I read Patrick O’Sullivan’s book Breaking Away as quickly as I read Theo Fleury’s book Playing With Fire; six hours. While reading these books, I dug through the depths of my memory reflecting on my childhood. Not that I was abused the same way Patrick or Theo was, but I began asking myself if I remember seeing players abused like that?
After unearthing a few instances deeply layered in my memory, I wondered what is the state of the game now? Are the people in charge of higher hockey levels robbing kids of their youth by forcing unrealistic expectations on them? Yes, there are some gifted players that have the ability to keep moving up the ranks. But what about the players that started late or are simply not blessed with athletic abilities? Do they not deserve the chance to play and enjoy the sport even though they won’t be drafted into the CHL, USHL, or NHL? The stark reality of players making to the NHL is so small. And even the ones that do get a chance to play a game in the NHL, staying there is just has hard.
Hockey has become a money game. Programs offer the dream of making it to the show and parents shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars, euros, rubles, etc. to hopefully see a return on their investment. Does that investment make the parents put more pressures on the kids to chase their dreams? At what point are we just going to let kids be kids and play a sport that is inherently fun on it’s own?
It is easy for us adults to get lost in the pursuit of a dream. Whether it is a coach, scout, manager, we take it personally when a player isn’t performing to our ideal of standards that was shaped by an old form of thought. Read those stories by Patrick and Theo, we were playing or coaching during that era when people were turning their heads and ignoring clear signs of abuse. What’s the difference now? Are there still examples of verbal and physical abuse? Are parents still brawling in the stands during 10-year old hockey games? How does seeing that affect a children’s memory of hockey?
If anything, there is still abuse in hockey. Now hockey is robbing players of a life outside of hockey. Kids are being forced in specialized camps or working with private instructors year-round. When are these kids, being kids? While they are at these camps or private lessons, what is the message they are being sent? You are not training hard enough, you don’t want it enough, you aren’t good enough, etc. When are they enjoying other sports or discovering the possibility of life outside of hockey? Because, lets face it, you can’t play hockey forever. You will need to do something else in your life. The dropping registration numbers in Hockey Canada may not only be related to cost. Yes, there have been signs of increased registration at youth levels, but how long with those kids stay in the game? The emphasis on making it to the NHL starts at a younger age. Scouts, agents, college coaches are shockingly starting to recruit younger and younger. Players find themselves under pressure to make decisions about their future at before they are 13.
Patrick O’Sullivan and Theo Fleury’s books were disturbingly captivating. Page after page kept me wondering how this stuff could have happened and kept happening. It took a lot of courage for them to open up about their abuse. However, their stories should be alarms for everyone in sports. The abuse they suffered through is horrifying. And I am not trying to take anything away from them. But, the abuse in hockey is still happening, in different forms.
Hockey needs to be taken for what it is, a game. And, if a player is good enough and enjoys it enough to want to do extra training – by their own request – then let them have fun. But also know when to tell them to take a break from hockey, leave them yearning to get back on the ice. Let them love the game on their own.