“I’m definitely posting a new blog tomorrow,” I said to myself everyday for the last three months…apparently I made up for my absence with the length of this post, though.
I’ve started this post several times over the past few days, but I’ve always deleted it because what I’d typed seemed too inflammatory. I’m having troubles balancing my roles as an advocate for competitive, educational-based athletics and as a frustrated dad. I’m hoping that I’ve found a voice for this post that doesn’t point fingers or come across as accusatory because, in complete honesty, I’m really just curious to know why this culture is the way it is. I take pride in seeing both sides of most arguments, but I’ve been unable to understand the other side of this one so I’m looking for input.
As a kid growing up in small town North Dakota, I played Little League baseball games against surrounding small towns at 9+ years old (basically, our version of an in-house summer baseball league with the closest towns to ours), started playing school-sponsored basketball games in the 5th grade, football in the 7th grade, and rarely had (or looked for) camps or leagues during the off season. I was fortunate enough to grow up with a twin brother, and we spent hours playing every sport imaginable against each other in the back yard, the basement, or the park across the street (if you’re curious, my combined lifetime record against him is roughly 5,000-0, at least it is according to me). We had friends that we often played pick-up baseball, “touch” football, and basketball games with, and we spent an uncountable number of hours messing around at the pool.
I greatly value the benefit of participation in activities for fun. All of that participation time was low cost/no cost to our parents, and we were able to be kids having fun without any pressure from others to win games or be the greatest athlete in the game. If those pressures existed, it was because we placed them on ourselves. Because of those experiences, I don’t like that the primary way my boys play games now has to be in a highly controlled, highly structured environment. They get plenty of back yard time, too, but that all seems secondary to organized sports.
On the flip side, I’m crazy competitive. Personally, I’ve never understood getting involved in an activity if you aren’t trying to be the best at it, and I hated (HATE) losing. I’ve broken tennis rackets, punted basketballs, and thrown more baseballs at my brother than I care to admit (despite going 5,000-0 against him, obviously). For that reason, I don’t entirely mind the highly controlled, highly structured environment of youth sports. My kids play in games where scores are kept, someone wins, someone loses, and everyone has the opportunity to learn those life skills that become more important in competitive adult life.
So to my point – my 11 year old son has played hockey since he was 5 (in Grand Forks since he was 6). Up until last year (his first year of Squirts), he only played against other Grand Forks teams. As 1st year Squirts, the kids/parents had a decision to make: in-house or travel. In Grand Forks, in-house Squirts comes with a $250 participation fee, two 1.5 hour practices per week, and a single game on every weekend – which worked out to about 16ish games if I remember correctly from last year . Travel Squirts has a $675 participation fee, two 1.5 hour practices per week, 25+ games, and five weekend tournaments (one of which is in Grand Forks). As I’ve written about before, I understand that the only guarantee for those fees and time are for my son to participate, so it was an easy choice for us: he played in-house hockey.
Great decision. He got to play with his friends, got a little instruction, and had plenty of ice time, but he also had lots of time to do other things as well. (As a parent, between his participation fee and equipment, I maybe spent a total of $350 and didn’t have to spend my weekends in other towns figuring out ways to kill time outside of the 3-4 hours my kid spent on the ice.) Because of his limited game schedule and zero weekend tournaments, we spent time going to UND hockey games, watched our two high school teams play their winter sports, spent time with family, and even found a couple weekends to head to the lake (where my boys spent hours and hours skating in sub-zero temps on the lake and loved every second of it!). My son got his fill of hockey, and we didn’t spend our entire winter doing nothing other than watching 10-11 year-olds play hockey.
This year as a 2nd year Squirt, our plan was the same. We were going to get him into the in-house program and essentially duplicate last year’s experiences. EXCEPT, the in-house hockey program was cancelled due to a lack of interest – 6 total registrants.
Which baffles me.
Grand Forks is probably going to have 6 travel squirt teams this winter. At 16ish players per team, the program will involve in the neighborhood of 90-100 families (depending on siblings playing, roster size, etc.). Here’s where I need help understanding the culture (and I’m hoping that the more anonymous nature of an online comments section will solicit some feedback).
As I’ve talked to other youth hockey parents, both current and past, I hear two themes continuously repeated:
– Youth hockey costs a lot of money.
– We spend all of our free weekends in other towns watching a couple youth hockey games.
So if the majority of families feel this way (and the majority of people who’ve talked to me do feel this way, so either (1) it is the majority of families who honestly feel this way, (2) I’m either not hearing from the other side, or (3) they’re lying to me because they know what I want to hear), why aren’t more people signed up for in-house hockey? It seems so simple to me. If parents don’t like spending that much money and don’t like spending all of their weekends at youth hockey, then why the heck aren’t more people taking advantage of the option that’s both cheaper and less time consuming (while still giving your kid a ton of ice time!)??
As a comparison point, many of these same hockey kids – mine included – also play youth football and Cal Ripken baseball. For the youth football league, there were 9 teams (which included some teams from area towns); the kids practiced twice a week and played Saturday morning games in Grand Forks. For the Cal Ripken baseball league, there were two 5 team divisions; the kids practiced during the week and played Monday night games in Grand Forks. For both sports, there was never a reason to leave Grand Forks.
In my opinion, not engaging in a full travel season (when possible) is better for everybody involved. It’s better for parents so we don’t spend the additional dollars or all of our family time in the winter at hockey rinks, and it’s better for the kids who learn that entire families don’t revolve around their sports’ schedules.
All of that brings me back to my question for hockey parents, both past and present – what am I missing?? When I’ve asked parents about this subject directly, the only answer I ever get is “Well, that’s Grand Forks hockey.” I have some theories, but I can’t make any of them fit the narrative.
- Theory 1 – To play against top competition: I get the impression that many parents feel like traveling around to play other towns is creating exposure against other “top talent” to speed the progress of our own kids. BUT – (1) if that’s the case, why doesn’t the same concern exist in other sports? Most (all?) other team sports have a participation option that allows kids to stay in town. (2) Other towns are splitting their “talent” into multiple teams like Grand Forks does, so you’re never really playing “best on best”. (3) Don’t we have quite a few good little hockey players in town? Wouldn’t playing games against the best kids in Grand Forks be similar to playing the best kids from elsewhere? (4) How do we know who are the best talents at 11 years old??
- Theory 2 – More ice time with better coaches: As I listed above, the in-house program had about the same amount of weekly ice time. The travel program has a handful more games and the weekend tournaments, but those come with a whole lot of other lost time, too (traveling, between games, etc.). (And, like I mentioned earlier, my kid actually got far more ice team on his own on weekends by not being on a travel team.) Regarding coaching, these teams are coached by dads. If the kids are skating in-house, the dads are coaching in-house.
- Theory 3 – Playing travel is the only way to make the “next” team: When parents ask me about whether or not to send their kids to camps, leagues, etc., I always ask them the same question – what’s the worst case scenario you’re ok with? Applied specifically to travel hockey (or any other sport), after pouring all of this time and money into it, what’s the worst case scenario you’re ok with? Are you ok if your kid doesn’t get to play college hockey? Are you ok if your kid is a role player on the high school team? Are you ok if your kid gets cut from the high school team? Are you ok if your kid gets burned out at 14 years old and just stops playing entirely? It’s important to remember that you’re only paying for the opportunity to participate with no guarantee for the future. Between our two high schools, we only have roster room for 40 varsity players, so 60 of the travel squirts playing this year will NOT be playing high school varsity hockey in Grand Forks. According to statistical data, only 1-4 of those remaining 40 will have to opportunity to play beyond high school (maybe 1-2 on a scholarship). As you’re paying for participation fees and travel year after year after year, keep in mind that the math is against opportunities to play each year in the future. Just about every year, I get at least one phone call from the parent of a junior or sophomore who was cut to vent about getting cut after spending all that time and money in youth hockey, so we obviously don’t have every parent in town “OK” with the worst case scenario.
- Theory 4 – Your kid really likes travel hockey: Well, of course he does. You’re scheduling your family’s time around him, buying him travel sweats that match his buddies’, and taking him to a hotel four weekends a winter. Similar to my thoughts on summer camps (here and here), if your kid really wants to play travel hockey AND if you don’t mind spending the time and money on the experience, then go for it! But ask your kid what he/she likes about travel hockey – especially if you’re not so OK with spending all that time and money. Kids can get matching sweats and go play with their friends at Choice Health or Canadinn without the whole family spending the weekend elsewhere all winter long.
- Theory 5 – It’s more about the parents than the kids: This reason might actually hold water although I doubt many, if any, parents would admit it. I’ve heard multiple stories about – and seen first hand – how the coolers come out quickly before, between, and after youth hockey games at travel tournaments. While I don’t agree with this part of the hockey culture in Grand Forks, I can’t argue with it’s existence. Parents have the prerogative to use youth hockey as an excuse to create get-togethers with friends, although that’s a pretty poor reason for justifying youth sports.
- Theory 6 – Keeping Up With The Joneses: My gut tells me that this is the real reason – that parents in Grand Forks continue to think travel is the only real option simply because kids in Grand Forks have always piled onto the travel teams. I get that it’s difficult to be one of the parents who doesn’t follow this trend, but I think it’s worth exploring what your goal as a parent is and whether that matches your kids’ goals. When the in-house season was canceled this year, I talked to my son, and we decided to not participate in travel hockey. He is luke-warm on spending that much time playing, I’m not going to spend that much time and money for him to participate in something he’s marginally committed to, and he has other things he’d like to do this winter. Instead, he’s going to try out some club swimming (which should be a great new experience for him!), he’s trying to talk his step-mom into taking him skiing, we’ll head back out the lake a couple times, and we’ll have plenty of weekend time to pursue other interests. The discussion for my 2nd son will be different when he gets to Squirts next year because he loves playing hockey. My hope is that we’ll have the in-house program for him to get his time, but if not, we’ll have to discuss as a family whether that cost and amount of time is worth participation.
…and so I’m back to the beginning, asking past and present hockey parents for answers. Maybe I’m in the complete minority in all of this, but I have to believe that out of 100 Squirt parents, I’m not the only one sitting on this side of the fence. The comments section of this blog can be as anonymous as you want them to be, so please comment to let me know what I’m missing in all of this. If you’re one of the hundred families who avoided the in-house program this year (or one of the thousands who avoided it in the past), tell me why! Just because I don’t agree with the culture certainly doesn’t make it wrong; I’d just like to understand the reasons.
…and GO CUBS!
EDIT – Just had a colleague send me this link about Duluth. I figured this was a good place to put it.