Is minor hockey worth it?
Posted by Dean Holden at January 19th, 2013
Don Gillmor, The Toronto Star, Published Friday January 11, 2013
On a Monday night in late November, two Minor Midget AAA teams clash in the gloom of the Vaughan Sports Village. The lighting is funereal and the arena smells like stale sweat. This northern outpost has a Soviet feel, a sense of sacrifice rather than joy.
The Vaughan Kings are currently in ninth place out of 12 teams, the Markham Majors 11th. The boys are 15 and this is their draft year. For that reason, Minor Midget is an intense division. A lot is resting on the players’ performance, which can mean the difference between the Boston Bruins and the Hershey Bears, between an NCAA scholarship to Michigan and sharpening skates at Sport Chek.
The play is ragged. The beautiful geometry of the game is never more obvious than when it doesn’t work. Passes are a few centimetres out of reach, pucks angled off the boards go astray, wingers can’t control the breakout pass. There are moments of brilliance but they quickly fall apart, a series of false starts for both teams.
In the bleachers, parents call out familiar laments.
“Don’t go in the middle! . . . Now why the hell would you go in the middle?”
“Take the man. Take the man! Jesus.”
“Go get it! Who wants it?”
The score is tied 1-1 with less than six minutes to play in the third period. A speedster on the Majors emerges from the chaos and stickhandles into open ice, shifting left then going right, creating space, the defenceman a half-step back. He lets go a slapshot, top shelf, short side, a blast that finds the only hole in the goalie’s defence. One half of the bleachers erupts and the other half slumps and murmurs recriminations.
But the Kings come roaring back and tie the game with 38 seconds left, a flurry of energy and poise that has been missing for most of the match.
Afterwards the two teams file into the blackness of the parking lot. It’s after 10 p.m. on a cold Monday. Half the season is gone. For most of these boys, the possibility of playing professionally is gone as well. They climb into minivans and are driven through the city, the fathers saying: “Why didn’t you take the man? What were you thinking with that cross-ice pass? Do you really want this? Because you have to want it.”
Few will get it. In 2012, nine of the 11 first-round draft picks of the Ontario Hockey League came from the two powerhouse teams — the Toronto Marlboros and the Mississauga Rebels. When the Marlies played the Rebels there were dozens of scouts in the audience. But the bottom of the league is lightly scouted; none came out this evening for the Kings and Majors.
At this point, the investment for players and parents has been thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars. What is the return on that investment? What does minor hockey produce?
The Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) has roughly 40,000 players on 2,800 teams, the largest minor league in the world. It is also the oldest, begun in 1911 by a 17-year-old goaltender named Frank D. Smith who craved organized competition. It predates the NHL, which began in 1917, and has grown into a large, complex, not-for-profit organization with a $9-million budget.
The GTHL’s mission statement describes it as a place for Toronto kids to develop skills and build character. It is also about professional development, grooming players for the big leagues. It has had mixed success in these areas.
And like the NHL, it is also a business. (It is allowed to make money but not to profit: any extra revenue goes back into the organization.)
“We’re supposed to be teaching these kids life lessons,” a coach says, “and it’s hard to do because of all the outside forces. It’s hard to coach in this city. A lot of good coaches quit, replaced by hustlers who are selling the dream.”
The dream is to play in the NHL, a dream that takes form as a player moves up the ranks, through Select, A, AA and finally AAA. It is an expensive dream, and the chances of it coming true are slim.
Jim Parcels, co-author of Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and Their Kids Are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession, followed 30,000 Ontario hockey players born in 1975 to see how many ended up in the NHL. Forty-eight were drafted by NHL teams, though only 39 signed contracts, and of those, 32 played in an NHL game. Of those 32, only 15 played more than one full season. And of those 15, only six played 400 games or more (the minimum to qualify for an NHL pension). Forty-two played NCAA Division I hockey on a full or partial scholarship, only slightly better odds than the NHL.
Those odds have gotten steeper for the 1995 birth-year cohort. It is more difficult now both to play in the NHL and to get an NCAA scholarship. In 20 years, the Canadian presence in the NHL has dipped from 61.4 per cent to 53 per cent (and has gone below 50 per cent at times), while the Americans have risen from 16.5 per cent to 23.9 per cent. The increase in elite hockey players in the U.S. has also meant fewer scholarships for Canadian players, as schools are more focused on American players.
Out of 978 players on NHL rosters at the end of the 2012-13 season, there are 36 GTHL alumni (and 12 more who split their time between GTHL and OMHA), or 3.7 per cent. Sweden, with 67,000 minor league players, has 63 in the NHL, or 6.4 per cent of the league. The GTHL’s record isn’t spectacular, but it would receive a passing grade.
What do we talk about when we talk about hockey? “Ninety per cent is about the money,” says one GTHL AAA coach.
As a business, the GTHL, like the NHL, is slightly contentious and not clearly understood. While the GTHL is a not-for-profit organization, there is a constant chorus from parents who feel someone must be profiting. Certainly they are paying too much. Where does the money go?
The GTHL’s biggest expense is ice rental ($4,785,847 — more than half its budget), which is mostly recouped through the $6 gate fees.
The teams are run as not-for-profit enterprises too, though until recently, it was difficult to tell. At one point, entrepreneur Stuart Hyman owned 90 GTHL teams, and in 2004 the Star reported that his teams charged the highest fees in the league. Hyman’s stewardship prompted a City of Toronto investigation into youth hockey and two other league investigations. The GTHL lacked the authority to look at the financial details of any of its member clubs, but Hockey Canada threatened to audit Hyman’s books, and immediately afterward Hyman divested almost all his teams.
As a result of this, says GTHL executive director Scott Oakman, the league implemented a new policy requiring owners to disclose the team’s financial statements to parents. Any conflicts (if the club operator owns a hockey equipment manufacturer, for example) need to be disclosed now as well.
But the business model for GTHL clubs remains eclectic. Some coaches are volunteers, others are paid, and there is wide disparity in salaries. There is also the issue of who is paying them. “The coach’s salary should be in the budget,” one coach says. “If it’s not, then you don’t know who’s paying the coach. If a parent is paying the coach, the next thing you know, his kid’s on the ice too much.”
Some teams are operated or leased by the parent of a player who wants to guarantee that his child plays.
The budget for a AAA team last year was $110,000, which included everything from practice ice rental (just over $23,000) to game sheets ($2,242). Divided among the 17 players, it was $6,000 each, with the rest made up by sponsors and fundraisers. Of the total, $20,000 was remitted to the organization. Both the league and member clubs are allowed to put aside money in a contingency fund. (The league’s is currently at $2.2 million.)
It’s possible for organizations to add surcharges on ice time and equipment (the team supplies jerseys, socks and gloves), and given that owners of AAA franchises need to have a team in each of the eight divisions, there is the opportunity, at least, to make money. But parents can now view the accounting and judge for themselves.
The transparency is welcome, but the cost of playing hockey in Toronto remains high, ranging from a few hundred dollars for House League, to more than $8,000 for some AAA teams. On top of that there is the cost of equipment (which can reach $4,000 for top-of-the-line gear), tournament costs for parents, gate fees (players and parents pay $6), and the cost of driving to games (an inner-city parent could log 4,000 kilometres in a season, driving to Vaughan, Mississauga, Markham etc.).
Personal trainers are a necessity at the elite level, and the cost of a good trainer and the ice time ranges from $240 to $425 an hour. Often they are in groups of four, though some parents spring for private classes. There are summer camps, spring leagues, dry land training, power-skating camps, off-season tournaments in Boston or Michigan.
The annual cost for a AAA player is between $10,000 and $15,000, not much less than the tuition for the University of Toronto medical school ($19,546).
The parents of Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks star, estimated their investment in his minor-league career, which he spent in the U.S., to be $250,000. Given his current salary of $6.3 million per year, it was a good investment. But the cost is high for all elite minor league players, while the odds of playing four seasons in the NHL are roughly 1 in 6,000.
Every 6-year-old player can dream about playing in the NHL, but not every 10-year-old. By that time, the sorting has begun in earnest. There is some movement among levels as the players grow (or fail to), as their skills fade or shine. But mostly the AAA kids move like a school of fish, from one division to the next. And they are the only ones who can dare to dream.
Though perhaps not all of them should. There are 12 AAA teams in each division in the GTHL, and like the NHL, it expanded too far, diluting the talent pool. The bottom three or four teams in many AAA divisions are often closer to Double-A teams.
“There are parents and players who want to play AAA and there are people who feed off them,” says Geoff Schomogyi, a Triple-A coach with the Mississauga Rebels.
They want to be in AAA because it is better than Double-A and the world is hierarchical. The kids wear their team jackets proudly and obsessively, the parents mention it in casual conversation. It is an achievement, but it is compromised by the expansion, and it has created an imbalance in the league.
“Because of the lack of parity,” says Steven Cathcart, coach of the AAA Marlboro Midget team, “there are too many good players on two teams and they aren’t getting challenged on a regular basis. So we produce very few defencemen, because they hardly need to defend. The goaltenders sometimes come from the bottom teams because they get so many shots.”
Another problem with having all the good players on a few teams is that they may have gone through most of their AAA career without facing adversity, without losing. “Sometimes,” one coach says, “they run into adversity at the next level — they get drafted by a last-place OHL team — and they can’t handle it. There is a lot of fallout. GTHL players often have a sense of entitlement.”
The city, despite its millions, seems capable of producing only 120 or so AAA players per division. And that number may fall. According to Hockey Canada, the governing body for hockey in the country, only 9.1 per cent of Canadian males between the ages of 5 and 18 play organized hockey. They project that this number could fall by 20 per cent by 2016.
There are a number of reasons for this. One of the major barriers is financial; the cost of minor-league hockey has priced many parents out of the market. So there may be potential Crosbys relegated to inventive shinny, or scoring against virtual goons in a computer game. You can map the city’s economic demographics by its AAA teams. Most are from the affluent west end or the northern suburbs. Scarborough, which was once a hockey powerhouse, isn’t represented at all.
Hockey is still perceived as a blue-collar sport, and that’s where its roots are. But it isn’t anymore. Even the middle class has trouble keeping up with the costs. At the highest level, it has become a rich man’s game. “If you look at the best players in the league,” a Triple-A coach says, “a lot of them are in a high socio-economic bracket. They don’t necessarily have a lot of drive, they’re just incredibly skilled. And they’re afforded the opportunity to have the best instructors, and that is their advantage. Their advantage is that they have money.”
There is also the demographic factor; fewer new Canadians are taking up the sport in earnest. They play house league as a way to culturally adapt, though they rarely pursue it past that level. It is a rite but not a passion.
The warming climate isn’t helping. Shinny, a key development tool in past decades, is partly a victim of global warming and the decline of outdoor skating. The rink nearest me, in Withrow Park, opened on Dec. 1 then closed the next day due to high temperatures and rain. It officially closes Feb. 24. Like 52 other city-run outdoor rinks it has ice that is artificially cooled, but even that can’t always keep up with rising temperatures. There are 20 hours of shinny per week, but at peak weekend times the shinny can be frantic and crowded. I once took my son and counted 61 people and 12 pucks on the ice, a war zone.
But it is in some version of that war zone that creativity is developed. In his book The Game, Ken Dryden writes, “It is in free time that the special player develops, not in the competitive expedience of games, in hour-long practices once a week, in mechanical devotion to packaged, processed, coaching-manual, hockey-school skills.”
It is the lament of one Triple-A coach — the players are all skilled, he says, but they lacked creativity. Unlike Guy Lafleur or Wayne Gretzky, they hadn’t logged thousands of hours playing shinny. Instead they log thousands of hours in minivans; a game can be a three-hour commitment when factoring in commute times and dressing time, but it only yields 10-17 minutes of ice time for the player.
In 1972 we accused the Soviets of being skilled but mechanical. The Canadians, by contrast, had flair, we had heart. Now we are in danger of losing both.
But the largest issue for minor hockey may be safety. Never have concussions enjoyed such prominence: the centre of lawsuits and medical research and controversy. It is the conversation that haunts every arena.
Nicholas Eustace got his first concussion playing for the Minor Midget Mississauga Rebels in September 2011, at the beginning of the season. He got an elbow to the head, then later in the game another player fell on him when Nicholas was down, banging his head against the ice.
Nicholas was out for six months, returning only for the quarter-finals in February. The team won the OHL Cup, beating the vaunted Marlboros. Fifteen players from the team were drafted by the OHL, but Nicholas was undrafted because he’d been out all season.
Hockey was his passion. Since the age of 4, he had been playing with his friend Jake Evans. They both played for the Rebels because they knew it was heavily scouted and they were serious about the game. The parents were serious as well, agreeing to the commitment of time and money. Jake’s father spent $7,500 building an ersatz rink in their basement, with regulation nets and unbreakable Plexiglass windows. Jake has two pairs of $750 skates, and once, in a bad month, broke five $300 sticks.
Jake was drafted by the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL but also received a scholarship offer from Notre Dame worth up to $57,000 a year. Nicholas returned the following year to play Midget with the North York Rangers, with the hope of attracting a scholarship offer as well.
“I knew I wouldn’t make the NHL,” he says. “But I wanted to get an NCAA scholarship.”
Instead, he suffered a second concussion last autumn. “I can’t really pick out a specific hit,” he says. “I just had a huge headache after a game with the Marlies, but I didn’t say anything for three weeks.”
After diagnosis, Nicholas, 16, lay in a dark room for two weeks, thinking mostly of hockey. He was home from school for another two weeks, then returned for half-days, though he couldn’t write exams — he found it difficult to concentrate. He went to see his teammates play, but the movement on ice brought on headaches. Even watching was dangerous.
An article in a the Canadian Medical Association Journal looked at two junior hockey teams and found 17 of the 67 players suffered a concussion during a single season — 25.3 per cent, seven times higher than the rate often reported in the medical literature. Five of the concussed players had a second incident. The inference was that concussions, for all their prominence, continue to be underreported.
Increasingly, parents can recite the litany: repeat concussions are a risk factor for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, memory loss, behavioural and personality changes, depression, early dementia and motor neuron disease. Young people are especially susceptible.
As a result of the prominence of concussions in sport, hockey parents now have two futures to contemplate — the one where he gets a $6.3-million NHL contract and the one where he gets brain damage that limits his options.
“I wish the league would take a bit more leadership on this,” a Triple-A coach tells me. At the moment, the coach has the responsibility to recognize and act on concussions. “What do I know about concussions? I’d like to see baseline testing for the whole league so the pressure wasn’t on the coaches and trainers.”
The issue of baseline testing — the players taking tests before the season starts to have something to compare post-injury tests to — was brought up at the GTHL’s board meeting but ultimately voted down by the member clubs.
In the Iceland arena in Mississauga, the first-place Minor Midget AAA Rebels are playing the last-place North York Rangers. The Rebels score at the 36 second mark, then again two minutes later. With less than half the first period played, it’s 3-0 Rebels.
There are no scouts in the audience. I talk to a parent whose son is on the Rebels. He’s a fast, skilled player, small compared to his teammates (five-foot-eight and a half, 155 pounds). There aren’t many small kids left in the league at this level, the father says. They have to have great skills to survive at this point.
Does he want to go to the NHL?
“That’s the dream, isn’t it?” he says “That’s the dream of everyone.”