Parents who can afford it scramble to get kids into elite hockey programs
Posted by Dean Holden at March 18th, 2013
by Randy Turner, 2 February 2013
JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
He got the call last April — a hockey club looking for his services.
Why not, he reasoned. All-expenses-paid flight to Vancouver, with a companion to boot. Nice hotel. The works. All compliments of some deep-pocketed team owners from the West Coast.
All the best players play spring hockey, says Lancaster. But he concedes the economic strain on some families pushes the limit.
So he loaded up his gear and went. Have stick, will travel.
Meet Daimon Gardner: nine years old.
Daimon Gardner, 9, has some fun in the dressing room before his game in Warroad, Minn. (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
There’s a revolution taking place in Canadian minor hockey. Some call it evolution; others call it anarchy on ice.
Across the country, teams are being spawned by the hundreds outside the long arm of Hockey Canada. It’s an entire subset of unregulated, under-the-radar programs, especially for children between the ages of eight and 13. They have become a beacon for parents with needs to fill and money to spend — whether they can afford it or not.
The most elite teams will spend the months of April, May and June travelling across North America — from Boston to Chicago to Toronto to Los Angeles — participating in tournaments that can reap organizers tens of thousands of dollars in just one weekend.
The tabs for parents can run well over $20,000. But increasingly, money is no object. In fact, the competition created in the spring leagues has only escalated the price of success.
In Winnipeg, minor hockey has become a 12-month-a-year sport, where a plethora of camps, tournaments, training programs and teams have been spawned — and proliferated — in the last decade.
How’s this for irony: There are some hockey-obsessed kids in Winnipeg right now, as young as eight, who are on the ice more than any member of the National Hockey League’s Winnipeg Jets.
“The pros are going from September to the end of June at the longest,” notes Billy Keane, who has run Winnipeg-based hockey camps and coaching clinics for more than 30 years. “The kids are going longer.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to say it’s a multimillion-dollar business in Canada. Heck, maybe it’s more than that. No question.”
Look around. Kids in Grade 9 are wearing skates that cost upwards of $1,000. Hockey sticks for 12-year-olds are $300 a pop. Players as young as eight with personal trainers. Parents flying preteens to Vancouver for skills camps. Or sending them to Toronto to play hockey in summer.
Nor is it uncommon for the most prolific young players from Winnipeg to be recruited for, say, Team Vancouver or Team Chicago to play in a tournament being held in yet another city.
Take Daimon Gardner. Born in Dryden, Ont., raised on the nearby Eagle Lake First Nation but now living with his parents in Warroad, Minn., Daimon is a natural who plays winter minor hockey in the U.S. and spring hockey in Winnipeg.
Last year, Daimon’s Winnipeg club played a visiting team from Vancouver’s posh Burnaby Winter Club, which boasts 25 NHL players among its alumni, including rising Edmonton Oilers star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Washington Capitals defenceman Karl Alzner.
In hockey vernacular, young Daimon tore up the boys from Burnaby over three separate games.
A few days later, the phone at the Gardners’ home rang with an all-expense-paid offer to join the Burnaby club for a tournament in Vancouver.
“We were excited,” recalls Daimon’s father, Vince. “We were thinking, ‘Wow, he’s only eight!'”
That might be the identical reaction, albeit more quizzical, from those unfamiliar with the über-competitive world of children’s spring hockey: Wow, he was only eight?
But what father with a young prodigy is going to turn down that offer? Especially in a family that knows hockey can sometimes pay the bills. Next year, Daimon’s oldest sister, Kayla, will begin playing with the University of North Dakota Sioux women’s hockey team on a full scholarship.
Did Vince ask who in Burnaby was picking up their tab?
“No,” he replied. “They said it was a sponsor. I didn’t ask questions.”
Clearly, the days when Junior marched off to the local community club for games and a few practices a week — and be off the ice in March — have gone the way of the dodo bird. Or the Atlanta Thrashers.
And while this is a story about hockey, it’s symbolic of a cultural shift where — perhaps because of sports Darwinism or the multi-billion-dollar global marketplace — children (and parents) are pressured to specialize in sports full-time at younger and younger ages.
While that may be the reality, the trend does not meet universal approval.
“I think we’re missing the boat,” says Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba, who argues that a one-dimensional, full-time approach can ultimately lead to overuse injuries, burnout and a lack of exposure to other social groups and coaching styles.
“I think we’re doing a disservice to our athletes. We’re specializing too early in the game.”
But Woods adds: “We’re not the only sport presented with the challenge of kids participating full-time.”
Volleyball, basketball, swimming, soccer — almost any popular youth sporting activity, at least at the elite level — now demands a commitment of time and money that a generation ago would have been considered unfathomable.
But since this is Canada, a place where the desire for success in hockey is buried somewhere in the DNA, the game will always serve as a picture window into an evolving society.
What happened? Simply put, it has been the birth of elitism in hockey. Parents grew increasingly frustrated with the geographical parameters — at least, in Winnipeg — of existing minor hockey teams, which are formed by catchment areas.
Typically each team, from those of eight-year-olds and up, has one or two players who dominate, scoring the vast majority of their team’s goals. Dad and Mom think: This is a waste of time. Junior isn’t developing. The other kids are pylons. He needs better competition, but we’re stuck in this minor hockey democracy.
As a result, in an era in which elite teams are being formed at younger and younger age groups — remember, kids are drafted by Western Hockey League teams as young as 14 — parents are taking matters into their own hands.
“The pendulum has gone way too far from the competitive side,” says parent Todd Thornton, whose three sons are all enrolled in elite spring-league programs. “They (Hockey Winnipeg) do their system on fair play.
“The minor hockey system isn’t giving the elite players what they need. They’re bigger, they’re stronger, they’re faster. They need a place to play with players who are elite at a younger age. You can get an argument against that, but it’s the truth.”
Thornton is far from alone.
Back in the mid-1990s, there was a handful of elite spring teams formed outside the confines and legislation of Hockey Manitoba. In the beginning, such teams were considered by the minor hockey establishment to be forbidden fruit. They were not supposed to exist in any form during the winter season. No tryouts, no practices, or organizers faced suspension by Hockey Manitoba or Hockey Winnipeg.
“When I started in spring hockey it was something people whispered about because Hockey Winnipeg back in the day had power,” says Jamie Kagan, whose 12-year-old son, Josh, plays both winter and spring hockey.
“It was like a secret society. That’s changed dramatically in the last decade. You’ve got these two worlds that are colliding.”
It’s not just the boys, either. Girls’ elite teams are sprouting up, both in response to general growth in the sport and specifically the expansion and advancement of U.S. college programs for women’s teams.
These days, tryouts are announced on websites in full view of minor hockey officials who — based on the overwhelming popularity and growth of spring hockey — are helpless to intervene. Besides, it’s not as if they’re the cops. Traditional minor hockey organizers are not only volunteers, but a large number either have been or are currently involved in both winter and spring programs.
We’re certainly not on a witch hunt to create challenges for ourselves,” Woods says. “We have enough of those already.”
Woods says his organization will continue to concentrate on the 33,000 players registered in minor hockey, instead of “the hundreds” involved in spring hockey. But that stance could change if the spring clubs continue to proliferate in an unregulated environment.
After all, the emergence of “outlaw hockey,” as it was known in the beginning, is a Canada-wide phenomenon. Hockey Canada, for all its might, has not been able to harness or regulate the explosion, either.
“It’s still growing and growing and growing,” Keane says. “It’s at the point now where it’s getting to be a real problem for Hockey Canada. Because it’s going on across the country. It’s a free-for-all. It’s out of control.”
Billy Keane: ‘The pros are going from September to the end of June at the longest. The kids are going longer’
It’s not just trying to keep up with the Joneses, either. It’s the Winnipeggers trying to keep up with the Torontonians. Or the Minnesotans. Because, just as with the NHL, despite the millions being pumped into tweener hockey in Manitoba each year, the figures pale by comparison to larger markets, where registration for spring teams in the U.S. routinely runs up to $20,000 and coaches of bantam teams are paid living wages.
Conservative estimates put the number of spring teams in Manitoba in the 60s — the vast majority for players between eight and 13 years old. But no one really knows for sure, since any two or three parents can simply start up teams on a whim, advertise for tryouts to recruit players (charging around $15 a practice per player) and, voila! There’s your team. The parents can then decide how many tournaments (there are no actual leagues) in which to participate and how much they’re willing to fork out for the privilege.
In general, the more competitive the team (i.e.: parents), the further the travel, the higher the cost.
But where minor hockey at least has structure and geographic boundaries, spring hockey is a 10-year-old’s version of NHL free agency. Teams have no recruiting restrictions. Parents with whiz kids can shop for the team that has the best players and tournament schedule.
“It gets so cutthroat with signing players,” noted one spring hockey coach, who wanted to remain anonymous. “It can get pretty ugly sometimes. It’s crazy.”
“It’s the wild, wild west,” Kagan adds. “There’s no organizing body. There’s no rules. And it’s now considered by some parents the most important part of their hockey life. I can’t think of a sport where most of the money, time and heartbreak is completely unregulated. This is capitalism at its best.”
Kagan hesitates for moment.
“And its worst.”
On a blustery winter night, Brian Frykas pours himself a Crown Royal and Coke and settles into an easy chair in a bought-and-paid-for home in a well-heeled East St. Paul suburb.
Frykas, 50, used to be a driver for Canadian Linen. Now he’s retired, his sole occupation running the River City Sports North American Hockey Classic in Winnipeg, which is widely considered one of the most prestigious minor hockey events in Western Canada.
Over the last decade, Frykas has built up the tournament, now spread over two weekends in June, from 24 local teams to last year’s monster total of 222 entries, with 150 from out of town and some 40 from across the U.S.
“I’m a good at sales,” Frykas says.
Talk to almost anyone associated with minor hockey in Winnipeg, and they all seem to know Frykas lives in a big house in East St. Paul, used to drive a linen truck and is now retired. They claim Frykas got rich off the frenzy of spring hockey.
Frykas chuckles at the notion from his easy chair. He saved his money and invested well, he says. And he never even incorporated his tournament as a business until three years ago.
With entry fees set at $1,900 per team, it’s no wonder Frykas is considered a minor hockey profiteer. Even with some teams getting discounts, the entry fees alone total more than $400,000.
But Frykas says he pays $150,000 for ice rental. He pays for a referee supervisor, a small army of referees and off-ice officials. He buys $65,000 in giveaways (a beach towel or blanket per player) and prizes (custom jerseys for every championship team).
There are fees for insurance. Lawyers’ fees. Not to mention phone bills, travel costs (to other tournaments recruiting and scouting teams).
In fact, Frykas says if it wasn’t for the common practice of hotel “kickbacks” ($10 per room he fills in the city per night), “I wouldn’t make anything at all.”
Question: So what if he did? Frykas’s tournament annually draws thousands of out-of-town visitors who fill hotels and restaurants, pumping tens of thousands of dollars into the local economy. That $150,000 in ice time helps pay the bills in rinks across the city. Even young referees get some extra spending money.
Meanwhile, Frykas also oversees a fiefdom of some 30 spring teams that each season need a new batch of standard gear: jerseys, track suits, etc., that are purchased locally. Said Frykas: “We spent $8,000 last year on track suits alone.”
Some purists in minor hockey circles — even while conceding the NAHC is a first-rate event — see Frykas as a focal point for the hockey-for-profit phenomenon. He shrugs at the notion.
“I’m a little piece of the pie,” he says. “Because I know what people make.”
Consider: There are tournaments in places such as Minneapolis and Chicago that dwarf what Frykas has built in Winnipeg. Entry fees for tournaments in Edmonton and B.C. are $300 to $400 higher — with not nearly the same amount of swag, he insists. Then there’s the competition, with similar tournaments sprouting up across North America like frozen weeds. Says Frykas: “There’s one tournament, minimum, in every week in every province.”
Perhaps Frykas is profiting from this burgeoning industry, but the explosion of spring hockey is certainly not lining only his pocketbook. As he noted, “Nobody’s doing nothing for free.”
On the other side of the city and located just a slapshot from IKEA, Dave Cameron specializes in power skating and skill development at the Rink, a small nondescript building that houses a small ice surface for player drills and an even smaller ice surface specifically for goaltenders. Upstairs is the Elite Performance gym, operated by Jeff Fisher, former trainer of the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. There’s even a sports psychologist available.
Although open to all age groups and skill levels, the Rink has a client list that includes many of the city’s elite players, from junior prospects to professionals.
Cameron, a former University of Manitoba Bison and minor pro veteran, offers sessions on everything from taking faceoffs to bodychecking. You can get one-on-one training tailored to playing a specific position for your 12-year-old. It can cost up to $175 an hour.
There are cheaper spring sessions, too, but just try to get a spot. “Last year we were jam-packed,” Cameron says. “You couldn’t get in.”
So they expanded the sessions.
“That’s new,” Cameron says, acknowledging the demand for skill development at younger ages. “Even when I was growing up and playing, it’s different now. I think people are starting to maybe put more money into the development of their kids. There’s all kinds of options for guys to do that stuff, more than just going out on the ice and playing.
“They almost feel they have to keep up with the Johnsons. They have to keep playing to make the tryouts at the next level.”
Scott Miller started NRG Fitness with six hockey-playing clients a few years back. Now he has up to 90, ranging in age from 12 to 25, plus another 20 teams that come in groups.
“It’s the way of the world,” Miller says. “Everybody wants an edge over their competition. It’s just beginning. It’s only going to get bigger and bigger.”
Garth Lancaster has run an elite spring-hockey program in the city for more than a decade, his crown jewel being the Winnipeg Jr. Jets. The team is a collection of the province’s best 10-year-olds who compete in Edmonton’s prestigious Brick Super Novice Invitational tournament, which has been a way station for countless future NHL stars over the last two decades — including current Jets Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien.
Almost every Winnipeg-based NHL player, from Jonathan Toews (Chicago) to Travis Zajac (New Jersey) to Ian White (Detroit), is an alumnus of the Jr. Jets, who this year will also attend tournaments in Los Angeles and Toronto. Lancaster readily admits: “We go hard. It’s not for the faint of heart… or the faint of pocketbook.”
The Winnipeg Jr. Jets is a collection of the province’s best 10-year-olds. Almost every Winnipeg-based NHL player is a team alumnus. (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
The tab for some parents will be upwards of five figures. But it’s a drop in the overall bucket of pucks, financially.
“It’s one-upmanship,” Lancaster says. “Who can we bring in to teach our kids to power-skate? Who can we bring in to help our kids shoot? They (parents) want an advantage. They want a leg up on the next kid. So it’s opened the door for a lot of people to come in and put programs together. If somebody brings in a $500 shooting camp, it’s whacked. But I understand. They’re not letting their kids get left behind.
“Every best kid plays spring hockey,” he adds. “There’s no exception. You’ve got to.”
But he concedes the economic strain on some families pushes the limit. “I’ve seen people who can’t afford it find the money. I’m sure they’re mortgaging their futures for their kid’s hockey. But that’s the way it’s going.”
All the best players play spring hockey, says Lancaster. But he concedes the economic strain on some families pushes the limit.
Elitism may have triggered the spring-hockey craze. However, it’s the desire to be elite that’s literally spreading the wealth. In fact, of the dozens of parents, coaches, administrators and instructors interviewed by the Free Press, there was one universal explanation for the minor hockey revolution: If you don’t pay, you don’t play.
And that includes families with modest incomes.
Marnie Wiltshire is a single mom. Her 13-year-old son, Kyle, plays Triple A Bantam minor hockey, plus he’s on two spring teams. Kyle also trains year-round at Miller’s NRG Fitness. (Most AAA-level players either have their own personal trainer or are required by their teams to attend training sessions.)
It costs Wiltshire $3,100 to register Kyle for winter hockey (registration for many AAA teams is closer to $5,000 annually), but the extra costs from spring teams last year pushed the total Wiltshire shelled out for her son’s hockey to $15,000, “at least,” she says.
“Basically, we just save everything we can and everything goes toward hockey,” says Wiltshire, who has three younger children who will soon be strapping on blades. “Our whole life is hockey. It’s at the point where if you want to stay in the more elite level teams, you have to do the extra stuff.”
Next year, Kyle will be draft-eligible for the WHL. “That’s what he’s striving for,” Wiltshire says. “He’s worked so, so hard.”
What does his mother want from the game? “My goal is to keep him out of trouble and stay in hockey,” she says. “The way things are going these days with kids, I just want him to be safe.”
Wiltshire, who is manager of both of her son’s spring teams — she recruits the players and finds the coaches — appreciates the discipline and work ethic elite hockey instils. She likes the kids he’s associating with, his teammates.
How much is that worth to a parent?
Kagan, a partner in a Winnipeg law firm, doesn’t have economic restraints, nor does he apologize for lavishing his 12-year-old with every possible advantage. Recently, he hired former Atlanta Thrasher J.P. Vigier, who works as an instructor in Winnipeg, to work with his son. He pays top dollar for big-ticket equipment items such as sticks and skates. Annual costs: About $15,000. But Kagan notes: “I’ve got partners with kids in dance, that’s more expensive. I’ve got partners with kids in swimming, that’s more expensive.”
The lawyer also presents a case — echoed by several other parents — that the willingness to bankroll their children’s hockey exploits can be as much about instinctive protection as competition.
“Every parent’s nightmare is for their kid to walk out of the dressing room in tears because he got cut,” Kagan says. “If it costs another $500 for that not to happen, you’ll pay for that. As a parent, you feel you should have done something more. If I give my kid the best stick and that helps him get what he wants and he feels good about himself… ?”
Buy the stick.
“The modern parent wants their kid to excel in hockey, to excel in school, to excel in French (class), to excel in anything,” Kagan continues. “There’s not a lot of room in the world of the modern parent for average. They’re terrified of their kid getting left behind.
“The modern parent is able to sacrifice anything so their child will succeed. Is that right? That’s for Oprah to figure out someday.”
Thornton intentionally doesn’t add up the hockey bills for his three boys — who can play up to 16 games a weekend. “I don’t want to know,” the accountant says. “If I added it up and looked at the numbers, it wouldn’t make sense.
“But I can afford it. My kids love it. I see the development in them from it. They’re having fun. They get along together. No matter how much money you spend, if they’re not having fun — and parents, too — you’re not going to do it.”
Meanwhile, there are parents such as Steve Lambos, who watches from the stands while his son, Carson, practises with the Jr. Jets. Now 48, Lambos remembers a time when parents didn’t come to every game, much less every practice. He remembers when kids got grades in school. He remembers a time before the term “bubble-wrap kids” was coined.
“They’re becoming too soft,” he says, not specifying if he is referring to kids or their parents. “You can’t hurt anybody’s feelings. I don’t see what’s wrong with playing to win. You go to school and everybody passes. They don’t give out grades anymore. Then kids grow up and get a reality check. Life doesn’t work like that.”
Sometimes, life works like this: Last year, the Jr. Jets had a boy from Colorado on the roster. The boy and his dad flew in from Denver for every practice. The final bill totaled in the neighbourhood of $60,000.
A world away from the Jr. Jets, in the city’s North End, the 13-year-old A3 Norquay Knights are preparing to take the ice. But not before some last-minute instructions from head coach Dale Bear.
“Make sure your hits are clean,” Bear advises. “No dirty hits or you’re on the bench. Skate hard and backcheck. Don’t leave your defenceman hanging.”
The Jr. Jets might heed the same instructions from coaches. But the Knights don’t wear custom uniforms with a logo designed specially by an NHL team. They won’t be going to Edmonton or L.A., either.
The Knights, however, did get team jackets. For a few of them, Bear says, it’s the only decent winter jacket they own.
When asked to describe his rambunctious, ragtag team, Bear chuckles and replies: “Watch The Mighty Ducks (Disney movies).”
“We just want to keep these kids out of jails and youth centres,” says Bear, 33. “Some of their brothers are in jail. They think that’s cool. That’s one of the things I try to teach them: Nothing good comes from that.”
The Knights are part of the North End Hockey Program, where families who qualify for subsidies can get registration fees reduced or waived. Organizers canvass for used equipment, which is loaned to players who return it at year’s end.
Here’s the irony though: Odds are the same number of Jr. Jets will play in the NHL as the ragtag Knights.
Further, there is a shared goal for everyone involved, to make the players — the more privileged and the less fortunate — better people.
“In the first year,” Bear says of his Knights, “they were out of control. It was F-this and F-that. Now I’ve got them saying, ‘please’ and ‘thank you.'”
Still, the Jr. Jets and Norquay Knights are two disparate ends of a chasm that is only getting wider. The vast majority of minor hockey falls somewhere in between.
But for every voice that can afford the financial bodycheck, there’s another that questions not only escalating costs/competition, but whether or not the next Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews will be, well, the next Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews.
After all, minor hockey has long been an expensive proposition, in particular at the elite level. Spring hockey has upped the ante by thousands of dollars more.
“The cost for playing at the elite levels is exorbitant,” says Keane, who has one son playing AAA bantam ($6,000) and another on the Winnipeg Wild AAA midget team ($8,000).
“That’s why there’s a lot of families that say, ‘This is crazy.’ And they go buy a pair of cleats and say, ‘You’re playing soccer.’ (Others) find a way to get it done. They will make huge financial sacrifices. So much for the family holiday. So much for the kitchen being done. I guarantee a lot of families are being stretched.”
Sure, there is no shortage of long-established hockey camps and programs in Winnipeg. But they don’t offer the glitz of new jerseys and road trips to swank tournaments. Just hard work and fundamentals, mostly.
Curt Ketchen, who runs Winnipeg-based camps and the Starbuck Hockey Academy — where students get 100 hours of hockey training with their studies — laments the rise of spring hockey.
“It’s incredible how big it’s gotten,” Ketchen says. “Now it’s all over the map. Anybody can go anywhere. It’s out of hand. That’s kind of sad. I don’t know how we can control it. Until we do, it’s just going to escalate and escalate.
“There’s so much hidden talent that we’ll never know because they never got the opportunity,” Ketchen adds. “That’s not fair. There’s many kids that love the game but have been pushed away for financial reasons. That shouldn’t happen. Why do kids have to go to Phoenix or Los Angeles for a hockey tournament? I wish I had the answer. I wish there was a button to push to slow everything down.”
Other critics of spring hockey and 12-month-a-year hockey are more blunt.
“I think it’s just a cash grab and horses–t to be honest with you,” spits Mike Loustel, who operates the popular World 3-on-3 Hockey Federation out of the Winter Club. “They (parents) are caught up in a trap: If you don’t play spring hockey, you’ll fall behind. It’s just the big thing in Canada, to win at all costs.”
Mike Loustel, shown tutoring Brucen Muys (left) Joseph Brown at World 3-on-3 Hockey Federation, used to be a proponent of year-round hockey. Now he’s an advocate of moderation. (JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
Loustel should know: He helped pioneer spring hockey in Winnipeg in the mid-1990s. His kids were on the ice for at least 11 months a year. Then he had an awakening after serving as a guest hockey instructor in Sweden, where the programs weren’t allowed to exceed nine months.
“It’s so unhealthy for these kids to play 11 months a year. I saw it,” Loustel says. “I was one of the first to do it. That’s why I had to step back and say this is wrong. We didn’t know any better.”
“Everyone wants their kid to be the next Jonathan Toews, the next Sid the Kid,” he says. “It just snowballed. It’s the parents, it’s the ego, it’s the big dream.”
Craig Heisinger isn’t your average hockey dad. The Winnipeg Jets assistant general manager and director of hockey operations nonetheless has put three boys through minor hockey, which has cost him — off the top of his head — around $100,000.
Why? “The smartass answer,” Heisinger replies, “is to say it’s better than spending it on legal fees.”
Heisinger is part of a constituency on both sides of the debate. He isn’t a fan of spring hockey, yet his boys have all played it. One was a Jr. Jet.
“Unfortunately, if you’re trying to play at a high level, I don’t know if you’re forced to do it, but you get sucked into it,” he concedes. “I don’t discount hard work or practice at all. But there’s a lot of people that will tell you you’re predetermined to be a player when you come out of the womb. Talent is god-given. Travis Zajac was going to make it, summer hockey or not. So was Jonathan Toews. Come on.”
Spring-hockey proponents counter that it can’t be a coincidence that the number of kids being produced in Manitoba that have succeeded in both junior and professional hockey — Toews, Zajac, Darren Helm, Cam Barker, Quinton Howden, Nigel Dawes, Ian White, Alex Steen, Dustin Boyd, Michael Stone, Cody Eakin, Colin Wilson — all played on elite spring teams.
“Look at the kids and you’ll shake your head. On and on,” Lancaster says. “Just go down the list of kids playing pro from Manitoba. What happened? Spring hockey exploded. No question. I saw it.”
Indeed, if hockey is religion in Canada, then spring hockey — or the emphasis to play or train year-round — has become a belief system.
Mike Keane is a three-time Stanley Cup winner who spent a lifetime in professional hockey (17 NHL seasons and another five with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose). Keane is good friends with Dean Court, the programs manager at the MTS Iceplex — another benefactor of the spring-hockey boom.
They grew up together. Their sons play AAA midget hockey together with the Winnipeg Wild.
Yet their views on spring hockey couldn’t be more opposed.
Says Keane: “I love the game. But it’s very frustrating to see parents blow money to get another jersey to put in the closet. It shouldn’t be about the swag and expensive tournaments. That’s not what hockey is about.”
Counters Court: “I’ll guarantee you one thing: If you don’t buy a lottery ticket you can’t win. That’s why if parents can afford it, they will pay. It’s an endless, hour-less debate but at the end of the day in order to keep up with the competition level, you have to train year-round. There’s no wrong or right, it’s what your belief is. Everybody says only one player will make it out of a million. Why can’t it be yours?”
Why not, indeed. Remember little Daimon Gardner?
Perhaps the nine-year-old is living, skating proof that if you display enough talent at the nation’s obsession, money is no deterrent. Father Vince is a “Mr. Mom,” and he says without his wife’s income and help from his parents, young Daimon wouldn’t be travelling on elite spring teams in Winnipeg — he’ll play this season with the Boys of the North, one of Court’s teams at the Iceplex.
“We can’t afford to up and fly to Vancouver,” Daimon’s dad says.
But they can afford to say “yes” when the phone rings with another offer. You see, Daimon has been invited to return to B.C. all expenses paid again this spring. After all, last April he led the Vipers in scoring and was named to the all-star team. He even scored the overtime winner in the championship game against the archrival — and equally well-heeled — Vancouver Giants.
No, not the Vipers, silly.
The revolution continues, unabated.