A long time ago, in this very space but probably on the blog’s old platform, I lamented a chronic failing of minor hockey and in fact all of minor sports.
Certainly the core role and function of minor sports should be to provide a safe, positive structure for kids to participate in sports to learn not just the fundamentals of that sport but the broader lessons of team work, positive behaviour, the benefit of physical activity and even incorporating role models and mentors into their life.
A step beyond that, of course, there be demons.
Promoting the best athletes to higher levels of competition is the gist of rep sports with all that other stuff larded in to varying degrees, depending on the coaches. Yeah okay.
And that’s how hockey teams get made at AE, A, AA and AAA. Select the best kids and promote them. I get all that, really I do. And while this approach might result in the most crackerjack hockey team of 10 year olds in Oakville or Brampton or Ancaster or wherever, it fails on a critical level.
And that is because picking the best 10 year olds does not necessary identify the kids with the biggest upside – as opposed to those who are the most talented at that moment.
I don’t think MOHA has been any worse at understanding the distinction than anyone else – that’s just where my experience falls. And to its credit, adding AE rep teams in many age groups created a venue for kids who were perhaps not ready for prime time but show all sorts of other signs that they would bloom into athletic beasts in a few years. Investing now in their core skills makes sense so when that physical maturation happens, something special has a chance to come together.
But even with those AE teams, the fact is that the system is still wildly stacked in favour of a kid who is good now, vs. a kid who shows raw talent, a prodigious work ethic, an ability to learn and a love of the game.
Because, you know, I’m the coach and I want to win now.
I think it is still fair to say the onus in most rep minor sports is on winning, now. And winning a lot. And promoting the best talent in front of you at the given moment as opposed to nurturing the diamond in the rough.
Annual reports of minor hockey associations talk about how many OMHA titles it won, or finalist teams it advanced. You don’t often see a section saying “we’ve identified 15 house league players in minor atom, who, along with their families, we think should be mentored and monitored as potential elite prospects.”
In my experience in our house, that sort of thinking – selection of the best vs. identification of potential — held my kid back (he was never selected to play AAA hockey in Oakville, but I think independent evaluation of his track record would suggest he was eventually more than capable of it as he progressed.)
On the other side, though, he benefited from identification vs selection in lacrosse. Early on in his rep lacrosse experience he was viewed by a couple coaches in particular for – their words – “raw athleticism.”
They didn’t look at him as a gangly 14 year old working as hard as he could to get his eye-hand coordination to catch up with his physical growth and gifts. They didn’t care. Because they knew the moment was going to come – in a year, 18 months, whenever – when it would catch up and they giggled and used words like beast and stud to describe what he would be.
I cannot speak to why one set of coaches saw one thing and another set missed it. In both instances, the men were parent coaches, nice guys, and reasonably (and in some cases, exceptionally) smart.
Rep coaches are under a lot of pressure to win – pressure from the parents of the kids they coach, pressure from the associations that hand out the coaching assignments, pressure from lots of places. So it takes a fair amount of courage to actually pick a defenceman for a bantam AAA team who is maybe small and skinny but shows remarkable hockey IQ in other areas and is an easy kid to coach. Or the same for a 6-3 15 year old forward who is all skin and bones but shows terrific foot speed for his size.
Coaches aren’t taught how to pinpoint these kids but good coaches do it. Inevitably, some of these kids are the ones left standing five or six years down the road getting really elite opportunities. But others get lost in the shuffle too and never get to find out “what if.”
In fairness, “what if” isn’t for everyone. Most kids playing AAA today at nine or 10 years of age will be out of rep hockey before midget. But for the others, “what if” is a tough question.
The link I’m going to point you to from last winter contains the following line about kids who may be candidates for identification.
“Perhaps they have not yet grown, or been exposed to high-level coaching. Perhaps they are not as skillful yet, but show a high level of coachability, sensitivity to training and the motivation to learn.”
I could name 10 kids like that right now. And one a decade ago.
Do you play beer league hockey? Ever wish that dick on the other team who cruises around and acts like a cross between Brad Marchand and Dave Shultz would just fall down a man hole?