High Stakes on Skates

I am going to write this post in the abstract and avoid any names. I don’t think it’s any secret to those in the know who or what inspired this post, but I also certainly do not mean to cast any aspersions upon anyone, or to pretend like I know what’s going on in specific situations off the ice. I’m going to write this in vague language to try to provide a view from ten thousand feet and show how and why some situations come to pass.

I will start with some simple math. A youth program with five PeeWee teams will have about 75 PeeWee players, or roughly 37 per grade. There are 20 spots on a varsity hockey roster, which will span three and sometimes even four grades. That means that less than a third, maybe less than a quarter, of the kids who play PeeWee hockey in a youth system of that size will ever play varsity hockey. Some will drop out because they have other things they want to do with their time, whether in sports or activities of some sort; some will see the writing on the wall and step aside. A handful may go off to other high schools, though on the flip side, good programs also tend to import a few players along the way, too. But more than enough will still aspire to a spot on varsity. Most if not all of these kids will have played on upper-level youth teams, and many will have had some success there.

For those who do make it through, a coach needs a process. Some kids just aren’t that talented, and no level of extra skating or hours in the gym is going to change that. These are, simultaneously, both the easiest kids to cut and the hardest kids to tell they do not have a roster spot. A coach, however, does those kids a disservice if he indulges them in a fantasy, and he has an obligation to the other 19 kids on the roster to put the best team on the ice. By high school, most reasonable observers seem to understand we are not in this for participation trophies. This certainly does not give high school coaches carte blanche to run programs like military camps, and every now and then one sees a case for keeping a beloved if not great figure around for what he brings to the team in work ethic or camaraderie. But talent, at the end of the day, is the first great separator, and no one should ever judge a coach for using that as a deciding factor.

There are other ways to cull the herd, though, and they are valuable, if not necessary, in a larger program where there is relatively little difference between what we might call a number of replacement-level players. I don’t make it my business to know what kids do or don’t do off the ice (though sometimes one can’t help but hear things). But it is certainly a coach’s job to do so. An involved coach will know what kid’s grades are, will have some sense of how much he may party or smoke pot or treat other kids in school, and will certainly know how much work a kid is putting in during the offseason. After a little while, the coach will also know something about a kid’s mental headspace; whether he fights through challenges or crumbles in front of them, and whether he takes responsibility when opportunities emerge or blames his problems on outside forces.

When sorting among forty to fifty kids and deciding who gets playing time, these all strike me as perfectly valid data points. We may choose to weight certain ones differently; some coaches will be more forgiving and believe in second chances, while others will wield the iron hammer. Some will hand down cuts indiscriminately; some will provide a series of off-ramps through nudging and hard truths, perhaps offering manager roles or even encouragement to go play somewhere else to keep the hockey dream alive. How they communicate these decisions is essential, and once again, I am not in the locker room and cannot judge them. But the determinations in and of themselves are, once again, never going to be my source of complaint.

What is obvious is that parents are often the poorest judges of these factors. I am not a parent yet, so I can’t claim to know the anguish of learning that your kid just isn’t good enough, or see him caught in limbo and shuttling between varsity and junior varsity. I am sure it is even harder to learn that a coach is skeptical of your kid’s work ethic or off-ice activity, regardless of whether that determination may have any seeds of truth. I’m only tangentially aware of the desire for certain outcomes that comes after thousands upon thousands of dollars of investment and exposure to the hype machine of an inward-looking world (to which I confess I am a contributor) that can inflate an ego. I can only look at these situations with the eyes of an invested but fairly neutral observer.

From that standpoint, I have a fascinating window. Parents of skilled players will grumble if the coach runs a deep lineup; parents of the fringe players grow angry if the bench shortens in the slightest. Running a more rigid system angers parents who prize the development gods above all others; playing run-and-gun hockey leads to disgust over the lack of discipline or coherence and grumbles about underachievement. I listen as parents who once lobbied to get their sophomores into the lineup come to laud seniors who pay their dues two years later. Deep parent friend groups form over years of youth tournament travel, and it can be hard to watch a good friend’s kid get squeezed out through the attrition process. (For that matter, it can be hard for kids to watch their friends go through the same process.) One parent starts to complain or picks up on a criticism from elsewhere, and before long a herd starts heading in a certain direction, even if one has no real beef around one’s own kid.

This especially true in an era when parenting, in a not unjustified turn against the cold distance of past generations, has drifted toward unconditional support instead of tougher love. No doubt there are some situations where a kid just gets a short end of the stick. But I know enough about the teenage psyche to know how easy it is at that age to feel aggrieved and tell oneself—and even fully convince oneself—that one is the victim of a grave injustice when the world does not move in the path of one’s dreams. (Some people, of course, never grow out of this phase.) A halfway intelligent parent knows this tendency and can see right through it. This is not to say coaches deserve unconditional support either, but that a clear-eyed parent can see the nuance there while at the same time having a very good idea of where their own kid should stand.

Last year, I took a phone call from an anguished parent who lamented that his kid was probably going to get squeezed out. He’d seen it happen to other kids in similar situations, and he was worried, because hockey was the thing that kept this kid going. (My co-workers looked on with wry smirks as I tried to politely acknowledge this guy’s concerns while edging him off the ledge.) I didn’t think quickly enough to articulate my response to that statement, but the simple truth is this: if hockey is how the kid is measuring his self-worth, something that has nothing to do with hockey is awry in that situation. Too often, the fixation on the path of dreams blinds people to the cold facts of reality, and the need to not put all of one’s pucks in one bucket. Hockey is not life, and never will be.

Greatness, by its very nature, implies that many will fall short of that standard. To play in a great high school hockey program in Minnesota is to accept that, for all of the broad community-based participation that goes into making it what it is, the spoils will go to those toward the top of Herb Brooks’ old pyramid. This is the price of glory. Are we crazy to saddle high school kids with such burdens, and does this obsession undermine the sport we claim to love? Perhaps; the ties it builds make the tough decisions much more painful than they would in a more transactional, free market hockey world. Decisions that would be business as usual in a AAA program feel like cuts to the heart in a high school.

That’s why the reward that comes at the end, in front of 18,000 in St. Paul, is something no other form of hockey can replicate. This is why some of us who have seen much of the world beyond Minnesota will forever see high school hockey as the pinnacle of the sport. It is an uncompromising process that can rip one’s heart out. The push it demands can bring out the worst in people. But it can also bring out the best, and over the years, that is what has made high school hockey exceptional.