Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Chasing the 'stupid,' expensive NHL dream

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Would you sell your house and everything you own, give up your job and live for three years on a boat in Toronto harbour just so your kid could have an infinitesimally better chance to win the NHL lottery?

That's what the Strang family did, moving from Pennsylvania in 2002 so that son Max would be eligible to play his minor hockey in the largest and most competitive children's league in the world -- gambling it would enhance his chances of a career in the NHL or a U.S. university scholarship.

Selling the Dream tells the story of some of the thousands of families across North America who have apparently taken total leave of their senses in their crusade to get their boy into the NHL or girl into an American university.

Campbell, a Toronto-based senior writer and columnist with The Hockey News, walks readers through the madness that parental obsession has brought to hockey.

It started with tennis in Florida about 35 years ago, Campbell writes -- the establishment of an academy devoted to educating children in as few hours as possible, while putting them on the tennis court the rest of their waking hours. Thousands attended, and a few of those children are now on the professional tennis tour.

In Canada and the U.S., spring and summer hockey sprang up, offering the best young candidates months of intensive and expensive instruction but leaving them no time for childhood.

There are countless coaches and instructors who -- for fees that boggle the mind -- will take a 10-year-old on unbelievably expensive rental ice in July to work individually on one aspect of their game -- skating backwards, poke-checking or stickhandling.

Parents pay tens of thousands of dollars to enrol their children in private academies for the school year. Or they'll move to another town or city to get their child into a more competitive level of youth hockey, believing that it's the edge their son or daughter needs to get ahead of the pack.

Campbell even quotes one coach of a summer hockey school who says the parents are "stupid" for spending thousands of dollars with him, but he'll take the money.

Campbell explores in great detail just how slim the chances are of getting to the highest levels of hockey. He analyses the chances of just getting into the Canadian Hockey League, whose 60 teams -- including the Brandon Wheat Kings -- are the top supplier of players to the NHL.

Even then, only a fraction will ever reach the big leagues, and a tiny fraction of those young men will have meaningful professional careers.

Campbell says that U.S. universities have 822 scholarships for men each hockey season, and fewer for women, spread over four years. That's barely 200 new male hockey spots a year, and only a small number offer full rides. It would be cheaper, Campbell reckons, just to pay the $40,000-a-year tuition at large American schools than to gamble on winning a hockey scholarship.

Parents are doing it because hockey has become a sport solely for the rich, he says, and to have even a slim chance at getting to the top, they can't deny focusing their very existence on giving their boys 24-hour-a-day hockey. What's a house, a career, a family, when compared to the dreams of an athletic child?

As for Max Strang? He had a so-so time in minor hockey in Toronto, and now plays low-level hockey for a small college in New England. His parents are no longer together.

Nick Martin is a Free Press reporter who survived being a volleyball and soccer parent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 J7

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