Hockey parent: Keep your child's love of the sport alive

By Wendy Helfenbaum on November 03, 2010
Hockey ParentsWandering into the used hockey gear sale at my local arena with my five-year-old newbie player, I could already spot them: the Bad Hockey Parents. You know the ones. They’re overly passionate, they’re loud, and they’re more than a tad obnoxious.

“Here, try on this helmet, son.”
“Owww! It’s too tight, Dad.”
“Come on, toughen up! Coaches don’t like whiners; they like winners.”
“It’s squishing my head.”
“Good! That’ll help you focus! Gives you that edge!”

Did I mention that the boy with the squished head was six?

I wanted to run in the other direction and convince my little super-skater to take up another sport this year. Like yoga. That way, I could pretty much guarantee that my weekends would be free of yahoo parents screaming in my ear whenever their child touched the puck. But my son worships the ice, so I sought out Bad Hockey Parent (BHP) experts for tips on how to avoid turning into one myself.

Hard-core hockey

“Hockey is not a sport for the faint of heart parent or player,” says Scott Gerla, a hockey dad, coach and manager of Coach and Player Development for the Trails West Hockey Association in Calgary. “It’s demanding, it’s competitive and the financial and time commitments are huge. Some adults seem to want a return on this investment, and instead of realizing that it comes in the form of learning life skills such as discipline, teamwork and respect, they push for goals, assists, and making the top team.” It’s normal for parents to become passionate about whatever their children do, says Scott, and most newbie hockey parents actually start out with pretty low expectations. “It’s all cute and fun until certain players show something special and others don’t advance as fast. Then, comparisons are made and parents get into trouble. Parents need to decide early what the purpose of enrolling their child in hockey is. Is it to make the NHL or to have fun and get some exercise?”

Guess what? Your kid’s not going to make the NHL, so relax already. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing the dream of becoming a professional hockey player, says Scott, but parents need to get real. “There are about 750 players in the NHL, and millions more playing worldwide. If a child isn’t completely dominating his age group today, their chances become even more remote. And often, it’s the parent’s dream, not the child’s.”

Don’t be a stopwatch parent

Scott says he sees parents who start and stop their watch every time their child’s on the ice. “Hockey Canada’s Fair Play Code says all kids are supposed to play the same amount of ice time, but not every shift is the same in length: penalties and injuries may cause a coach to juggle lines and change things on the fly.” Often the parents who complain the loudest about their kids not playing enough are the ones whose children skip practices. “But kids develop in practice, where they’re constantly on the ice doing something. In a game, they’re only out there every third shift, and sometimes, they’re not even touching the puck. If you have a choice between attending the game or the practice, and you’re truly there for the development of your child, attend the practice.”

Been there, seen that

Marnie Moss and Jake Burko’s sons Myles, 16, and Nat, 14, (not their real names) have played in the Greater Toronto Hockey League since they were five. The family spends seven days a week at the arena, and they’ve seen it all. “It’s very easy to get swept away by the excitement of the game, but there are some very bad hockey parents who take advocating for their kids to a whole new level,” says Marnie. “We’ve seen some pretty outrageous behaviour by parents. There have been brawls and pileups. There was a woman who told her 11-year old, ‘You had such a bad game, you should walk home’. We know one father who doesn’t go to a lot of games, because he gets kicked out a lot. Every year, there are at least 10 parents that are removed from the arena.”

Marnie and Jake decided early on not to embarrass their boys. “We don’t bring any horns or crazy cowbells. We keep an even keel, whether it’s on the ice, off the ice, or behind the bench,” says Marnie. “One of the ways I keep it together and not cross the line to the dark side is if things get violent or out of control on the ice or in the stands, I leave the arena.” Jake, who has coached both boys’ teams over the past 11 years, says that some fanatical parents believe their kids “are God’s gift to sports; it’s an entitlement thing for them. They lose all sense of judgment. I had one parent who constantly yelled ‘Go, Johnny, go!’ when his kid had the puck, and when he didn’t have the puck, he’d yell, ‘Pass it to Johnny!’”

A fine balance

Vancouver hockey mom Eduarda Hodgins practically lives at the rink with her sons Matt, 13, and Connor, 9, who play at the North Shore Winter Club. “I’m always running in high heels, lugging equipment, and I’ve torn nylons and exposed my rear bent over in a panic to tie skates,” she says. “I’ve learned to dress Connor as a goalie in eight minutes flat and I’ve learned to tune out parents who scream at coaches for line changes.” Eduarda admits she, too, gets caught up in the competitive spirit of the game. “Have I yelled and screamed? Sure I have, particularly because my son’s the goalie, one of the most stressful positions on the ice. When I sit on the bench and he plays, my legs kind of mimic his; I’m trying to stop the puck from the end of my chair.” But Eduarda knows where to draw the line. “It’s important to keep perspective. They’re just kids; they want to play and they want you to be their number one fan. As long as they’re giving 100 percent, it doesn’t matter. I don’t browbeat them when they come off the ice. It’s about building their confidence, not tearing it down.”

Lessons on and off the ice

Drives to and from the rink are full of teachable moments, says Scott. But instead of doing a playby-play on the way home, hold your tongue. “I’m such a hockey junkie that when my 11-year-old son Ty first started playing, I always wanted to analyze the game. I’ve learned to back off, and see if he wants to talk about it. The conversations Ty initiates are much more enriching.” Eduarda agrees, adding that parents should also avoid chasing their own NHL dreams through their kids. “Let it be their own passion. We didn’t push Matt to do extra power skating when he wanted to play baseball and take piano lessons. What defines a parent who has lost perspective is when it stops being a passion for the kid. That leads to bad parental behaviour.”

A little help from the minor leagues

Although BHPs are the exception to the rule, when they behave badly, it can ruin everybody’s fun. That’s why minor hockey leagues across the country have integrated parental behaviour codes as part of their mandates. The Grand Falls Minor Hockey Association in New Brunswick has a code of ethics for players, coaches, volunteers, referees and parents. In Ontario, the Timmins Minor Hockey Association’s protocol requires parents to sign a “recognition and prevention of abuse” policy before the season begins, and BHPs must take a course on how to prevent bullying, harassment and abuse. Hockey Alberta’s new Respect in Sport program, launched in March, features a one-hour online tutorial that illustrates how damaging parents’ overbearing, abusive attitudes can be.

Scott Gerla’s defining moment in how to be a Good Hockey Parent came in 2005, when he and Ty met Bobby Orr at a hockey camp. Orr asked minor league players and parents to write a promise on a swatch of material to be sewn into the Safe & Fun Promise Quilt for the Hockey Hall of Fame. “I wrote: ‘I promise to make a positive difference in a child’s life using the great game of hockey as a means to this end’,” he says. “The best piece of advice I have for new hockey parents is to avoid negative discussions and the parents who engage in them. Find parents that want to talk about what the kids learned on and off the ice. Help your child become a problem solver and a decision maker through hockey. As my good friend, fellow coach and former Team Canada player Jamie Steer says: ‘Developing a hockey player is a marathon, not a sprint.’ ”

Five for Fighting

Real stories ripped from the headlines:
  • A hockey dad and coach in Airdrie, Alta., just north of Calgary, got so mad at a referee that he dropped his pants and mooned him. He was suspended.
  • In Regina, a man spat on a woman in a rink, which erupted into a fight in the stands.
  • A parent in Calgary whined that a nineyear-old child who had just been hit extremely hard and was lying on the ice was “faking it”.
  • A Calgary hockey dad sat behind the opposing team’s goalie, and taunted him for an entire period. The goalie was nine. The dad? He got banned from the rink for the rest of the hockey tournament.
  • In April, two Toronto fathers sued the Greater Toronto Hockey League, one of its clubs and four coaches for $25,000 because their 14-year old sons were cut from a midget junior A team. Over 70 players had tried to make the 17-man roster.

If...

  1. ...you figure throwing a cup of coffee at the coach’s head is the perfect way to let him know your child’s shift wasn’t long enough for you to record a good video on your iPhone…
  2. ...you empty the contents of the garbage bin into the stands when the ref didn’t see what you thought was an obvious penalty against your child…
  3. …you’re a mom and you lift up your shirt to distract the players of the opposing team – of 11-year-olds…
  4. …you continue the banter from the stands long after the game has ended…
  5. … you’re planted outside the ref’s change room after a game ready to discuss a bad call instead of waiting outside your child’s dressing room to congratulate her for trying her best…
  6. …you loiter in the parking lot, yelling at kids leaving the game…
  7. …you’ve been escorted out of the arena more than three times in one month…
  8. …you’ve been banned from two or more local rinks…
  9. …your child starts telling you how to behave during a hockey game…

....then you may be a bad Hockey Parent!


Parents and coaches weigh in on howto develop your inner Good Hockey Parent.

  • Cheer for all the kids, not just your own.
  • Support your coach; don’t undermine him in front of the players. If you have something to say to him, wait 24 hours, then discuss the issue in private.
  • If you have a grievance with a coach involving your child’s safety, speak up immediately.
  • Conduct yourself respectfully and responsibly.
  • Ask yourself, “Is my behaviour embarrassing my kid? Are other people moving away from me? Are other people staring at me?”
  • Think about how your child will feel if you are escorted out of the arena by security.
  • Give the referee a break. Hockey is a fast sport, and no one can see everything.
  • If you can’t keep your cool during a game, walk away, change seats, or leave the arena.
  • Learn to let things go and move on. It’s a game, people!


Wendy Helfenbaum is a writer and television producer in Montreal and wrote about parentpreneurs in our May 2010 issue. Visit her at taketwoproductions.ca.

By Wendy Helfenbaum| November 03, 2010

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