Search This Blog

Monday, April 26, 2010

Top Five Fallacies

Take a walk around any ice arena lobby immediately before or after a game and you can be assured of hearing a number of different tidbits of information. Or in many cases, misinformation. The intentions might be correct. The information just isn’t necessarily.

The old adage, "Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear" might in fact be good advice when navigating your way through the hockey waters. There is a plethora of rumors and a passel of innuendo and myths that circulate from rink to rink and hockey family to hockey family, passed down from year to year and generation to generation.

How does one know what to believe and what not to believe, who to believe and who not to believe? Where should you go for advice that you can trust?

There is no substitute for experience. Those who have been there and done that often have a fairly good perspective. Although just because they have had the experience doesn’t necessarily mean they understood it or learned from it. The downside of "experience" is that "what was" has happened in the past, and perhaps things have changed.

So here is a little advice from me on what I believe are the top five fallacies in the youth hockey community. These myths are often perpetuated by those who have something to gain from the message that they send. The reality is that there is a little truth to most of them, but taken out of context, they can send the complete wrong message.

#5 - Playing on the best team is always best.
It might be. But it just as easily might be the worst thing for a player. I guess it depends on priorities. If winning is the top priority, then being on a winning team might fulfill that player’s objectives. But it probably won’t help them to be a better player in the long run, if that is important to them.

Sure, there are some advantages. Practicing with and against better players every practice can definitely help a player improve. But practicing is one component. Competing and playing the game is very much a different thing. A third line forward or third pair defenseman on the strongest team could very possibly be a top line or top pair player on another team. Those situations offer a very different set of opportunities for the player to take advantage of. Do you want to be locked into a third line situation, slotted into a role playing "checker" or defensive defenseman at the ripe old age of 12? Or do you want to have an opportunity to play in and learn from every situation that the game has to offer?

The second, and maybe most important, negative with being on the best team is that you don’t very often lose. Losing is important. No matter how good a coach is at getting the most out of the players and challenging them to get better, they are human. Human nature is to get complacent when you rarely fail. You see it every year in youth hockey. The team below the top team (that never loses) makes greater strides and closes the gap on the top team over the course of the year. They have a carrot dangling in front of them. A little more of "something to play for" than the top team does. Losing games, learning from that and reacting to it is very much an essential part of the development of the player and the team.

#4 - More is better.
If practicing or playing hockey three or four times a week allows you to get good at it, then six or seven times a week will be even better. Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on the player and the player’s age. There is a point of diminishing returns. Today’s youth player has opportunities (or maybe challenges) that the players of yesteryear did not. Rinks are open year round and players can play year round. That can be good, but it can be bad as well. A break from the game is necessary for both the physical and mental well-being of the player. Refresh, re-charge, re-energize and come back with a hunger and enthusiasm.

Too many players today do not get that break. They love to play. Their parents love that they love to play and love that they are good at it. They want to give them every opportunity to succeed. They don’t want them to be left behind. So they allow them, and sometimes even push them, to do more and more. No matter how good a player gets, they have to have the desire and passion to play the game. Too much hockey is too much. I’ve been there. Every player who has played at a higher level has been there. There are times when you just don’t want to be around the game. You don’t want that time to be when your child should be enjoying it most.

#3 - Paying for "exposure" is necessary.
Parents want to give their child every opportunity to succeed. Some will do almost anything to see that happen. A whole cottage industry of "exposure programs" capitalizes on, or exploits (depending on your viewpoint) this premise. There are all kinds of "select" teams or "elite" teams that get put together during the off-season that promise players that they will be seen by coaches and recruiters from teams at a higher level. Players love the thought of being on a "select" team. Parents love the thought of their player being considered a "select" player. The people that run these programs love the thought that the parents are willing to do or pay almost anything to see that happen. Bottom line is if you are a good enough player, you shouldn’t have to pay for the opportunity to "be seen".

#2 - Playing with and against better players makes a player better.
At every age level up and every level of play up, the pace of play is faster. The hockey looks better. From that respect it is better. It should be. The players are either/or older and better. So it seems natural that a player (or the parents) would want to play that hockey as opposed to "the next level down". It makes them better, right? Maybe. But it can also make them worse. Many players can "play" at the higher level. They can survive. They can chase the puck around, get in the way, break up plays. But they can’t be a difference maker at that level. They don’t control the puck, make plays, try new things, gain confidence and develop skills. They are too busy just trying to keep up. Every NHL player of today was a dominant youth hockey player at the level they played at. They wouldn’t have the skills that they have if they weren’t.

#1 - A coach with a winning record must be a good coach.
They could be. But they could just as easily be perceived as a "good coach" because they have the best players. Here’s the test. Do the players "make the coach" or does the coach "make the players"? How do you determine that? It’s not easy to answer for the parent of a youth player. There are coaches of some of the better teams who couldn’t coach a stray kitten to a bowl of milk. Conversely, there are some who are excellent at actually coaching their players to be better, yet have teams that lose as much or maybe even more than they win.

Monday, April 5, 2010

De-Regulating House Hockey

Like VCR’s, answering machines and Walkmans, true house hockey is much more a part of the past than it is the present.

Aside from a few places that have enough teams in each age group to be able to actually have a real "house" league, meaning in one arena, the majority of "B" level teams that are commonly referred to as "house" actually travel more often and further distances than some "travel" teams.
You can count places that have real "house hockey" on one hand. In fact, there are even a few associations that do have enough teams at each age group to have a real in-house league that still choose to play in a travel league. House hockey, in some places, is very much passé.

And that is too bad, because it is hurting the future of the game. But not enough people understand that. Or worse yet, even care. And I get that. Most people are in the game for a short period of time. Their kids get started, they play, they grow up and they move on. Why worry about what happens after that? Not my concern. Why should it be? They are only concerned about the here and now. About what happens next. About what is best for my kid.

The Problem with that
But here is the problem. As the house hockey classification continues to shrink and shrivel into obscurity, so do the opportunities for players to get started playing the game. And just as importantly, so do the places to continue to play the game that are affordable, conveniently located and require a reasonable time commitment for families. You know, like recreational sports used to be before we adults started to place more importance on building all-star teams and travelling great distances to conquer the teams of children from far away places.

Hockey is a sport like no other. It is a wonderful combination of speed, skill, agility, grace, intelligence and physicality. You almost have to try to be bored when you play it. It’s that much fun. People love it when they try it.

Yet over the years we have allowed the entry level of the game to erode to the point where it barely even exists any more. So less people find it a realistic, affordable and convenient option for their kids to play. Too much travel, too much time and too much money. There is a reason why girls hockey has never gotten much traction in this state compared to other places. There is literally no entry level to the game for girls. No house hockey.

Time for a new system
Some of us will do just about anything to have our kids play the game. And even more for them to play it at a "higher level" than "just house hockey". Unfortunately, the structure that has been created here in Michigan as a result of that has all but cast aside what once was the very essence of the game, house hockey.

So now it’s time to kick it aside completely. At least as it relates to how it is governed by the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA).

De-regulate it and let the rinks and associations run it how they choose to. Let them be in charge of recreational hockey and govern how it operates within the walls of their facilities. Let them determine their own fate. Our current system is more destructive to the game than it is beneficial. We are losing ground faster than the Detroit Lions offense.

Currently we essentially have three distinct levels of play in Michigan. Tier I or AAA teams are supposed to be the highest level with teams having no restrictions on where their players can come from. Tier II or A/AA teams are the next step down and are required to be formed from players predominantly within the district with only three allowed from outside. The problem is that, comparatively speaking, a couple of districts are more like Singapore with a significant hockey playing population in a small area, while others are more like Canada with a large, sparsely populated area. Not exactly an equitable distribution of talent when it comes to forming teams.

The third level is House or "B" with teams formed by a draft, which is supposed to create parity and be fair for all. You know, sort of the recreational level. In theory, and at one time, that might have been true. But not any more. Additionally, most people don’t know that there is also a C level of play that is truly recreational and confines teams to play within their own rink. I think that is a great idea. We just need more of it.

Not formed the same way
The problem is that "B", or what once was "house hockey", has become way more than that. And the system is incredibly unfair and essentially rewards coaches and organizations and arenas that choose to operate on the edge of the intended spirit of the rules.

Here is how it works. Some arenas that have strong organizations and in-house programs actually have 6 or 8 or even 10 or 12 teams within an age group. There are not very many of these around though. At the "B" or house level, these teams are required to have a set of draft rules to equitably divide up the talent. Which if you really think about it, they probably would want to do anyway, even if they were not required to, particularly if most of their competition was amongst themselves.

Then there are organizations that only have one "B" or house level team. Amazingly (sarcasm intended) these teams are typically quite strong. What is really amazing is that the only kids who sign up to form that one team somehow know each other and are often quite strong, experienced players. It really is incredible how the less experienced players never seem to end up on these teams. Yet every team in the larger associations, as they should, have some of these players.
Imagine what happens during the state tournament or other times that these teams compete with each other. Under the current structure, they are all labeled B hockey teams. Yet they are definitely not formed the same way.

Inherently unfair
In the current economic climate it gets worse. Some arenas, desperate for teams because they are either unwilling or unable to do the work to get players started in their own facility, offer incredible incentives for coaches from other facilities to bring players to their place. ‘Sure, we will only have one B team and sure you can all play together.’ Get the picture? Rules have attempted to address the problem, but with little or no success. If you want to have a recruited B team you can have one and be very successful.

The "B" or house system is inherently unfair. So let’s get rid of it. At the "travel" level we have already created a system of "competitive stratification" with multiple levels of play. In the LCAHL this past year there were three different "divisions" or levels of play at each age group. These levels are critical when it comes to tryout time. The top players flock to the top teams and the lower level teams get the leftovers. Oddly enough these teams all compete against each other in the state tournament. The results are often quite predictable. And ugly. And unfair.

The solution is simple. The system is already in place. Let’s just legitimize it. De-regulate house hockey. Let the arenas and associations run their own in-house programs as they see fit and to provide an affordable, convenient and reasonable option for families. And have multiple levels of "travel hockey" for those who want to want to form their own teams.