Death.  Taxes.  Swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.  Hockey season intermission stress, worry and maneuvering.  Some things in life are guaranteed.

I’ve never really been sure what to call this period between the end of one hockey season and tryouts for the next.  For some, arguably, there really is no break–whether it’s camps, clinics, “Summer AAA” teams, NHL tryout camps, player cruises.  However, for most of the sane youth hockey world, there is at least a hint of a break.  For now, I shall call this break “hockey season intermission.”

I think I always dreaded this time of year far more than Micah did.  Micah, for those who knew him, was pretty laid back, low stress, when it came to the eternal question of where he would play the following season.  It was always me–the primary hockey parent–that carried all the stress.  Where would he play next season?  Which organization was going to be honest with us about their goalie openings for the new season?  Who are the coaches?  What are they like?  Where would we feel like a part of the hockey family, regardless of income, ethnicity, religion, political leanings (mostly mine and Cynthia’s, but in the past couple years, Micah’s as well) and other factors?  And, of course, where could we actually afford to play?

As you read this (if you’ve gotten this far, I presume you are or know a hockey family), you’re probably going through the same mental gymnastics that I did every season.  Here are my thoughts on each of these major spiritual hockey questions:

  • Where do we go from here (now that all of the hockey children are growing up)?
    • No, the grass is usually not any greener on the other side–regardless of whether it’s the other side of the Valley, the State, or the highway.  Micah played for three different organizations in his nine years of travel hockey, and I have friends and acquaintances in just about every other organization as well.
      • Big red flag #1: a parent, manager or coach at the rink you’re contemplating trying out at starts bashing other programs.  Yes, what your parents told you in elementary school: if you have nothing good to say, say nothing.  More than that though–if you want to sell YOUR program, then sell YOUR program.  Just because AYHS (Arizona Youth Hockey School–a fictional youth organization) says RYHS (Rival Youth Hockey School–another fictional program) is bad does not mean AYHS is actually good.  If you’re good, you tell people what makes your program good–or great–or spectacular.  That should be your sales pitch, not burying a coach, or board member, or the guy that cuts the ice at the other rink.
      • BRF #2: Pressure tactics.  “Well Mr. Smith, I’m interested in having your son Billy on my team–but I have a lot of other kids interested too, so I need your answer in two hours, or I’m going to have to pass him up.”  Okay, the two hour window is probably not that common, but when you start feeling like the coach is more of a used car salesman telling you that he has 16 other people coming to look at his used car, so you’d better grab it before someone else does.  Might it be true?  Sure.  But if the message is that your child is good enough to be on Coach X’s team, a team Coach X says will be a definite State Championship contender, don’t you think your kid would be good enough on any of the other teams too?
      • BRF #3: Your kid is going to the pros–but only if he plays HERE.  Do you know what the difference is between A, AA and AAA hockey in Arizona?  Oh, probably $3-4k per extra vowel coming out of your wallet.  Know what the difference is between Squirt A and Squirt AAA?  (Don’t get me started on teams that label themselves “Mite AAA”–did those kids skate out of the womb with a perfect crossover to cut the umbilical cord?)  The difference is that someone has told you that they’re going to have an “Elite” team of 9-10 year olds (yes, Elite 9-10 year olds).  Guess what USA Hockey has to say about Squirt AAA or Peewee AA or Mite AAAAA?  Nothing.  They don’t exist.  USA Hockey classifies all Squirt and Peewee programs as HOUSE/REC.  You can call yourself whatever you want.  Call yourself the AYHS Squirt Supreme ABC team if you’d like.  The truth is, most of our kids will have a blast playing hockey–whether it’s at the B, A, or multi-vowel level–as long as they’re allowed to just play the game and have fun.  Please just let your kid be a kid.  Don’t be taken in by the letters (or number of vowels) after your team name.
    • Don’t take everything you hear from other parents as the gospel.  Sure, we all talk to other parents around the rink.  You’ll hear those same, “Oh man, they suck over at XYZ rink.”  Or, “the coaches at HGH are horrible!”  Does that mean they’re right?  Again, sometimes–sure.  But guess what?  There are also bad parents.  Parent A tells me that his son is too good for my team.  He is constantly harassing the team manager about decisions the coaches make.  He complains about every little thing that happens at practice and games.  He sits in the corner trying to convince other parents that the coach sucks and needs to be fired (usually because the coach isn’t giving his kid enough playing time).  He tries to side-coach his kid to not do what the coach tells him.  He tells his kid that his team sucks, and that he should just have fun and ignore what the coaches say.  He talks about how this is a team game, but when you really listen, the only player that matters is his.  The kid misses team events for strange, sudden reasons.  But–it’s all about the coaches and the other kids on the team.  I was a team manager for six of Micah’s nine seasons playing travel hockey, and speak to other managers all the time–these are accurate descriptions of those parents that sit around trying to convince you how horrid those other programs are.
    • Keep an open mind.  Drop in to a spring skate for each different organization.  Talk to parents you see there.  Talk to a couple coaches.  Find out who the coach is of your child’s possible team–and talk to the coach.  No–don’t try and tell the coach what a superstar your kid is.  Talk to the coach about what his or her philosophy is.  What are that coach’s expectations?  What kind of person is the coach?  These are far more important in the long run than whether the coach played in the AHL, IHL, NHL, KHL…  Know a guy named Wayne Gretzky?  Yup, he was one of the all-time great hockey players–but a less-than-stellar coach.  Michael Jordan?  Larry Bird?  Magic Johnson?  Same story.  Don’t be blinded by the coach’s fame.  Could a former NHL player be a good coach?  Absolutely!  We have a number of outstanding former player coaches in Arizona.  However, don’t let a name be the main reason why you sign your name on the dotted line.
  • Hockey Family is important (to most).  So, you’ve heard a song-and-dance that Program X is the only one that will truly help develop your child’s skills (BRF #3).  Parents and folks from the organization tell you that this team is going to just WIN.  Your son/daughter will be an important cog in the machin–wait.  Stop.  Is that what you and your child really want?  To be a piece inside a machine?  Sure, a good hockey team works well together–but it works fantastic together when the kids genuinely like each other.  Know how a really good team gets through the season?  When the parents support each other, support the kids and coaches, and understand that this is just a game.  Don’t just look at how many banners are hanging over the rink, look at how the parents get along.  Listen in to those conversations and hear what they’re saying.  Will you and your family be comfortable being a part of this?  Another part of this same issue is how your team hockey family gives back to the community.  Is it important to you that your child and his/her team will be involved in things that benefit the community?  You’d better ask.  There are definitely teams that are very much into paying forward into the community and teaching the kids that their ability to play this sport–and have you pay for them to play it–is a gift, a privilege.  But there are also teams that don’t believe community service is important, and certainly not something for a hockey team to be doing.
  • Money matters.  Hockey is an expensive sport.  I know we will all do what we need to do to make our kids happy (for the most part).  However, there’s no problem being reasonably frugal.  Before you sign anyone’s contract, have an idea of what costs you’re looking at.  It’s not just the “player contract” cost, but gear replacement, “team account” for tournaments, coach travel, extra skills coaches, and other needs, travel costs.  The contract may reasonable by comparison at $4,000, but ask–what kinds of other expenses am I going to have?  Is this a team that does team-building activities that cost $150 per kid?  Is the travel going to be a trip to Las Vegas and a drive to Southern California, or is it going to be two trips to Detroit, two to Chicago, one to Boston and one to Vancouver?  Will we be doing any fundraising–and if so, what does that money go towards?  I once overheard a coach tell parents, “if you can’t afford to play hockey, you shouldn’t play hockey.”  I’ve heard numerous parents say the same thing.  I agree–to a point.  However, there are plenty of ways you can have a fulfilling hockey season without turning it into a $15-20,000 per year expense.
    • A subset of the money issue is money from outside sources: scholarships.  No, I don’t mean we should fill Facebook with a bazillion GoFundMe accounts and RallyMe pages to help pay for our kids’ hockey.  Ask the organization if they offer any kind of scholarships–are they one per team, $X per organization, or do they just look at you kind of funny and suggest you try their house program?
    • Scholarships can be an important way to not only help cover the costs of hockey, but to help you develop ties with the program.  If you ever really want to know how youth hockey works, spend some time as a volunteer at your organization.  I’ve been a volunteer for years in various capacities.  It can be an incredibly rewarding experience.  Give it a try!  (If you take a scholarship from certain organizations, they will often require that you do a matching amount of volunteer work for the organization to help ‘repay’ the scholarship.  Really–it’s not a bad thing at all.

If all of this has one unified message, it’s that you should all go into the tryout season with an open mind.  Ask around.  Consider the sources of the things you’re hearing.  Look at the pluses and minuses of all the programs.  Let your kid skate with them.  THEN, with your child in the decision-making process, make your determination.

Give everyone a chance.  You may just surprise yourself…and others too.