Happy Hockey Holidays: Let's Make a Difference in 2024
By Scott Lowe – MYHockeyRankings.com
As always, hockey provided us with a thrilling and captivating year in 2023, and there’s no better time to reflect on the year that is almost behind us than the holiday season with 2024 looming on the horizon.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that just like society at large, hockey is far from perfect – at any level.
So, as the final days of 2023 wind down, it’s also the perfect time to take inventory of where we are, where we are going and where we want to be 365 days from now.
Probably the biggest issue hockey faces at the moment is that the sport is just too expensive. Period.
Hockey is missing out on many potential future stars simply because so many families can’t afford it. It’s beyond unfortunate that the next potential Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor Bedard, Hilary Kniight or Hayley Wickenheiser might never even lace up a pair of skates and give hockey a shot just because of the sport’s price tag.
And as with anything, where there is money there always will be people looking to take advantage of those who have enough of it to participate.
For players who aspire to play at the game’s highest levels – now or in the future – there always be a better program that offers “more” and carries a much higher tuition, a “need” for private lessons from skills and skating coaches, another showcase to play in or camp to attend or an unscrupulous agent or advisor charging absurd amounts while making promises that may or may not be truthful or realistic.
We see it with the new AAA “academies” that pop up every year.
For the price of what amounts to a year’s tuition at some in-state colleges, a young player can move away from home and have “everything he or she needs to become a top college or pro prospect.”
Extra ice time. Great coaching from top developmental, skills and skating mentors. A competitive schedule that guarantees plenty of exposure. Meal plans. Study halls and class time with tutors and advisors. Housing in college-quality dorms or with welcoming billet families.
It all sounds almost too good to be true. For a mere $30,000 or $40,000 a player can be placed smack dab on a track to guaranteed hockey success.
Sounds amazing, right?
What could be better for a young hockey player than moving away from home and developing as a player and person on and off the ice? Well, it can be an amazing and transformational experience. But it also can be a horror show.
What often happens when something seems “too good to be true?”
Many academies are doing it the right way, providing everything they promise and more. The good ones are not hard to find.
Search Google. Check the rankings and results. Spend time on academy websites and research their current and past players to see where they are going in the future and how far they have advanced in the past. Pay them a visit and take a facility tour. Attend a practice and scrutinize to the attention to detail, level of organization and the demeanor of the coaches. And most important, talk to players and families who have been a part of the program.
It does take some time and effort to do the proper homework, but it’s not hard to decipher which programs deliver and which ones fall short. Be careful not to stop after just checking a program’s schedule, record and rankings, though. A program doesn’t have to be in the top 10 or competing for national championships to be the right one for a specific player.
For a young player, the most important considerations should be development via excellent coaching, additional ice time and an opportunity to play meaningful minutes in game situations. It’s also important to have an opportunity to practice and play with and against better players who are equally committed to improving. Finding a coach with the right personality to suit a player also is essential as are the off-ice academic and housing components.
Hockey could end for any player tomorrow, so no matter what happens on the ice, the academic piece should always be the top priority. Finding a program that places an emphasis on academics should be just as important – if not more important – than the experience that is provided on the ice.
Unfortunately, the huge academy price tag draws many people looking to make a living or even get rich off of the sport at the expense of unsuspecting customers.
There are “academies” out there that are understaffed (less staff means more profit) on and off the ice, don’t provide the coaching or ice time they advertise, can’t fill their rosters, play a weak schedule or don’t even have the schedule completed when the season starts, cram a dozen kids into a house or condo living with a young coach and don’t provide any kind of legitimate academic support. Some of these programs even offer little or no video analysis for the team and individual players or provide a strength and conditioning or nutritional program with a certified coach.
In these situations, families end up paying three or four times what it might cost for their child to play for a local AAA team and essentially end up getting very little or nothing in return for the upsell. There are cases in which the decision to play in one of these programs actually hurts a player’s development on and off the ice, which can result in these players trying to leave and find a better spot after making a large initial payment and after the season has begun.
One top of the exorbitant up-front cost, some of these programs actually charge additional fees for housing, team travel and other expenses incurred by the players. Once again, a program that foots the bill for all of that stuff is cutting into profits, staff salaries or both.
None of this is good for anyone’s development as a player or person unless we are trying to “build character.”
Similar to the academies, we see this type of money grabbing at the Tier 3 “pay-to-play” junior level in the United States. Many organizations charge well over $10,000, not including housing, to play for a team that intentionally exceeds a league’s roster limits and has as many as 10 players scratched every game.
Players are forced to sign contracts that require large initial payments but only protect the teams. Playing time isn’t guaranteed. Player rights are not guaranteed. Some teams will carry 20 forwards, 10-12 defensemen and up to four goalies, but the cost to play is never pro-rated for players who don’t get in the lineup regularly, and getting refunds, releases or trades can be next to impossible.
These players are expected to keep working hard, be great teammates and never complain. When they ask to meet with coaches to find out what they need to do to get in the lineup, those meetings can be very hard to schedule. When player-coach meetings do happen, players often are given stock answers such as “you need to be faster and more explosive, keep your feet moving, get stronger, you’re not producing” etc. etc. etc.
Many players leave these meetings feeling as if they’ve upset the coach based on the tone of the discussion, so the desire to meet in the future wanes. Unfortunately, this is the result many coaches desire, and players who ask coaches to go over video with them so that they can understand exactly how they need to improve to get more playing time often are rebuffed.
For the amount of money families spend, the lack of video analysis provided and the unacceptable housing accommodations that often are provided at the pay-to-play junior level would astonish most people. In addition, the top priority for these coaches and organizations should be moving their players on to play college hockey, but too often coaches won’t put the time and effort into this unless players push for it repeatedly.
I’ve known more than one junior player who has been told that their current junior coach won’t invite college coaches out to see them play because “they aren’t playing well enough to interest anyone.”
Shouldn’t that be for the college coaches to decide once they watch a player in person?
And heaven forbid if one of the parents footing the $15,000-plus total bill for Tier 3 junior hockey wants to discuss their child’s situation with a coach. That’s not permitted, and the rampant fear is that any such attempt by a parent to contact a coach simply will push a player even farther down the lineup.
Again, the information is out there if players and parents are willing to do their homework and don’t fall in love with the idea of being wanted by a higher-level team and running to their next practice to show everyone the amazing junior or academy contract they just signed.
The increasing cost of hockey also is passed on to consumers via soaring ice costs and youth hockey tuition fees at the Tier 1 level and below as more ice rinks and their associated clubs are purchased by conglomerates or investors more worried about their margins and establishing higher standardized pricing than providing the opportunity for potential young players to sample the sport. Higher ice prices lead to higher public-skating prices, inflated stick-and-puck session costs and higher prices for recreational or house players.
While there still are many great people involved in youth hockey who aren’t worried about turning large profits or even realizing a profit at all if they can provide opportunities for young people to try the sport, no one wants to – and most folks can’t afford to – lose money. Too many of hockey’s “Good Samaritans” are being forced to pass the increased prices of an already expensive sport on to their customers or to abandon their efforts completely if they decide they cannot stomach charging people more to play.
This is sad and disappointing to say the least.
Of course, the high cost of hockey participation is also passed along to consumers through the ever-increasing cost of even the most basic equipment needed to even try the sport.
While there are other issues facing hockey that we can all work together to solve going forward, in the spirit of the holiday season wouldn’t it be great if the adults in the room could start working together to help more kids from families in need have the opportunity to participate in the sport that we all love so much?
It also would be wonderful if some of the youth and junior hockey organizations operating with questionable-at-best business practices were held accountable by those with the power to control that type of activity, but that’s’ another article for another day.
In the meantime, let’s turn a negative into a positive during this holiday season and push forward into 2024 with the goal of making a difference.
The North American hockey community is undefeated when rallying around a cause. If every person reading this article performs one act of kindness doing whatever they are capable of in 2024 to make the sport less expensive or provide an opportunity for a child from a family in need, imagine how much we will have accomplished when we look back a year from now.
Whether it’s a family donating used equipment to a young player who would love to put it to use; a small business outfitting or sponsoring a player for a season of rec, house or travel play; a former player or coach donating his or her time to introduce the sport to kids who may otherwise never experience it; or a wealthier family or larger business making a financial commitment to a non-profit that is working hard to provide opportunities, every little bit counts.
I can’t wait to review our efforts in 365 days and report back about the difference we all have made to grow our beloved sport and make it more accessible. Feel free to share your stories with us.
Here’s wishing a safe and joyous holiday season to all of you who allow us to do what we do along with our best wishes for a prosperous 2024
Now, let’s take a look back as we always do at the Year in Hockey 2023 as we wish “Happy Hockey Holidays” to those involved in the sport who have provided us with so many great memories on and off the ice over the years.
Happy Hockey Holidays to:
Jake DeBrusk and Marco Sturm – Bruin Fenway game-winners 13 years apart
Connor Bedard and Taylor Heise – the future is now
Hilary Knight and Hayley Wickenheiser – Queens of the International ice
Bruce Cassidy and Jim Montgomery – every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end
Bill Foley & George McPhee – the six-year plan
Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci – brothers in black and gold forever
William Carrier, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Brayden McNabb, Reilly Smith and Shea Theodore – #VegasBorn and Golden Misfits no more
Kendall Coyne Schofield, Marie-Philip Poulin and Alina Muller – THIS is your time
New York, Ottawa, Montreal, St. Paul, Boston and Toronto – history will be made starting Jan. 1, 2024
Seattle and Vegas – expansion teams my a**
Jack Hughes, Adam Fox, Mark Messier and Martin Brodeur – Hudson River hate returns
Phillip Grubauer and Jared Bednar
Jack Eichel and Buffalo – someone had to win a Cup first
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews – Batman and Robin forever
Sid the Kid, Evgeni Malkin and Chris Letang – the last dance?
Matthew Tkachuk, Chuck, Shaq and Kenny
Ovie and the Great One – the countdown has slowed, but it’s still on
Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Arizona Coyotes – two of these three in “the Horseshoe” on Jan. 1, ????
John Tavares, Joe Nieuwendyk and Toronto – the streak is over!
Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin – the 60-goal Club
Mark Johnson and Rand Pecknold – national champions
Tom Barrasso, Caroline Oullette, Pierre Lacroix, Henrik Lundqvist, Ken Hitchcock, Pierre Turgeon and Mike Vernon – congratulations and thanks for the memories!
Craig Anderson, Paul Stastny, Joe Thornton, Patric Hornqvist, Brandon Sutter, Darren Helm, Thomas Greiss, Nate Thompson, Jonathan Bernier, Joonas Donskoi, Carl Hagelin, Michael Del Zotto and Andrew Ladd – Father Time remains undefeated
Adam Johnson, Bobby Hull, Petr Klima, Gilles Gilbert and Gino Odjick – RIP …gone but not forgotten
And of course, Happy Hockey Holidays to our wonderful North American hockey family!