Despite nagging concerns over the proliferation and expense of spring hockey, Hockey Canada is not about to intervene and regulate the multi-million-dollar cottage industry -- yet.
"That's one of the things we have to consider... if we can affect the future growth (of spring hockey) in a positive way," said Hockey Canada vice-president of hockey development, Paul Carson, from his Calgary office. "It's an open-ended question."
Carson was responding to an in-depth look into spring hockey by the Free Press, published Saturday, which cited parents who routinely pay $10,000 to $20,000 for their children to play on tournament-based teams from April to early July. That includes the cost of travelling to tournaments across the country and major U.S. cities. Combined with the basic costs of minor winter hockey -- and with the evolution of minor hockey into a 12-month-a-year activity for some elite players -- a growing number of parents feel obligated to fund an activity where spending has escalated, driven by competitiveness and desire.
The phenomenon of spring hockey has resulted, in large part, from a growing number of Manitoba parents who don't believe the traditional Manitoba Hockey/Winnipeg Minor Hockey is developing the elite players between the ages of eight and 13.
To date, Hockey Canada -- and by extension, Hockey Manitoba -- has allowed the expansion of spring hockey, provided tryouts and practices don't interfere with minor-hockey team activities. However, spring hockey remains unregulated. There are no guidelines or regional boundaries on forming teams. There are no disciplinary overseers.
"It's the Wild West," one Winnipeg parent said.
Carson was cautious not to disparage spring hockey. "Nobody is twisting anybody's arm," he said.
But the Hockey Canada official questioned whether all parents understood the potential ramifications of a system where the rules are... well, where there are no rules.
"I'm not sure if parents are aware they're throwing away their rights as a hockey parent for any sanctions," he said, noting parents should have clarity on questions such as insurance and possible disciplinary procedures. "People are so in a hurry to get their kids on the ice with a select group of players, they might not ask some of these questions."
At the same time, Carson said costs associated with spring hockey -- in which Winnipeg teams travel to tournaments across North America -- may prove prohibitive for parents with limited incomes.
"The biggest concern I have is the risk far outweighs the reward when it involves selling the dream," Carson said. "I worry about burnout. I worry about families spending themselves beyond their means just to keep up."
Carson cited studies by Jim Parcels, co-author of the recently released book, Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and Their Kids are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession (Viking), which crunch the numbers on not just the excessive costs, but the razor-thin odds of any Canadian kid playing professional hockey. "A lot of parents don't feel the numbers apply to them," Carson said. "But the dream is the dream."
Winnipeg-based sports psychologist Cal Botterill is also leery of the trend of 12-month hockey for pre-teens (both on- and off-ice training) and teens, arguing a mix of activities will provide children with a "bigger athletic base."
Botterill noted his daughter, Jennifer, a former longtime national women's hockey team member and winner of three Olympic gold medals, was a provincial champion in five sports in high school: ringette, soccer, volleyball, badminton and basketball.
Botterill's son, Jason, now assistant general manager with the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, was the only Canadian player in history to win three consecutive world junior gold medals. Jason played spring hockey only one year during his youth in Winnipeg, largely because he was injured during the winter.
However, Botterill acknowledged that the minor-hockey world of today, with so many societal and monetary pressures to succeed at the sport in a hockey-mad country, is a different and far more competitive animal than formerly.
"It's like the lottery," he said of many parents' investment in the sport. "They're afraid not to do it. The biggest motive is losing out... when they think what they have (in winter hockey) is not the best."
For example, Botterill said parents, especially in Canada, are oversold on the importance of the Western Hockey League draft, though a college career might prove a better long-term option, given the long odds of playing professionally via either route.
Ultimately, however, Botterill said the danger, given the prestigious place hockey holds in Canadian culture, is parents who become too consumed by their competitive nature -- and nurture, for that matter.
"We get in trouble when we start getting too ambitious for other people, including kids," he cautioned. "When you get too ambitious... they can feel pressure somehow, some way. Sometimes that gets disruptive."
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