Meaningful Advice For Youth Hockey Parents
Right from the mouths of NHL Talent
Brett Lindros played a handful shifts as my right wing in the mid 90's at the outdoor Victoria Park rink in Kingston, Ontario.
Marc Savard was on my ball hockey team a few summers later.
You'd think I'd be a pretty solid hockey player with former teammates like that.
Fact is, though, I'm terrible. Always have been.
Since those glory days, I've spent over 20 years now working for a professional hockey team in various capacities.
Pretty much anyone that's come through the NY Rangers system since 1997, I've rubbed elbows with. Been there so long, I've even seen a couple generations from a few families.
Unfortunately, for me, none of their hockey prowess has rubbed off and been transferred to me. Like, none of it. At all.
But that isn't to say I haven't learned a few things about how to get to the professional level via observation or, get this, just asking.
My sons have played alongside and against former NHL players' kids, current pro coaches' kids, and current D1 coaches' kids.
Like, 2 degrees of separation from the NHL...at age 6.
In a lot of ways, the hockey world is quite small.
Here are a few of my observations...
I've noticed that a vast majority of professional hockey player parents don't seek out top programs for their kids like, well, most of the other non-professional athlete parents in my under-10 youth hockey circle.
One player, whose father spent considerable time in the AHL and currently coaches Division I Hockey, played in-house and spring hockey with my middle son Henrik...and was so out of place.
I mean, he was a better player than my oldest that was playing on a AAA travel team and trying out for exclusive tournament teams.
I asked his dad, "Why?".
And his dad's response was along the lines of, the level of hockey at this age is meaningless. It's all about time spent on the ice, puck touches, and keeping it fun and relaxed.
Kinda made me question and even doubt the more aggressive path I have my kids on.
The director of the hockey program my kids skate with was a first round NHL pick in 1985 and skated for 9 seasons in the NHL.
Now, things for him, in the 1980's were clearly different than they are now so his personal experiences aren't super relevant today.
His experiences as a parent of an NHL prospect, however, hold tons of weight.
His son, who played in the program, went to prep school and was drafted by a QMJHL team and then a USHL team. NHL Central Scouting even had him ranked pretty high for the 2015 Entry Draft but, ultimately, he wasn't selected.
It's not over for him though, he currently plays at a Division I school on what I'd assume is quite close to a full scholarship and, from experience, a lot of those guys go pro as well, usually to a minor league or Europe, if they choose to.
While speaking to mite and squirt parents (like myself), he talked of his son's experiences to get where he is now -- a path many serious hockey parents would like their children to follow -- from a parent's perspective.
He said that, not once, ever, had any recruiter or scout asked how many goals his son scored as a mite. Not one, ever, asked how many goals his son scored as a squirt.
His point was that it doesn't matter.
What your son or daughter does as a mite or a squirt, stats-wise, will not dictate how talented they are or how far hockey can take them or how far they can take hockey.
A long time AHL journeyman that now coaches in the USHL recently told me that he played with his town's in-house program until he was 15.
Yeah, I know... Fifteen?!
I suspect it had something to do with the fact that he had two older brothers playing hockey and, well, as a parent of three boys, I know it's tough to find "time" for everyone.
Until I clone myself, I'm not certain how we'll ever get Emmet on the ice like we have with his older brothers.
Anyway, as an in-house player, he still landed a roster spot on an NAHL team, which led to 4 years at Michigan State, followed by a dozen years of professional hockey -- all in North America and never lower than the ECHL.
Think about that.
He played in-house hockey until he was 15 and still went on to play professional hockey, just one rung below the NHL, for 12 years.
I've asked him, point-blank, about it.
"Yeah, my hometown only had house league so I had to move at the age of 15 to play at a higher level. I am thankful for having those years in house league. Kept me grounded and humble!"
That's something to ponder. I mean, I've already witnessed my own kids walking into arenas like arrogant d-bags, adding a little more strut to their step, as they pass by house league players...some of which are just as talented as they are.
At the same time, he also mentioned that the coaches he had in that house league were amazing.
I'm sure I've mentioned this before in another article on this site but another player, who played alongside Jonathan Toews at Shattuck St. Mary's, and currently plays in Europe, once told me his path to professional hockey and getting drafted can be credited mostly to the decisions his parents made on his behalf during his youth hockey days.
He was the one who first advised me to find a coach that gets the most out of my children...and follow that coach to whichever program they land in.
I've seen it first hand -- there have been a couple coaches that make my kids look like they're on the path to pro hockey and there have also been a few coaches that have put my kids on the path to...well, playing tee-ball or getting good at video games instead.
That was a valuable piece of advice -- find great coaches.
When asked if he was ever the star player on his hockey team when he was a kid...he said, "No. Never the leading scorer. Middle of the pack, usually. Didn't really all come together until bantams."
Having attended over 800 professional hockey games, I've found it very easy to spot player's parents in the crowd.
Most of the time, it's just dad. They tend to dress like an average joe, wear a baseball cap, sit off to themselves, leaning forward with their elbows on their knees, eyes locked in to the game.
To most people, they probably look like an ordinary fan or some weirdo going to a game solo...but to me, man, they just ooze pride. You can see it in their eyes.
At one game, a fellow a couple of rows behind me that could tell I was a regular and an employee asked me, "How's 23 doing so far?".
I turned around, smiled, and without answering said, "You're his father, right?"
He was taken aback, explaining that his son looked more like his mother, and was truly surprised that I was so quickly able to pinpoint that he was his father. I told him it wasn't the southern Ontario accent but just the way he held himself. Oh, and that I wouldn't blow his cover.
Spent an entire period and two intermissions picking his brain, letting him know that someday I hoped to be in his shoes, driving 10 hours to watch my kid play in a professional game on a random Wednesday.
For his son, who went undrafted and played an overage year of juniors, he said he just "wanted it" and never ever stopped working towards that goal.
Adding insult, after having played a full season of major junior and putting up just 7 points, he was selected in a Junior A draft -- a level down from where he was already playing... Sure, it was his hometown team but hardly a path to the NHL... so he stayed the course as a seldom used player at the major junior level.
Always a third or fourth liner, right from day one, fourteen goals were the most he'd ever had in a season dating back to when he was just a kid, his dad said, until his overage major junior season as a 20 year old when he scored 35 in just 51 games and averaged over a point per game.
Earned a minor league contract the next year, played on the third line, and one year later he made his NHL debut. Granted, his career has been mostly spent in the AHL, but he's played for 2 original six teams and scored 4 goals in the NHL.
He's also on a one-way NHL contract this season making far more in one year than most people make in a decade. Not bad for a career 4th liner...since the age of 5.
His father didn't consider or classify his son as a late bloomer, clearly evaluating him with a level head, and said that he'd always tried out for and played with the highest level team in the area that he could...but was never more than a 3rd or 4th line guy on any of those teams.
Dad was pretty certain he was the only kid from his youth teams that made the show.
I don't doubt it.
Another current player's father that I spent some time with following an AHL game very recently looked at my oldest son, asked his name, who he plays for, and how his season is going, smiled, and then, knowing that I'd someday like to walk in his shoes, looked me in the eye and said, "Take it one day at a time..."
Yeah, yeah, I now that's an overused sports cliche...
But here's the thing, he was clearly reminiscing and "seeing" his own son at that age even though his son is currently knocking on the NHL's doorstep and making more money in a single season of hockey at 20 years old than many of us do in our forties.
His son, just a few feet away and still wearing some of his gear, was clearly mortified.
It was a really neat father/son moment that I'm not certain I'll every forget.
But he was also giving valuable advice -- advice that I'd heard elsewhere but hadn't fully absorbed.
The result of my son's playoff game tomorrow morning would not be the be-all and end-all of his hockey career.
Enjoy this age...cause it goes by quick. Before you know it, your kids won't need you to drive them to and from practice.
Regarding private coaching, I've put my children through a number of private coaches and I can't say I've ever left disappointed.
And while they are a little expensive, I truly feel that they gave each of my sons a competitive advantage over other players who had not supplemented their regular practices with some private coaching on the side.
A man I've done work with was drafted 4th overall in the late 60's and, seeking advice on the path to take with my own children, I asked him what he thought of private lessons.
"They're perfect for when you need a little touch up. Kinda like when your golf swing is off, you go to a swing coach, correct the mechanics, and you're good to go for a few months," he told me.
Clearly, these days, golf is his game of choice.
And though he had previously offered private hockey lessons decades earlier, he said that he "wouldn't recommend doing them on a regular and on-going basis."
While debating whether or not to have my sons try out for the Junior Bruins (a Brick Tournament team), I started asking pro players if they'd played in the Brick when they were kids.
Most said no.
Some said their parents thought it was too expensive, some said there wasn't a participating team close enough to where they lived but most, and I do mean most, said they just weren't good enough to make a Brick team when they were ten years old.
A couple guys I asked, though, did play in the Brick tournament. One played in the 2001 Tournament and another in the 2003 Tournament. Both said that it was "cool" but that pretty much no one on their teams that summer went much further in hockey...well, besides them, and they both openly admitted they were far from the most talented on their respective rosters.
Now, one could say they were just being modest by claiming they weren't the most talented back then but I'll tell you, pro hockey players are almost never modest when it comes to on-ice stuff. I believe them.
Both of the players I spoke with made it to the NHL and one even said, "You don't want to peak at ten years old."
Let that sink in.
As the Brick is "the" tournament for Squirts, the much larger Quebec International Tournament is "the" tournament for PeeWees each year.
Now, the PeeWee tournament almost seems like its alumni are a who's who of guys that made it to the NHL -- I'd say that nearly 50% of the guys I spoke to had played in that tournament.
Granted, there are also thousands of players at that tournament that never amount to more than a great men's league player too but I do think that the peewee level is where the cream really starts to rise to the top...and moreso even at the bantam level.
A few years back, a newly hired professional coach, and former professional player, that was new to the area, seeing that we had children roughly the same ages, asked me which program my children skated for.
I told him where we started (Tier 4) and where we currently were playing (Tier 1).
The following fall, his kids were rostered with the team where we started at the Tier 4 level. His kids still play there.
I like to think that the logistics of "extreme" travel hockey just made it impossible given his busy pro hockey schedule...but, chances are, he just didn't like "my" advice.
As a counter to that story, another former AHL coach's son skates with the same program my kids do.
To each his own, I guess.
Now, all of this said, outside of following coaches that got the most out of my kids, I haven't really followed any of the other advice I'd received from such valuable sources.
Shame on me.
But, in my defense, my kids don't have the DNA to just naturally turn into dominant hockey players.
On that note, one player my son has played against is the son of an NHL Hall of Famer. Not suprisingly, he's awesome and plays on an elite level team.
Sometimes it is just DNA. I can't deny that.
And while I don't believe it's necessary to play elite travel hockey against the best competition to succeed, an unfortunate aspect of youth sports is that the best coaches tend to land in the higher level programs.
But I can say, from the coaching they've received thus far, if we were to go back to an in-house program, they would be dominant players.
Eh, I might not be following all of the great advice I've been super fortunate to have been given... but I think I'm doing something right!