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Difficult Situations Can be Tempered with the Proper Approach photo


By Scott Lowe - 

It’s almost that time. 

Thanksgiving in the United States is used as a traditional measuring stick for hockey. At the National Hockey League level, it represents what amounts to the quarter pole for the season and seems to be about when owners and general managers take stock in how their teams are progressing and start thinking about making personnel changes.

Every year it seems as though the first NHL coach firing of the year takes place around Thanksgiving, and while it’s too early for teams to start tanking for Connor Bedard, we may see some underachieving clubs that think they still have a chance make a trade or two to shake things up.

Points in September, October and November count the same as they do in February and March. Professional teams simply can’t afford to dig a hole for themselves that’s too big to overcome with so much at stake financially.

Thanksgiving also gives NHL coaches and GM’s enough of a sample, in their minds, to figure out what’s working and what isn’t. If a player isn’t figuring it out and fitting into a coach’s system by then, will it ever happen?

Likewise, in the world of youth and junior hockey, Thanksgiving often is used as a target date for young players moving up to a new level of play. Coaches frequently will tell players that if they put in the necessary work on and off the ice, are coachable, focus on themselves instead of what other players are doing and don’t get frustrated, they will start to get comfortable and see improvement by Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, although that may be the message that is communicated – and although youth and junior hockey is supposed to be about player development and not win-at-all-costs like the NHL – coaches often don’t exhibit the patience they ask their players and families to demonstrate.

Players struggling to make the adjustment early in the season can get buried in the lineup and lose ice time late in games when coaches emphasize winning over long-term development. At the junior level, this may result in players getting scratched for the first time in their careers or seeing only a few shifts when they do dress. Either way, this often leads a downward spiral and a loss of confidence.

When players see their playing time dip or disappear – especially when how they are treated indicates the coach may think their play is responsible for a goal against or a loss when other players higher up in the lineup seem to have a longer leash – they may begin playing just to remain in the lineup or maintain a regular shift. Tense players who are playing simply to avoid making mistakes are never going to look comfortable on the ice, will never play up to their capabilities and aren’t going to develop into better all-around players. Period.

While it’s certainly acceptable for paid coaches of high-school and prep-school teams who are judged based on wins and losses, tuition-free junior teams with owners who have invested money and want to win and college teams to place winning on a pedestal and make that the team’s focus, it’s completely unacceptable for coaches of teams in programs that charge families thousands of dollars to do that without being transparent about their approach before the check clears or the credit card is charged.

The problem is that many coaches who take this approach do not take the time to explain their philosophy up front. There may be many reasons for this.

Far too many organizations rush to hold tryouts before their competitors in hopes of not only securing the best players in their area, but also to fill their rosters as quickly as possible and guarantee they will achieve their revenue goals. Returning players or players coaches know well who previously have played in their organization usually get preferential treatment in these situations. And if these coaches can add a few more puzzle pieces they know are good players to that core and be confident that they have six strong forwards, four capable defensemen and one good goalie, they aren’t overly concerned about who else is rostered.

The objective is to get the money in as quickly as possible and make sure the checks don’t bounce.

These teams are usually selected after just a few over-crowded tryouts, which is not the best way to pick a good hockey team. There is no way that anyone will pick the absolute best players after watching them participate in a few drills and play in a few pickup-style games over a two- or three-day period. Many good players who deserve to make teams are passed over, while others who don’t belong are offered contracts.

Remember that the core of the team is likely to be comprised of returning players and strong players who may have been targeted in advance, invited to try out and virtually guaranteed spots on the team. That means the remaining players may be afterthoughts who fill out the roster and allow the team to collect the funds it needs to operate.

If some of them pan out and become key contributors, that’s a bonus, but realistically they may never get that chance and may not to be capable of playing more than a limited role at that team’s level. Organizations want to know they have the core to be competitive and find eager, paying customers.  

It’s a whirlwind: two or three days of tryouts followed by a posting of who made the team and contract offers. Most teams try to keep the process somewhat private, but egos are involved, people talk and with social media, nothing remains private anymore. Parents want to tell the world their kids made the team, and players want their friends to know, too.

Families often are given 24 to 48 hours to decide about the contract offer and make an initial payment. You would think that people would be given more time – and that more families would want to take more time – to make a decision that may cost $12,000 to $15,000 all-in for a kid to play at the AAA level when tuition, equipment, uniforms, travel and other related expenses are considered.

But that’s usually not the case. Organizations want to complete the process as quickly as possible, and for many reasons, families seem ready to accommodate them and jump to accept the offer and begin making payments.

The reality is that all of this would be okay if the process was more transparent, but unfortunately that’s rarely the case. Usually, it all happens very quickly, and people feel pressured or are genuinely more excited than they should be to take the plunge.

There often are no exit interviews after tryouts. Players are given little or no information about why they made the team, why they didn’t make the team, what their roles might be, what the coaches liked or disliked about them and what they might need to do to play at that level in the future or improve before the season starts. They are told to expect an email soon, and a few weeks later they are provided with a schedule of offseason activities along with other details such as off-ice training and fitness expectations, a payment plan and any additional paperwork that needs to be completed.

It happens that quickly. Players show up, skate a few times, get an offer and agree to the required time, travel and financial requirements.

There typically isn’t much time to ask questions or get to know the coaches, and many families are intimidated into just accepting the terms and moving on because they don’t want to make a bad first impression, hurt the player’s standing on the team or give the impression that they might be difficult to deal with.

Unfortunately, more times than not this is how teams are selected, and it creates a balance of power that strongly favors the coaches and the organization. Once the commitment is made, for the most part, families are stuck and forced to live with their decision for better or worse. This process frequently leads to players being miserable and unhappy with their situations as Thanksgiving, a time when they should be starting to get comfortable, approaches.

Believe me.

I hear from players and families who are unhappy with their AAA, AA or junior situations almost daily this time of year. It can be heartbreaking, especially when it leads to a player giving up a sport he or she used to love, which happened in one case I am aware of just this week. But it’s just as heartbreaking to see so many kids stressed out and not enjoying something that is supposed to be a game.

So how do we fix this? And when – if ever – is it okay for parents to get involved?

These are not easy questions to answer, and ultimately it will take more intervention, direction and accountability imposed by the hockey powers that be to make a real, long-term difference. Still, there are steps families can take to maximize their child’s chances of having a positive hockey experience at any level. And the short answer to the question about parental involvement is yes, parents have a right to get involved – even at the pay-to-play junior level – but with some conditions.

The junior coach involved in the recent situation mentioned above that resulted in a player quitting gave that family the best advice of all. Unfortunately, he waited until nearly two months of the season had passed – after pursuing the player throughout the summer and making him feel welcome – before passing the information along.

“You should have done your homework,” he told them.

That is great advice, and it’s true.

All families should do their homework before agreeing to spend thousands of dollars on a sport. But as someone who was charging $11,000 tuition plus monthly housing fees for the player to be on the team and presumably play regularly, that coach owed it to the player to be up front about his role and what his expectations should be before the season.

Instead, the coach brought in new players a few weeks into the season, and the player’s playing time continued to shrink. He appeared in 10 out of 15 games - but only played a regular shift twice –and was used as the seventh or “extra” defenseman for most of his appearances. When questioned by the player, the coach told him that as a 2003 birthyear he should have expected to play in about half the games.

Okay, does that means he should have been charged 50 percent of the full tuition?

If this is the coach’s regular policy for players who are not aging out – and from what I  can tell it’s not – that is totally fine. Coaches are allowed to run their teams however they choose. He could have solved the problem by being transparent and having that conversation with the player up front, but he wasn’t willing to do that because of course he probably knew that no one in their right mind would agree to pay more than $15,000 total to play in 25 games.

It was only after he was approached by the father when the player was scratched for a recent game that the coach angrily made the “homework” comment – as if it was their fault that he hadn’t been upfront with them prior to the player committing to play there. And of course, that comment was made after $8,500 in payments had been made and a housing rental agreement had been signed.

So, similar issues and player unhappiness – and the dilemma faced by parents as to if they should get involved and advocate for their kids – exist at both the youth and junior levels.

The junior process takes a little longer to play out, but in many cases involves even more money and larger rosters. Most junior programs do more advanced scouting and use a slightly more extensive tryout process than youth teams. At the junior level, however, the issues that arise tend to involve more than just being short-shifted or benched in key situations since several players are scratched for every game and many teams keep more players around to practice and play in games than the rules allow.

If a youth program wants to assemble highly ranked, powerhouse teams that compete for national championships annually, while that’s not a philosophy I personally endorse, there is nothing wrong with that if they are honest with their players about what their expectations should be. That goes for any youth program; if winning is the most important thing, just make people aware of that and make sure the players who aren’t going to play key roles understand and are provided with the information and time necessary to decide if that is acceptable.

Otherwise, if everyone is paying the same large sum of money, the objective should be for the team to improve throughout the season and for all the players to have enough of an opportunity that they continue developing. The problem is that organizations are in such a rush to put their teams together and collect payments that these conversations often don’t take place until after the season starts and there already is some unhappiness.

Keeping that in mind, it becomes even more important for families to do their homework before committing to a team. While it’s fair to expect coaches to have these types of conversations before anyone is asked to pay anything, that doesn’t seem to be happening regularly. If they won’t reach out to talk to the player or family about what their expectations should be, it’s entirely appropriate and recommended for the family to take the initiative to force that conversation.

The entire process raises so many red flags and areas of concern that no reasonable person should get angry or annoyed by a family wanting to have some questions answered before committing thousands of dollars. And if they do get angry or refuse to answer questions, that’s the biggest red flag of all. Just move on and find a better place to play.

As parents, we want our kids to be happy but also want what’s best for them, and we should be there to provide guidance and support. It’s hard to say no when our child wants something so badly and gets so excited by an opportunity, but sometimes we owe it to them to push them in a different direction or at least make sure they consider all viable options.

Ironically, I learned this from my son. We are from Maryland, a non-traditional hockey market, so when it became clear that he had the ability to potentially play at the college level – and after he decided that he wanted to pursue that goal – I wanted to provide him with every opportunity possible to help him realize his dream. I worried constantly about making a bad decision that would hold him back and whether I was pushing him hard enough.

When he was 16, a local AAA coach he trained with in the offseason wanted him to play for his in-season team badly. The coach pulled him out of tryouts the first day, handed him a contract and told him he had 24 hours to accept. I was there and asked the coach to give him until the end of tryouts at least, and he agreed to that. He looked my son in the eye and told him that his career would be over if he didn’t play for that team.

That night my son told me that it bothered him that the coach was putting so much pressure on him and that he wasn’t going to give him an answer that quickly. Another team told him that he had to agree to sign a contract before he could attend the final tryout, which would lock him into that organization if he made the final roster. He told me them he wasn’t going to play there, either. Six weeks later the “24-hour offer” from the original team was still on the table.

Lesson learned.

If a team truly wants a player and thinks he or she will be a key component and help them win, the coach will find room for the player whenever a decision is made. Despite the pressure tactics and apparent rush to finalize rosters, many teams leave a spot or two open for potential impact players who might surface during the summer. The thinking is that if one of those players doesn’t fall into their laps, a player they cut likely would jump at the opportunity to be on the team. This can backfire, though, as many of the players who are cut initially move on and commit to other teams.

There is no reason to rush into something that may be a questionable situation, and if a team pulls an offer within a day or two, it’s probably not an organization worth playing for anyway.

Again, as parents it’s hard to not jump at something that one of our kids is so excited about, but we owe it to them and to ourselves to do whatever we can to make sure it is the best situation for them. That includes asking the right questions, doing independent research, presenting all the information that is gathered to the player and then collaborating to make the best decision.

Some of the homework that should be completed includes talking to other players and families of others who played for the coach and the organization, watching video of the coach’s previous teams to see how he or she utilizes players and if the style of play is a good fit, examining the club’s website to find out its philosophy on player development and to get a feel for the commitment the club makes to its families, seeking the opinions of other respected hockey voices about the organization and the coach and researching the reputation of the coach and organization for developing players and advancing them to higher levels.

While it is important to guide the player, it’s just as important to allow young players to have a say in the final decision once all the pros and cons are presented. Players who are included in the decision-making process and feel like the ultimate decision was theirs are more likely to work through the challenging times and do whatever it takes to be successful.

That may not happen if they feel forced into doing something they didn’t really want to do. As parents, if we aren’t completely sold on an opportunity, the best approach we can take is to help players understand every potential outcome and the potential ramifications of a decision and make sure they will be willing to deal with any of those outcomes without complaining or quitting.  

If a team won’t allow enough time for a family to perform its due diligence and refuses to answer important questions – if they are in that much of a rush to get players signed – it’s time to look elsewhere.

Why are they moving so fast? What are they trying to hide?

If the spot that was offered is not available just a few days later, it’s a good bet that it wasn’t the best situation for the player, anyway. But if the offer stands even after a family has taken the time needed to complete the necessary research and the coach has been willing to answer all of the family’s questions, it should be perfectly fine to commit to that team with confidence.

That brings us to the more-difficult question as to whether it’s okay for parents to approach a coach once the season is underway if a player is unhappy and the family feels the team has not followed through by providing the opportunity that was presented.

As a former coach for many years and at many different levels, I have flip-flopped on this issue in recent years, mainly because of how many people of questionable character I have come into contact with through hockey.

Like most coaches – especially for players ages 15 and up – I was not willing to discuss playing time or a player’s role on the team with parents. I was more than happy to talk to any players who had questions and to fully explain their role, to discuss their strengths and weaknesses and provide feedback about what they could do to get more opportunities.

Since player development was more important than winning for me most of the time, this conversation often centered on the player working harder and showing the same level of commitment that the other players displayed on a regular basis. If players did what I asked, it was on me to figure out a way to follow through on my promises and provide more opportunities.

Personally, I would not have been able to sleep at night if I could not do that for them after they had done exactly what I had asked of them. From my experiences in hockey, it seems as though many coaches have no problem telling players what they think they want to hear or just not addressing issues and concerns that players bring to them. Those coaches presumably sleep just fine most nights.

It’s a culture of one-sided power and intimidation that often is driven by greed and intended to cover up dishonesty and borderline fraudulent behavior. Some coaches make it crystal clear to their players that they will face serious repercussions if they ever hear form their parents or advisors. I’ve also experienced and been informed of coaches who have told players it’s not acceptable for them to question their playing time, made it nearly impossible for players to schedule one-on-one meetings and refused to go over video or provide any substantive feedback other than standard comments such as “you need to get bigger, faster, quicker, stronger” or other standard hockey coach-speak catchphrases.

Players are afraid that their standing on the team – even if they aren’t happy with where they stand – will be impacted negatively and that they will be called out in front of their peers if they approach the coach with their concerns. Parents want to do right by their kids; they can see the disappointment on their faces and hear the discouragement in their voices but are told in no uncertain terms by them not to get involved because of the threats their coaches have made.

No one wants to hurt their children by being “that parent,” so these situations usually continue to fester and the end result often is a vicious cycle in which players are so uptight and stressed out that when they do get an opportunity to prove themselves they are in a mental state that prohibits them playing to the best of their ability. And of course, the coach points to the opportunity – even if it was just a few shifts – and the player’s performance as evidence why he or she doesn’t play a bigger role.

I was – and still am – a firm believer that as parents we need to back off and give our kids the space and opportunity to grow as people, and sports provides a great environment to do that. Encourage them to build a relationship with their coach, to approach the coach when they have questions and concerns and to advocate for themselves in a non-confrontational manner when necessary. Doing this and allowing them to become comfortable communicating with other adults will benefit them as they head to college and when they enter the professional world long after their sports career concludes.

Guiding them and advising them about how to approach their coaches without sounding like they are complaining is recommended. Just be careful to avoid always coming to the rescue and intervening repeatedly while not allowing them to advocate for themselves and learn how to have adult conversations about sensitive issues. That approach is likely to make their transition to college and professional life way more difficult than necessary.

That’s why pinning the coach down and getting answers to questions about a player’s ability level and likely role on the team – as well as the coach’s philosophies about the distribution of playing time, playing to win and player development – is so important for parents before they write a big check and commit to an organization. This is the parents’ opportunity – since they are the ones paying the bill – to create a dialogue that will later allow them to hold the coach accountable if the opportunity turns out to be different from what was presented.

Parents have every right to ask the tough questions and find out the coach’s plan for their kids before handing over thousands of dollars to the organization. No one should feel bad about asking for a meeting, and if the meeting is denied, there are plenty of other fish in the sea. Don’t waste the time or money on that organization.

Once that conversation takes place – and the commitment is made – the player should be the one to approach the coach about any issues that arise early in the season. Again, parental guidance is important in shaping these interactions.

We don’t want players to come off as whiners or complainers, and conversations about playing time and role shouldn’t take place after a few weeks or a handful of games. If a team is five or six weeks into its season, however, and the expectations set by the coach and communicated to the family are not taking shape, it’s fair for the player to request feedback and find out what needs to happen for the situation to change.

If the coach refuses the meeting or snaps at the player for requesting feedback – and the parents feel that the coach is not living up to the plan that was discussed before the contract was signed – it may be appropriate for the parents to attempt to have an unemotional, civil conversation with the coach about the situation. A parent meeting also is justified if promises such as video sessions, off-ice training, extra ice time or additional skills sessions aren’t being fulfilled.

Of course, if a player is handling all communication with the coach, is receiving the same feedback over a long period of time and appears to be doing what he or she has been asked to do without seeing a change in role or increased opportunities, parents also should feel comfortable requesting a meeting with the coach. As with all adult conversations, the meeting should be approached in a non-confrontational manner and positioned as if the parent just wants to make sure the player is understanding what the coach is asking him or her to do.

Pushback should be met with a reminder of the large sum of money that has been paid to the organization.

Usually when adults get together face to face in room, the results are positive – especially if the conversation is framed properly and presented in a non-threatening manner. Avoid numerous email and text exchanges about sensitive and important issues since the tone in that type of messaging easily can be misinterpreted and people tend to have less concerns about being professional and often will be more aggressive when not engaged in an actual conversation.

Hopefully, by doing the requisite amount of homework up front and asking all the right questions before spending thousands of dollars, many of these situations can be avoided – especially at the youth level.

We still have a long way to go, but it’s imperative that those who are helping pay staff salaries and allowing teams to operate through exorbitant tuition fees take proper and professional steps to regain the leverage they deserve as paying customers that hockey organizations often take away. The relationship doesn’t have to be contentious, and if the approach by both sides is sincere and professional, the experience can be a lot better for everyone involved.

And most important, young hockey players will be excited to continue playing and enjoying the sport they love without all the unnecessary stress and negativity.



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