Confessions of a hockey dad: Spring hockey

“If sport has a high point of the year, it must be the first week of spring. When I was growing up, I used to love this time of year. It was when I put my hockey equipment away and I was absolutely ecstatic to see the end of the hockey season.”

– Wayne Gretzky, quoted by the National Post, March 2000

I always loved the Great One’s take on spring hockey, on how baseball and lacrosse provided the balance – and the change of pace – to renew his love of sport each spring.

But after years of parroting Gretzky’s comments to everyone who would listen, here I am, enrolling my kid in spring hockey. Hypocritical? Probably. A bad idea? Maybe. But here are some thoughts on how I got here, and why I think it might work.

At the top of the list of reasons is the fact that Olivier, just turning 8, can’t get enough hockey. He and his friends play on the ice, in the park, on their knees inside the house, and on-screen with the PS3. Next on the list is that he’s continuing to play other sports, including winter and spring soccer.

And then there’s my experience – good and bad – with two years of winter hockey.

The problem with initiation hockey

Hockey Canada got it right when it decided that “Initiation” hockey – for ages 5 through 8 – should be all about fun, skill development, equal ice time and (with no scoreboard until age 8 ) a de-emphasis on winning. I’ve volunteered as an assistant coach in that program and have been wowed by how most kids have taken great strides in everything from skating to their understanding of the game.

But as the parent of a tall kid who has a knack for scoring goals, I’ve quickly learned that the fun-first, participatory nature of Initiation hockey has its limitations. The skill gap between kids can be enormous, and all the kids pay a bit of a price for that gap.

Bad habits can form when the better kids get accustomed to skating end-to-end to score their limit of three goals, the so-called Gretzky Rule. I really like the rule, as it reduces the incidence of one-sided games and helps kids learn to pass and be part of a team. But while some kids do just that, I’ve seen others – because of poor leadership from coaches and/or parents – have no idea what to do after they bag their three goals.

Meanwhile, the weakest players on the ice almost never touch the puck and have virtually no hope of scoring or checking. And in practices, their presence waters down the effectiveness – or at least the speed – of drills. We’ve sometimes split kids up by ability for skating drills, but with puck drills, the weaker kids benefit most from a partner who can make a good pass to them, or to offer some checking resistance while skating backward.

The result is that Olivier, thanks to several hat tricks, has a false sense of his progress. He has the hands to score, plus the size and strength to skate around many players. But because he’s been successul, he feels he can sometimes cheat on skating drills or check opponents by stepping up, flat-footed, to steal pucks when he should be skating backwards and turning in pursuit of strong skaters.

Frankly, he’s falling behind in his skating. And I feel he needs the challenge of playing and practising with, and against, better players. My son is naturally competitive, and I expect he’ll rise to that challenge by working harder at the things he doesn’t do that well.

Keeping kids excited about hockey

This isn’t about developing a future pro hockey player, just about maintaining my son’s enthusiasm for the game. In some games, Olivier has played on a line where his fellow forwards had no chance of keeping up to him, and he was left to try to weave – unsuccessfully – through three or four rivals without any option to pass. His enthusiasm often ebbs and flows, depending on the level of players he’s on the ice with.

How important is enthusiasm? When you’re getting your kid out of bed at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning for a 6 a.m. practice, he’d better be having fun on the ice.

When the fun disappears, so does the commitment. Last year, his soccer experience – playing on a team riddled with kids who often would have preferred not to be there, especially in the Wet Coast rain – eroded his love of the game. This winter, it’s a whole different story on a strong team with a great coach.

Asked which sport he likes best, Olivier says soccer and hockey are dead even. And I love that.

Finding the positives in spring hockey

Now, about spring hockey. Skating free of the fun-for-all encumbrances of winter hockey, these programs generally emphasize excellence through the formation of select teams. We were astonished by a few emails from high-powered spring-league teams with intense travel schedules and costs of $2,000 or more for the spring season.

In the end, we were sold on a lower-priced program that, in the experience of friends, offered good-quality development, some off-ice sessions including ball hockey and a nice social component in a schedule that should offer far more balance. The clincher is that a few of my son’s close friends were joining the same program.

We’re hoping that for now, hockey, soccer and school can coexist in the spring. It will be an experiment for all of us, but who knows? Perhaps by the time next spring rolls around, my son – like Gretzky – will choose to pick up a baseball bat or a lacrosse stick to step outside the arena for a five-month break.

That’s what I did year-after-year as a kid, and I’ve played hockey 44 of the last 45 years.

9 responses to “Confessions of a hockey dad: Spring hockey

  1. Sounds like your son is really just a bit more mature than the other kids. You noted he was bigger and faster. Let it play out buddy, you do not sound like a guy that has much experience in sport or growth and development,

  2. Your son clearly missed out on coaches who recognized his weaknesses. During those developmental tyke- novice years, coaches should recognize these weaknesses, help with next steps, while also supporting their strengths. If this isn’t happening, then we should just turn back to less fair play for 4-8 yr olds.

  3. spring hockey works for us at the novice and Atom level mostly because in rural BC we do not play that much hockey through winter and 2 ice times a week with some different coaching and kids is fun

  4. Seems to me that this article is pretty much just stating how much superior your son is than all the others, and that the winter season is holding him back… There is no value of opinion and take aways that give any indication weather spring hockey is a good idea or not… If your son is that much better than everyone else and you feel like he’s falling behind because of all the poor talent that surrounds him, maybe the conversation should be, how can you help your team mates be better players…?
    Its a lesson that gets over looked by the “ touting parents “ of a skilled players. I’ve coached several young highly talented kids 7 – 8 years old, and my message is always the same. Don’t give up a good chance to make a play or score a goal, but when you have a chance to create a scoring chance for a team mate who may not be able to create it himself, do not pass up the opportunity. The kids that decide to buy in and make the plays vs the kids that ignore them are the ones that wind up being futur captains and leaders on teams.
    I’m really not sure what the message was in this article and frankly I feel the opinion shared was very uneducated.
    If you want the best for your talented child, don’t hold them back from experiencing success, but also make it clear that the best players in the world are the ones that make there team mates better and ultimately
    theirs team better.
    If your child wants to play spring hockey and your willing to pay a hefty cost, than all the power to you, but be mindful that over time, and I’ve seen it time and time again, at some point they will hit a wall. Then your left asking the question, was all this extra icetime, money and time worth it?
    Hockey players have always been some of the best all around athletes in any sport, and that’s a testamet to our sport and the amazing talented players it possesses.
    I would encourage variety, especially at a young age. There’s plenty of years ahead of them to specialize in one sport.

    1. Nope I am with him you truly will never understand hoe spring hockey us the most amazing thing for kids that have to skill. He’s right his kid is falling behind and is forced to actually pass to a kid that ya never going to be there. Or skate around till his team mates do get there eventually. It’s brutal sometimes that there ya kids there that absolutely don’t want to be there. You can tell by there efforts. Oh then that kid that has zero effort gets heart and hustle to make them feel better. Let’s reward the kids that do nothing and punish the hard working kids. Because that’s his life really is. No it’s not and teaching these kids this is not good. He’s tired of people bashing spring hockey. He’s telling why he likes it. He’s absolutely right spring is becoming the best part of hockey. I love watching my kid in spring hockey. Because every kid that is on that ice wants to be there and gives 100 percent of there time.

    2. This comment is quite bang on, I’m coaching Timbits my self this year and I’ve had to pull a few parents over and have this identical conversation. Yes we all want to see our kids score endless goals and the higher skilled kids will do that, BUT at what cost? Do you ignore the other kids and not pass to them to create plays and teach leadership or go the route of a one dimensional player… is the risk. As a hockey dad and player my whole life, give your kid the opportunity to play other sports in the spring and summer and aim for a one week camp during the summer months and hey try this… play hockey with your kid at home on and off the ice at public arenas. Those are my thoughts, Josh.

  5. I’m upset with the fact that so called “Spring leagues” start right after Christmas and the top 3 teams in this league play all year. My son’s team didn’t have a very good year and most of his team plays spring league and at this level, PeeWee AAA going to Bantam, they started learning how to check. They won 5 of their last 6 going into the playoffs, but when they started getting blown out in game 2 of the 4 game round robin, they began hitting and taking the penalties and getting scored on. Comments in the dressing room were, This team sucks anyway, so we might as well hit. They could’ve put that one aside, and tried for a couple of wins, but no. They continued on and lost due to too many penalties. I just think spring league should be in the spring not all year long or December thru July. My opinion.

  6. lot of these spring leagues there such a select group of people it’s more like a click of people with money YT Little Johnny to say they’re playing Elite AAA hockey when in fact it’s Adam 1 2 and 3 I mean there’s something to be said about that a full sense of security for sure and the fact that spring teams are basically lying saying this is Adam AAA well in Alberta I’m sorry to say it but there is no Adam AAA and when you advertise it spring team as Adam tiet 1 2 or 3 I’ll take the median average and suggest that’s Adam B Hockey so it’s so far from AAA but these people that run these organizations in the spring they have their head so far up their ass they don’t even know how to count to 10…. look if Wayne Gretzky of all people is advising your kids to go play another sport for spring and summer I mean it’s okay to stay on the ice once a week or whatever to keep fresh but as far as playing 11 months out of the year that’s ridiculous I know I personally played 35 pro games down in the states in various East Coast League leagues United Hockey League Junior and all this stuff WHL but at the end of the day I mean we never had spring hockey back in the 90s and it seems like there’s still a lot of players that came out of the 90s that played good hockey….

  7. Totally in the same situation, I don’t regret having him in hockey in the spring just not in the middle of summer. Something definitely wrong with being in a refrigerator when the sun is shining

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[gravityforms id=10 title="false" description="false" ajax="true"]
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