Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Hockey Life: Preparedness

Every hockey journey begins with a first step. Often, it's shaky, as steel meets ice, as naturals are few and far between. In months, those first glides, sometimes accompanied by a guiding hand, show signs of progress. With time and practice, though, confidence takes hold.

To me, that's the beauty of watching your child grow through hockey. As much as you want to rush that process, you know better than to force the issue. Instead, you place your child in the best position possible to succeed, not fail.

Think of it, if you will, as taking baby steps. For us, the foundation for Colin's hockey has been skating. That's why we spent the first three years focused on it. From lessons to our weekly sessions at a mall rink, it has been about developing a stride, increasing his speed and building his wind so he's not tired in the third period of a doubleheader.

Along the way, he's taken part in programs and clinics, at a considerable expense, to learn the basics of the game. Through these efforts, working his way from Intro to Hockey to Hockey 101 and then Hockey 201, he has gained an invaluable knowledge of the rules and basic concepts. Since those early sessions, he has been a student of the game.

Over the past two years, we've deepened our commitment to his hockey through summer camps, semi-private skating lessons and increasing levels of competition to gauge just where he's at and what exactly he needs to work on. Trust me, Colin still has plenty of room for improvement. Still, from Day 1, a brick-by-brick approach has defined our program.

After watching his first Tampa Bay Metro League game last week, it's apparent that our approach with Colin might be viewed as old school. Though our goal is for Colin to work on his leadership skills in this developmental rec league, it didn't take long to understand just how much opportunity would present itself.

Rather than running their children through the normal development programs, as we did with Colin, there are a few parents who've rushed their youngsters into competition, simply for the sake of playing. Honestly, some can barely stop on their skates. Others simply lack ice awareness. A case in point: We had one kid who was offsides three times in a period, called each time as he was 10 feet into the zone and headed toward the net.

Before accusing me of being a hockey snob or asking what business is it of mine what other families do, I believe I have a valid point, one that focuses on safety. In a league that recruited travel-team players, there's a heightened risk that someone lacking even the most basic of skills and understanding of the game can get seriously hurt. It's just not the basics that haven't been grasped.

No, my fear is that one of these kids won't know enough to get out of the way and end up in a collision that injures both players. Even worse, I'm worried that one of these players, in a show of frustration at being in way over his head, could lash out at an opponent in a deliberate attempt to injure. My concerns, sadly, aren't unfounded.

Before Colin's first practice, one such player (a teammate, too) threatened to spear Colin in the berries. I suggested to that young man that 1.) that wouldn't be a good idea; and 2.) that's not what hockey is all about. Where does a kid, who's no more than 12 and can barely keep his skates underneath him, get that idea from?

That brings me back to parents. It seems we have a handful on our team who don't favor taking the slow-road approach with their children, building a solid foundation of skating and teaching the basics. Throwing them into the fire, prepared or not, seems to be their method. Not too smart, if you ask me. And, no, I didn't hesitate to make my feelings known.

To me, this is an issue that must be addressed by the coaches. If I was a coach, I wouldn't play kids who, to me, have no business participating in anything more than a 4-on-4, cross-ice, summer-league scrimmage. If they're not ready, they don't play. It's that simple.  And, if that bruises a parent's overinflated ego, so be it. I'll remind them, too, there's better ways to spend money.

The rink's program needs to revisit its decision, too. One team within the league carries six travel-team players and few, if any, developmental-level players. It's my odd-on favorite to win the league championship. It makes me wonder, though, if money, and not player development and potentially safety, is the only motivation at play here. If so, let's hope that doesn't prove costly -- for parents or the program.

I learned a long time ago that it takes much more than putting on equipment and lacing up skates to become a hockey player. It's a shame that everyone -- from parents to coaches and beyond -- hasn't learned that lesson.

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