they know they have to keep their grades up. You see them studying on the plane, you see them studying in hotels.

“There’s a lot of ‘Yes sir, no sir’ guys. It’s just a different culture and they’ve been exposed to guys who respect elders and respect and appreciate things. I don’t hear any problems, you know, ‘Johnny’s on drugs, Johnny got a girl pregnant, Johnny just had a car wreck.’ They just don’t have time for all that stuff. They come up to me, and it’s, ‘Hi Mr. Jacobs.’ And let me tell you, there’s a lot of 15-year-olds that are outside of hockey that don’t say, ‘Hi Mr. Jacobs’ to me. These hockey guys are a different breed, they’re very classy guys.”

Another theory is that all the time spent with their families traveling to games helps keep the kids grounded and fosters their growth into sincere young men that have acquired the reputation of being the sporting world’s most accessible, humble and least-troubled athletes.

“I think that’s a big reason why you find so many professional hockey players and high-level hockey players so well-grounded compared to some of the other sports, because they’ve been brought up in this family environment where they understand the family values and they understand the commitment that it took from their parents and brothers and sisters and the sacrifices they had to make to get them where they are,” Andresen observed. “I constantly hear, and this is certainly not to disparage any other pro athletes, but I constantly hear how good the hockey players are at giving back to the community and how willing they are to sign autographs and how you don’t see them in the tabloids as regularly as the other athletes, and I think that a lot of that has to do with the family commitment that was instilled in them at a young age and the commitment that their family makes to put them through the program.”

The good thing is that most players really do recognize and appreciate the sacrifices and efforts their parents have gone through to help further their careers. Modano fondly remembers the dedication of his parents and won’t ever forget how they helped him reach the lofty heights he has.

“That’s something that you really can’t thank them enough,” said Modano. “You do certainly appreciate what they did and went through as you get older. They did push you hard, but in the back of their mind, they just wanted you to enjoy what you were doing. If you didn’t want to do it, you didn’t have to. But I certainly enjoyed it, and now I try to tell them as much as I can what the time they put in to help me out, what it meant.”

The prevailing consensus is that both kids and parents end up benefitting from the experience in one way or another.

“I admit, we did not take the time to explore what having a hockey family meant in the way of time and money prior to our commitment,” Kruse noted. “If we had, we might not have moved forward with it. However, speaking for myself, and I believe for my wife, we would gladly do it all over again. The sport, and more importantly, the other families, have enriched our children’s and our lives beyond our expectations. Our children have grown with the confidence derived from doing and achieving. They have friends cultivated from hockey that they will undoubtedly carry with them through out their lives. As a side benefit, Stacy and I have made so many friends, other players’ parents as well as the coaches, from different times in their hockey careers that our problem is making sure we stay in touch with all of them.”

The bottom line to all of this is, the hockey community is a much better place because of the commitment of good families doing whatever it takes to give their kids an exciting and educational upbringing in hockey.

“I have been around hockey for a long time, I have been a GM of ice rinks, run hockey programs and even worked for a team in the ECHL,” Ms. Mitchell said. “I have seen a lot of parents really dedicate themselves to helping their children fulfill their hockey dreams. On the flip side, I have seen a lot of parents ruin their child’s dream by interfering or pressuring their player to do more than they are willing to commit. It is a fine line to be encouraging and not overbearing or pressuring. I try to take a backseat role to Adam’s hockey career and simply be an encouraging sounding board. I do not try to tell him how to play the game, that is the coach’s job. I simply get him where he needs to be, pay for the fees and cheer him on. I don’t try to glamorize his play when it wasn’t up to par, but like to point out his strengths so his confidence stays intact.”

“I’ve just met so many good hockey families,” Andresen said. “You always hear about the crazy hockey parent or the nutty baseball parent, but frankly - and I deal with those people every day as part of my job - but they are the vast minority. The huge majority of the parents of the people that play in our programs are some of the nicest people, who just want to have a great experience for their kid and want to make sure they get those life lessons through hockey. It’s not about winning and losing and the crazy attitudes that the headlines are made of. It is about the good people and the positive attitude and about what’s good for kids.”

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