My daughter doesn’t play hockey and neither does my son. At least not yet. They’re learning to skate, first.
But if they ever play Canada’s game, it will be because they want to play. And in at least one way, they’ll both be like the Great One.
Because every spring they’ll hang up the skates and put away the sticks.
They won’t play spring hockey. Or summer hockey. Instead they’ll play baseball. Or tennis. Or lacrosse. Or they’ll swim, play pickup soccer, ride bikes in the trails that run through the forest near our home.
In an interview with the National Post in March 2000, Gretzky said that, “If sport has a high point of the year, it must be the first week of spring.”
Interesting sentiment coming from one of the best hockey players that ever lived. But his rationale makes sense to me. As much as I loved playing hockey while growing up, I remember needing a break. I was actually tired of the schedule and the equipment by the end of the season.
Gretzky’s full quote is worth reprinting:
…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. One of the worst things to happen to the game, in my opinion, has been year-round hockey and, in particular, summer hockey.
All it does for kids, as far as I can tell, is keep them out of sports they should be doing in warmer weather. I could hardly wait to get my lacrosse stick out and start throwing the ball around. It didn’t matter how cold or rainy it would be, we’d be out firing the ball against walls and working on our moves as we played the lacrosse equivalent to road hockey.
All the good hockey players seemed to play lacrosse in those days and everyone of them learned something from the game to carry over to the other – things athletes can only learn by mixing up games they play when they are young.
In fact, most of Canada’s best hockey players are involved in other sports, and when they choose to focus on hockey alone, they don’t specialize until they are 14.
This is not to say that spring and summer hockey programs are bad or wrong because the truth is that some kids want to keep playing. So a great plan is to also include some other sports and physical activities to balance things out a bit.
Renowned coach Brent Sutter agrees that well-rounded athletes make the best hockey players and even Hockey Canada recognizes that playing other sports improves the skills of goalies and forwards and defensemen.
In fact, Hockey Canada’s new spring hockey programs incorporate other sports including soccer, floor-ball, baseball, lacrosse, golf, and mountain biking. The idea is to help hockey players develop overall athleticism. The “skill-development camps” focus on fun. Which is a break in and of itself from the grind of high-pressure competition.
Gretzky’s not the only hockey legend to frown on year-round hockey for kids.
In 1998, Trevor Linden told sports journalist Steve Simmons that he played hockey until April, then played baseball all summer until hockey started again in mid-September. “I didn’t even see my skates for about five months a year,” he said. “I think the kids today are playing way too much hockey, and all you have to do is look at the development to see it really isn’t producing any better players. We have to let the kids be kids.”
And Bobby Orr, while on tour to promote his autobiography, told Macleans that, “Kids don’t need to play all year, they can have a program of light exercise and play other sports. If you look at the best players in all sports, they’re athletes — they play other sports.”
Spring is on the horizon. The weather’s turning warm. Let that be a sign that it’s time to leave the rink for some fun in the sun.
Until September, of course. By then everyone’s ready to hit the ice again.