Saturday, March 05, 2005

Competitiveness in the State of Hockey

Having moved to Minnesota and being married to a Minnesotan, I now have several cousins and nephews who play hockey. They are 7, 13, 15, and 17 years old. This time year, the hearts of Minnesotans turn, not to thoughts of springtime, but to the Boys State Hockey Tournament in Saint Paul. Here in Minnesota the State Hockey tournament carries the clout of a high school football championship in Texas: Over fifteen thousand people will fill the Xcel Energy Center each of three nights of play to watch what will be for many of the student athletes the the highlight of their sports careers.

And so the discussion has been of late, what is the balance between involving a kid in hockey to teach them how to play a game, have fun, be active, and (for a lack of a better description) grooming them for the next olympic team.

The youngest nephew plays on an urban hockey association team. This association is commonly recognized for the diveristy of its players and the dedication of the parents. But the reality is, most of the kids in this association will end going to urban public schools, some of which may not even have prep level hockey programs. One of this nephew's friends plays hockey for a suburban club. This particular suburb is, historically, probably in the state's top 5, having, in 61 years, at least 19 appearances in the state tournament. I've seen my nephew play, and have watched him since he was first learning to skate. The other night during the first intermission, I had a chance to see the nephew's friend skate and play a little hockey. I was amazed at the difference in the general playing skills.

The next youngest, a cousin, is a freshman at another of the state's legendary teams. A team on it's way to another Class A championship. That team this year is made up mostly of seniors including the goalie. The nephew has played goalie for several years, and at one time played ahead of the current backup goalie. He could be in line to be the backup goalie on the varsity team next year. But like so many other 15 year olds these days, his attention is divided amongst the many diversions, electronic and otherwise, that his parents allow him.

I think in the first kid's case, casual participation can net significant gains in skills and ability. Not because of who he is, or the talent he may have been born with, but because at the level he is at he is learning skills. In the friend's case, he will be coached hard, but will probably fall off the bottom of the program before he reaches high school. In the third kid's case, it has to take significant dedication to the sport just to maintain one's place in the pecking order. Again, not because of who he is, or what he was born with, but because every other athlete at that level is honing and refining their skills, thus smaller gains make bigger differences.

So I guess I have to agree with my wife that there is nothing wrong with our nephew playing hockey, perhaps at a lower level than his friend, but "get to be kid" while doing so. I have to disagree with her about the 13 year old cousin though. He's playing at level in 'the system' where if he isn't willing to dedicate himself completely maybe he is just consuming resources that another, fully dedicated, player could use. At the prep level, should a kid train and play like his goal was the NHL?

I certainly don't mean to down play all the good things that are supposed to come with prep athletics, fair play, sportsmanship, and the like. But there's a fundmental difference between being out there to slap the puck around the ice and being out there to win a championship. I think at that level a kid needs to decide to fish or cut bait. If they aren't willing to knuckle-down, put away the PlayStation and dedicate their fullest effort to academics and their sport, maybe they should just be out playing on the pond.

And so the question remains, where is the middle ground, the transition point?

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