Around the Rink

How Much is Too Much?

By Scott Lowe -

When my son was growing up and developing as a hockey player, we didn’t know about AA or AAA or high performance programs or any of that. In some ways, we may have been saved by our own ignorance.

He was enamored with hockey from a young age, so we researched the hockey club closest to our house and took him to that club’s Saturday clinic every week between mid-October and February for a few years before he was old enough to join a team. The club offered only “A” level teams for his age group, and that’s where he played for the next seven years - for Baltimore Stars’ squirt, pee wee and bantam teams with pretty much the same group of buddies every year.

Every now and then we would run into a “AA” team and be amazed that kids so young were so good and well-coached and took the game that seriously. Other than that, Devin played about 35 games a year for the Stars, attended some spring and summer skills, pick-up and 3-on-3 sessions and played just about every other sport under the sun. He loved doing it, and we didn’t know any better.

As Devin got older and better, we caught wind of some kids going off to play 50 to 60 games a year with AA or AAA programs, but with soccer, baseball, basketball and hockey we had plenty going on, and Devin was staying active and fit and becoming a very good all-around athlete. That was always the main driving force for us – making sure our kids stayed active doing things they enjoyed.

Hockey always was his first love, but it just seemed natural that he would play multiple sports with a father who had been a coach and athletics administrator since graduating from college and a mother who was a high school athletic director.

Fast forward to second-year bantams, and hockey had clearly emerged as Devin’s true love. He was still playing other sports, but when given the choice of how to spend his free time over the summer, he chose to spend a few weeks at hockey camps focusing on different aspects of the game – battle camps, power skating camps and stickhandling camps.

That little bit of extra summer work helped Devin become the best player on his team, and was starting to get offers from AA programs. But he wanted to stay with the Stars. “I want to play with my friends one more year and then I know I need to play at a higher level,” he told me.

I had been one of Devin’s coaches to that point, but it was becoming readily apparent that his skill level and needs were surpassing what I could provide. Watching him play and having been around the sport for 35 years, I was starting to feel like he had a chance to do something special in hockey and wanted to be sure I wasn’t holding him back by not pushing him to play at a higher level.

So I approached Baltimore Stars Hockey Director Boe Leslie, a former NCAA player at Union College and European professional player, to make sure staying at Baltimore was the right choice.

“He has plenty of time,” Leslie told me. “Right now if he loves the game and is willing to put time into it, we want to be sure that he’s still having fun playing. He’s been with these kids for a long time. They are a great group, and I know he enjoys playing with them. He will know when he’s ready to move up.”

That proved to be the best and most accurate advice we ever received. Devin did love hockey, which was why he chose to attend the camps that helped him become the best player on his team. When he came back and realized that he was the best player, of course he enjoyed that as well, so he didn’t mind working hard. And he loved his teammates.

Devin went on to score 120 points and earn club Player-of-the-Year honors that season. His team won regional Silver Sticks and went to Michigan for the international tournament, where they played Canadian teams for the first time. He got a taste of higher-level hockey and enjoyed it. And he enjoyed being a leader and being someone the coach counted on.

To shorten the story, Devin played “A” hockey all the way through bantams. The most games he ever played in a season might have been 40, and that was because of the extra trip to Michigan as a second-year bantam. After that season he went on to play three years of AA and one year of AAA. Then he was drafted by teams in both the NAHL and NCDC, and after two years playing in the NCDC, he has started his freshman year as a member of the Suffolk University NCAA Division III hockey team.

One thing to keep in mind is that throughout his progression up the hockey development ladder, we allowed Devin to make his own decisions. I didn’t always agree 100 percent with what he chose, but it was always his choice – which ensured he was going to be happy and give it his all. I would provide him with all the relevant information, and he would decide. To his credit, the decisions he made allowed him to achieve his goal of playing NCAA college hockey.

We always want to make sure we are protecting our kids and leading them in the right direction, but allowing them to make decisions and take ownership for what they decide is a huge part of their maturation process.

Why do I mention Devin’s story? Well, as I remain involved in hockey and try to help kids from our area achieve their hockey goals the way he has, I notice that more and more young players are getting more serious about hockey at younger and younger ages. Thanks to the success of the Washington Capitals and Alex Ovechkin, hockey is exploding in our area.

There are more opportunities for kids to play hockey all year long than ever before, and more kids are “specializing” in hockey and playing for 12 months.

Of course, more opportunities are great, but how much is too much? Is it necessary for squirt, pee wee and bantam teams to play 60 to 80 games a year, and should ANY kid be playing ANY sport year round?

“In Canada I have friends who call it ‘Changing Socks Season,’” Leslie said. “Kids play on the same teams with the same teammates year round and they just change the color of their socks when they move to a new team from one season to the next. They change socks and uniforms when the season changes.”

The concerns about a growing young person playing the same sport all year long or “specializing” in a sport have been well documented. Experts say that kids shouldn’t even consider specializing until they are 14 or 15 years old, and even at that point they need breaks to avoid overuse injuries and can benefit from playing other sports and working other body parts. Abdominal, hip and groin injuries – typical overuse injuries – among young hockey players are more prevalent than ever and continue to increase.

On top of the injuries, almost any professional athlete that you speak to talks about having played – and enjoyed – multiple sports growing up, and college and pro coaches love players who have played multiple sports and developed their all-around athleticism.

“Twelve-month hockey is wrong,” former NHL player and current television analyst Ray Ferraro, also a hockey dad, said in a 2015 presentation. “Kids can shoot pucks, stick handle and play street hockey, but they need to be out of the mental insanity of a hockey rink and need to be engaged in something other than hockey … Time away reinforces their passion to want it.”

Still, every year we see more kids specializing in one sport at younger ages and losing out on the experience of enjoying other activities on a more social level with friends as well as many of the other everyday social activities that are part of being a kid and growing up. As with anything, striking a balance is important in avoiding burnout. Taking some time off from any activity that a young person pursues seriously is sure to rekindle the original fire and excitement that caused him or her to fall in love with that activity in the first place.  

“Sometimes I think the burnout is caused not only by the hockey, but some of the travel that comes along with it,” said Leslie. “When we see 11 and 12 year olds behind their masks on the ice, sometimes we think about them as if they are adults, but as soon as they take their helmets off they are back to being 11-year-old kids. So many kids at that age are playing so many games that they are missing out on many experiences that are part of just being a kid.

“Their neighborhood buddies are going to do something together down the street on a weekend and they are getting in a car to drive two or three hours to a game. Or they are getting picked up by their parents right after school and driving an hour or an hour and a half to practice, skating and getting dressed quickly to rush back home because it’s bedtime. The only socialization they get is that 10 or 15 minutes they are rushing to get dressed in the locker room. The kids playing with the local club are playing with their friends after school, getting dinner and doing homework before going to the rink, so they are getting their practice time and the social aspects that come with being a kid.”

A brief look at last year’s MYHockey Rankings shows that at the squirt level the top 20 teams in the nation played between 45 and 72 games, with the majority playing somewhere between 55 and 60. These kids are 9 and 10 years old.

At the pee-wee AAA level (12U), the range was 40 to 78, with only one team in the 40s, eight in the 60s and four in the 70s. Pee wee AA teams played between 26 and 72 contests, with just one team in the 20s and 40s and the rest surpassing the 50 mark.

“We need to consider a couple things when we look at kids who are playing AAA hockey at very young ages,” Mercer Chiefs 16U AAA coach Anthony Matarazzo said. “First, are mom and dad pushing their careers at this level and not the other way around? And second is this the player liking hockey that much or is this mom and dad liking hockey.”

Finally, at the bantam level AAA (14U), the range of games was 32 to 78, with one team in the 30s, two in the 40s and nine exceeding 60. The top bantam AA teams played between 42 and 76 games, with eight teams playing between 62 and 76 and most of the others in the 50s.

On the surface, games are fun and we want kids to have fun. So the premise of more games seems positive. The truth is that with more games comes more travel, which can be draining for players and their families as well. The time spent traveling and playing more games also might be better spent at the home rink developing the players’ skills while also giving them more time to just be kids.

“I’m a massive fan of the (USA Hockey American Development Model),” Leslie said. “USA Hockey, Canada Hockey and the European hockey nations have all done studies on how many puck touches developing players need and how station-based reps allow for a lot of touches in little bit of time. In a game, some kids might get one or two shots – or less – but in a one-hour station-based practice I can guarantee that each kid gets 30-40 shots. That’s much better for their development. I can challenge them and make sure that it is skill and competition based and that they are having a blast and are engaged.”

Over time, statistics have shown that there is a massive drop off in hockey participation throughout North America at around age 13. Most of this is attributed to the onset of checking and more physical play that is permitted at that age, but for kids who started playing AA or AAA hockey as squirts, four-plus years of games, travel and all of hockey’s other associated expenses take a huge toll on many families.

“Why travel so far when the kids are that young?” Matarazzo said. “Is a kid at that age really going to get that much better spending all that time traveling to play against good competition, or is he better off playing with his friends who live down the street for a really good coach and having a great time?”

In addition, once kids become teens and families start to look toward what might lie ahead, hockey presents the most complicated and misunderstood path to college of any sport. Nearly 90 percent of all NCAA college players are required to play junior hockey after 18U, and the majority of junior opportunities are “pay for play” situations that will cost families upwards of $10,000 or more per year.

Hockey is a huge time and financial commitment even for families of kids who play in local travel leagues. To play at the highest levels of youth and then junior hockey necessary to advance to the NCAA level is a massive commitment that many aren’t willing or able to make beyond a few years.

For the parents of kids who are playing 60 to 80 games per year from ages 8 through 13 to look ahead and realize they have up to seven more years of that ahead of them if the player is going to make it to the NCAA level is extremely daunting. Other athletic options are often simply more attractive and practical for most families.

“I mean 80 games at the pee-wee level, “Leslie said. “is anything more crazy than that?”

He also pointed out that college teams usually practice or skate four to five times a week while playing two games and said that when he played professionally in Switzerland all the teams practiced or skated seven times every week while playing twice. “Even at the highest levels with pros a lot more time is spent practicing than playing games," Leslie said.

The amazing thing is that parents often shell out five figures financially to play on these high-level, high-volume teams when tuition, equipment, uniforms, travel and lodging are all factored in. Many of these parents are hoping that this money spent up front will pay off on the back end in the form of NCAA Division I athletic scholarships that are few and far between.

The truth is that for a fraction of that money parents could provide extra tutoring for school or test taking that might help their children tap into an infinitely larger pool of academic scholarship money that is out there for the taking. It’s hard to find time for extra studying, though, when most of your free time is spent on the ice or in a car traveling to an ice rink. Someone who is good at hockey and strong academically might be able to get into a college he or she never thought possible at a price that is more affordable than the family ever expected.

The number of games top-ranked teams are playing seems to peak at the 16U level, with teams playing as many as 83 games at the AAA level and 79 at the AA level. This pulls back slightly for 18U teams, partially because many players have to juggle high school or prep school schedules and end up playing for “split season” club teams on top of their school schedule. Only three of the top 20 18U teams at both the AAA and AA levels played more than 70 games last season, with 19 playing between 13 and 39 times.

Ironically, for players who continue playing beyond 18U, many leagues at even the top junior levels only play between 50 and 60 games per year. At the college level that number dips to between 25 and 32 at the Division III level and between 35 and 42 at the Division I level. Again, even for college players, practices outnumber games by a large margin.

“I don’t have a problem with midget (16U and 18U) teams playing that many games, because those are kids who, for the most part, are looking to play junior or college hockey and need as much exposure as they can get,” Matarrazzo said. “The problem is that games don’t always equate to exposure. If it’s showcases, tournaments or events that are scouted, then it makes sense. Teams would be better off taking a look at how they schedule and getting to more exposure events at the midget level. Why do I need to play eight games against the same two teams in my league or my area when I can go to an event like the USHL Showcase in Pittsburgh instead?”

The bottom line is that if your child truly loves hockey at a young age, you don’t have to foot the bill for year-round training, for him or her to play 75 games for the top AAA program in your area, for private lessons from the top former pro around or even for the best equipment.

Find an affordable program with good coaching and a good group of kids and parents that you enjoy being around and that allows your child to develop a solid base of fundamentals while having a great time – and leaving time for him or her to be a kid and do other things.

If your child is going to fall in love with the sport and want to pursue it all the way to college and maybe even beyond that, understand that hockey has the longest and most convoluted path to get to those levels. It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint. See the big picture and realize the level of commitment and sacrifice – financially and otherwise – it will require from your child and your family at some point when he or she is older.

Every family’s situation is different. This is not to say that playing the highest-level hockey and as many games as possible at a young age isn’t the right situation for some players and families. Examine your situation completely and do what is best for you and your child. There’s just no need to rush into all of that  and run the risk of player and family burnout if you’re not sure.

Either way, enjoy the ride and don’t stress out. The last time I checked no pee wee had ever signed an NHL contract.  


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