Great Programs have Great People
The program that all three of my children skate for has recently expanded their footprint to offer hockey opportunities to kids as young as 4 years old.
And I just so happen to have a 4-year old!
How about that!
Each weekend, he's out on the ice alongside members of the U20 Junior team for practice -- not as coaches but as participants.
Yeah, a kid born in 2015 is on the ice for practice with "men" born in the 1990's.
And I know that other Junior programs have their players essentially do "community service" working with the younger players but this feels...different.
It's not like they've been volun-told to do it.
I don't know for certain, but I think they actually volunteered!
The guys really seem to ENJOY doing it. They're into it. Like, smiling the entire time.
No peeking at their phones non-stop. No standing there idle. No lackadaisical stickhandling off in a corner -- they're engaged.
It's really neat to see.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.
At their games, the U20 age group, when a kid is looking for fist-bump them as they head out on to the ice, they oblige.
I mean, sure, who wouldn't?
Makes them feel like professionals having kids looking to fist bump them. It would feel pretty neat, I sure.
But my youngest runs over to do it before and after every single period.
And the players are still enthusiastic about it...every single time...
One game, a player had been ejected -- he came off the ice white hot and was staring down the officials and opponents the whole way to the locker room.
My little guy ran over, extended his arm, and the player immediately cooled off, for a moment, tapped his glove to my son's extended fist and said, "Hey bud!" before continuing to the locker room with laser beams shooting from his eyes.
To a four-year-old, just to be acknowledged, that's huge.
I worked in professional hockey starting in the mid-1990's and there used to be a lot players that would do that sort of thing -- go out of their way for the fans...usually during pre-game warm-ups because that's when they were most accessible.
As the years, err, decades went by, I noticed that part of the "show" started to wane.
As a kid, warm-ups were my favorite part of going to a game -- begging my parents to get us there nice and early so I could go down to the glass, seeing the players close up, and maybe even coming away with a puck in hand.
Now? My kids could care less about getting to a professional game an hour early.
Like, nowadays, even at a minor league hockey game -- the players are all business all the time. There isn't any interaction with the fans.
I get it -- it's game time. They have to focus. Sure, thumbs up on that.
But, as a result, they come across as privileged and pompous -- not even making eye contact with ANYONE in the crowd.
It doesn't shock me for a moment that minor league hockey crowds have dwindled -- this is why.
The game is still great -- the players just don't market themselves or the game anymore. They aren't...personable or approachable. At all.
Kids BEG for pucks at warm-ups these days. You've seen it.
Your kids have probably even done it.
It's almost embarrassing to watch them grovel for something that's worth maybe 50 cents... There are even adults in on the action.
In the rare case they capture a player's attention and they flip one over the glass and it actually lands in a kid's hands, it's really neat how much they light up over such a small gesture...but the players evidently don't notice...or care?
They're like robots.
The NHL has been putting out marketing videos using these neat sentimental moments where a kid gets a player’s attention -- and that's awesome. Gets a ton of likes and makes even non-hockey fans smile. It's a great marketing theme.
But how come those moments are so few far and between?
Twenty years ago, half of the players would toss a puck or two over the glass near the end of warm-ups. You didn't need to beg. You wouldn't get tackled for one.
And guys with names you've likely never heard of like Bob Maudie, Chris Winnes, Lawrence Nycholat, Stefan Cherneski, or Todd Hall would become some kid's favorite player for life.
Because of a puck, wink, smile, or even a head nod from the other side of the glass.
It's that easy to make a younger player feel special.
These U20 and U18 players in our organization seem to get it...and I love it.
For my four-year-old, the fact that those exact same players are active participants in his practices -- doing the exact same drills with them and wearing the same uniform -- is even better.
In his mind, it's like going to one of those NHL fantasy camps where you pay a ton of money and get to skate with retired players in pick-up style games...except he gets to do it every weekend.
They're professionals as far as he knows and he certainly feels like a superstar out there with them.
My older kids' practice slot is immediately following the U18 team practice on most nights. Even those players, clearly less mature than their U20 counterparts, banter with the U8 team sitting on the bench waiting for their ice time.
We've even born witness to their bag skates where the plastic garbage pails leave the benches to make an on-ice appearance as barf buckets and, still, those guys acknowledge the mites as they stagger off the ice.
It only takes a second of your time to acknowledge someone and it's awesome that the U20 and U18 rosters are overflowing with players that make a point to do it.
But what I appreciate even more are a couple players from the U15 and U16 teams that take part in the practices for the U12's on down.
Again, I'm aware that many hockey programs have older kids out on the ice to help the coaching staff or properly demonstrate drills...but these two?
They stand in line with the kids and go out when it's their turn.
A battle drill in the corner? Sure -- a 6-foot-something player can go up against a 55-pound squirt. Why not?
Well, obviously, the bigger player has to have the maturity to know how and when to dial it down a notch...but not just stand there and let the little guy win.
These players get it.
Best of all -- following the drills, I see them giving pointers to their younger combatants every single time.
"Hey, try it like this. That's how I do it..."
They even learn the kid's names!?
It's crazy how great these kids are.
I mean, for real, how many high school aged kids would bother to learn the names of the players on the U11, U10, and U8 teams?
Putting myself in their skates -- and I was a pretty friendly teenager -- I didn't even know the name of a single player on my younger sister's soccer team.
Like, no clue.
No interest, either.
Why would I? They weren't on my "specific" team...
Perhaps I'm a horrible person?
But having older and more skilled players acknowledge you really boosts confidence. Even at the NHL level, you always hear guys talk about how their veteran roommate on road trips was a huge factor in how their careers panned out.
Everyone wants to be like someone who's better than they are.
But to be helped by that person? Wow.
It's all about confidence.
And, even off the ice, these players "like" and even comment on my kids' hockey Instagram accounts. That's going above and beyond making the kids feel like they have fans or even that they're "friends" with the older players...
Like, to them, it's almost the same feeling I'd get if Doug Gilmour suddenly "followed" me from his personal account...and commented "Killer!" on the picture I posted of our cat in a hockey bag.
I'd high five myself if that ever happened.
Point is, little things go a long way.
Especially for kids.
In the past, I've advised that you should first pick a hockey program for your children that aligns with your own philosophy for what you want to get out of it.
Some programs aim to win trophies. Some programs aim to develop players. Some programs just want your money.
Most programs are a combination of the three.
And there's nothing wrong with that.
I've also suggested that if you happen to find a coach that gets a lot out of your children, to stick with them.
If they change programs -- follow them.
But now there's another thing to look for that I think is important...
Do your best to seek out a program that has an abundance of good people.
Coaches, players, parents, all of it.
And at the same time, try to steer clear of programs overflowing with folks you'd prefer not to emulate or, really, associate with...
Sadly, the latter group draws a lot more attention to themselves so they're easier to identify.
Every program has warts but do try to look deeper.
I've found that for every crappy hockey parent, there are 10 more that actually see the good in every player on the team.
Everything is about confidence....making everyone better.
From parents, coaches, teammates, and even in private lessons.
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