‘Canadian Roulette’: Why some parents devote everything for the ‘infinitesimal’ chance of getting their kid into the NHL
Posted by Dean Holden at September 2nd, 2014
by Sarah Boesveld, 11 Jan 2013
Charle and Treena Dumba with their son Kyle on their Calgary rink. Stuart Gradon/Calgary Herald/File
Every weekend for a year, Carlo Cimetta drove three hours from Sarnia, Ont., to Toronto so his then-10-year-old son could play in the high-calibre Greater Toronto Hockey League. He later rented a home in Port Huron, Mich., so his son could play in Detroit’s renowned ‘Honeybaked’ AAA hockey organization, with its twice-daily hour-long commute.
He knows some people call him a ‘‘crazy hockey dad,’’ but he swears he wasn’t trying to create a National Hockey League superstar.
“I wanted to teach [my children] to do the very best you can and to be the very best you can be. So that means we have to make some sacrifices — and they were big sacrifices,” he said. “From the outside, [people say] ‘This is crazy, this is fanatical, this is extreme.’ I understand all that. But I also know what the true motivation was.”
School comes first, he said, and minor hockey has made Matthew, now 17, a dedicated student on track for a spot on Cornell University’s hockey team. But who knows? “If anything we downplay [making the NHL], but in his heart in his mind, would he like to stay with it and continue to keep that door open and that aspiration in the back of his mind? Absolutely.”
Millions of Canadian youngsters share the dream: To become an NHL player, the next Sidney Crosby, or at least the Penguins’ third-line winger. And more and more parents will do anything to bring that dream to life.
But as Canada’s most celebrated sport becomes a full-time job for kids as young as 10, the very love of the game is at risk if unrealistic hockey parents don’t get a little perspective, writes Ken Campbell, a senior writer and columnist for the Hockey News, in his forthcoming book Selling The Dream: How Hockey Parents and their Kids are Paying the Price for our National Obsession, due out this month.
The chances of making the NHL are “infinitesimal,” he writes — you’ve got a better shot at winning the lottery. And yet parents will shell out many thousands of dollars a year to put their kid through minor hockey, spend hours schlepping from one tournament to the next, having them play all year round even at risk of an injury that could, in a split second, take a kid from NHL prospect to hockey school coach.
Parents, he writes, are playing a game of “Canadian roulette.”
“There’s always going to be a critical mass of really really good special players out there — I don’t think that’s ever going to change in Canada. But what I do worry about is kids that get turned off the game at an early age because doors have been closed on them,” he said in an interview. “It’s a system that cultivates special players, elite players. But is it a system that cultivates beer leaguers? Are these kids in 20 years still going to be passionate about playing hockey?”
In 20 years, the beer leagues are where the lion’s share of today’s hot young hockey players will be, Mr. Campbell said, if one considers the chances of making it.
With researcher Jim Parcels, Mr. Campbell studied former minor league hockey players in Ontario (where roughly 45% of Canada’s hockey players live) born in 1965, 1975 and 1985 and found only 1 in 1,000 played a single game in the NHL. Of the elite players, roughly 0.05% made it to the NHL.
It’s really only the super-elite players who can boast better odds — the kind of guys who played in the World Junior Championships in Russia this month. Of those born in the three age groups, 93.9% went on to play one game in the NHL, but only half that — 49.4% —got careers of more than 400 games out of it.
Hockey has become almost too important in Canada, Mr. Campbell said, and that obsession is clashing with helicopter parenting bred from smaller and wealthier families to create a climate in which the dream of a career in the NHL becomes a cache of unrealistic expectations.
As one parent put it to Mr. Campbell “Well, somebody has to make the NHL. Why can’t it be my kid?”
He doubts Mr. Cimetta, whom he also interviewed for his book, would be working so hard on his son’s behalf if a sustained career in professional hockey was not among the Sarnia lawyer’s hopes.
A growing industry caters to people with this goal — private hockey academies with $20,000-$35,000 tuition. Private instructors and trainers that charge by the hour. Power skating drills. Parents see it as an investment, Mr. Campbell said. Besides, one would be hard pressed to find an NHL player today who did not have all this stuff on their way up, he said.
“If you took all the money you’re investing to get a scholarship at the end of the rainbow and you actually put that into an educational fund and allowed your child to enjoy a hockey experience and if the talent was there, allow the talent to rise to the top, it would be a win-win,” said Paul Carson, the Calgary-based vice-president of hockey development at Hockey Canada. “But right now, you really compromise success when you put all your eggs in one basket.’”
And resentment can be a heavy burden when the dream does not work out as planned. Back in 1979, the media was talking up Sudbury’s 12-year-old Pierre Dupuis as the next big thing, comparing him to Wayne Gretzky at his age. But Mr. Dupuis played just one season with the Ontario Hockey League before he quit after his father suffered a heart attack and his girlfriend’s mother died of cancer in the same year. By the time the dust had settled, it was too late to get back into the game. He had a very tough time adapting.
“It could have been my life and maybe that was the resentment and the regret at the time,” the father of two said Friday from his northern Ontario home. “But you make the decisions in your life and my life has turned out to be great.’’
As long as there are families like the Dumbas, parents will keep sacrificing. Charle Dumba enrolled his sons Mathew and Kyle at the Edge School for Athletes, a private sports school in Calgary. He spent more than $1,200 building a rink in the backyard and two hours a day maintaining it so the boys could practice shots. He made many hour-and-a-half long drives to Red Deer, where Mathew became a star defenceman on the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League and is now an NHL draft pick with the Minnesota Wild. Kyle’s a promising young goalie.
“I wouldn’t say I’m one of those crazy guys who says ‘You gotta do this,’” said Mr. Dumba, who still referees part-time on top of his full-time job in industrial sales to help pay his sons’ hockey fees. “School came first, and if you didn’t have your schoolwork done and you didn’t have the grades, you couldn’t play … The chance of some child making it to the NHL is such a small number that you needed to have your schooling.”
Even top prospects like Mathew have to weather their disappointments — the 18-year-old was the last cut from Canada’s 2013 World Junior Championship team.
Scott Moulson doesn’t know if all the tireless hours, the two years straight when his son Matt was 13 and 14 without a single day off were worth it.
The Mississauga, Ont., dad rented extra ice time at 6:30 a.m. every Wednesday or Thursday for half a year since his three hockey-playing children were six years old. He hired private trainers, enrolled his sons and daughter in hockey school — the whole nine yards, at an average annual price tag of $20,000 for each child.
Matt now has a $3-million (over three years) contract with the New York Islanders. Shannon is playing on a National Collegiate Athletic Association women’s team. Chris is doing rehab after a concussion he incurred two years ago — a stark reminder of how easily fortunes can change.
“We’ve missed family get-togethers, missed birthdays and yeah, I do sit back and go ‘Was it all worth it, all the money that was spent and time taken?’ I don’t know. I honestly can’t answer that.”
A previous version of this story misidentified the team Matt Moulson plays for as the New York Rangers. Mr. Moulson plays for the New York Islanders.