Hockey: A Loss of Innocence

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Kids today. It’s a cliché that never seems to tire when describing the youth of the time in question. Well my beef certainly isn’t wondering how in the name of John Lennon kids today enjoy listening to 50 Cent or Katy Perry versus Robert Plant or Grace Slick, but rather one of empathy. You see, growing up in the 60’s our choices for entertainment paled in comparison to those of the high-tech generation we live in today.  No video games, Internet, Twitter or Facebook; the closest we came to space-age entertainment was Commander Tom on Channel 4 in Buffalo or the Jetson’s Saturday mornings following Roger Ramjet.  Maybe that’s why the game of hockey became so addictive to us at a very early age.   Nothing on a fall or winter day could keep me from waking up early Saturday mornings, waiting the appropriate time to leave the house and calling on my friends for the day long road hockey game. When the weather turned cold enough, the local schoolyard skating rink became the place of destination. The only interruption to that routine was if I had a real game or practice.

There is something that’s so pure and simple about a group of kids throwing their sticks in the middle of the rink or street and the teams split into two.   Everyone was on equal footing and while some kids weren’t as talented as others, it didn’t matter because even they would have a moment to shine at some point during the marathon games. If a new kid wandered onto the street, a simple nod, what’s your name and you’re with those guys was all that was said. Our biggest challenge on Elinor Ave after we had conquered the boys on both ends of the street would be the tough competition at Buchanan Public School around the corner. Those Dillon and Marson boys sure made things tough for myself, the Vertollis and Duponts. It’s funny how we are all life-long friends, playing with and against each other in the “real” hockey world but the switches turned up a notch when street pride was at stake. I recently ran into a long time friend Brian McLean and the first thing Mac said to me was,

“Wils that last time we spoke, we wanted kill each other.”

It was a beer league game and nothing to do with the fact we had both played much higher levels above that; it was street supremacy at stake.

Today’s kids rarely play road hockey or shinny at the local schoolyard. If a young player is serious about the game or more importantly his parents are, he’s usually on the ice 4 or 5 times a week and when not on the ice with his team, taking a private with a skating coach, goaltending instructor, shooting clinic or dry land training. Today’s budding star by the age of nine or ten will make sacrifices to remain at a higher level of competition. When a parent introduces his child in today’s world of hockey, the conversation sounds something along these lines,

“How old are your sons?”

“The older one’s a 2000 and his younger brother an 05, what about yours?”

“Oh mine’s an ‘04 and the other ‘06.”

The only reason the kids at school knew I was playing high-level hockey was when I took a week off classes to play in the Quebec Peewee Tournament.

The priority today seems to be to put as many A’s on kids hockey jacket rather than a report card. What’s frightening about that is the parent that condones and even encourages that focus. My son Ryan at one point was playing 4 competitive sports one summer before he was 12. He had no social life outside of his friends at the rink, ball field or golf course and that’s ok but was he really enjoying this life? The following summer he played two sports.

With a busy schedule that takes up most days, why would kids want to play ball hockey or shinny in the little spare time they do have?  The competitive world we live in can be partially to blame but how about the weather?

We as children of the 60’s remember the harsh winters, but nothing could beat a cold winter day with the chill of the air blowing in your face skating around the frozen rink in the backyard, school or even street. The choices where pretty slim, so you could endure the cold and embrace the challenges or sit and do nothing. Today, when it does snow or the temperature drops below freezing; a kid will flick on a movie, fire up his video games, tune into Facebook or surf the Internet and stay warm.

Our games also presented a good time to make trades for hockey cards needed to complete a set; so it wouldn’t be that unusual to see ten kids running around the street with the outline of hockey cards stretching the pant pockets on their jeans. Now if you don’t complete the set from the box of cards purchased, a quick search on EBay and problem solved.

So what’s the real difference with today’s youth compared to our upbringing? Passion. We as kids engulfed the game because it’s all we had. The games shown on TV were limited to once a week so Saturday nights became a ritual with ”Hockey Night in Canada” and we as kids couldn’t wait until the next day to emulate one of our heroes during the street game.

Today sitting on the back of a cart pulled by a donkey in New Mexico, a fan can watch his favourite team on a smart phone or just be notified when a goal scored. Our weekly playing time at the rink consisted of two games and a practice if you played high level; otherwise it was once a week. That left a lot of free time to play outside at home.  It must have worked because our little neighbourhood produced a number of pro players.

I’m not for a minute suggesting todays kids don’t have passion, but many of those “next” Gretzky’s quit playing before they exit their teenage years and that’s wrong.  It leaves a kid bitter and disappointed and then makes him even more protective of his own child when they take up the game. The number of kids playing our great game is dwindling.   That fire to play has to burn as much on the street or schoolyard as it does for real, and that’s the part of the game that can’t be taught, it has to be experienced. Any generational player pre 2000 will point to the love playing the game on the ponds and streets with their friends that launched the careers they have enjoyed.

A number of years ago we had a pick up game at Buchanan. Most of us were in our mid thirties, with four NHLers, and a couple ex pros, all from our neighborhood playing. It was like the clock had never turned. The game continued until dark and the competition was as fierce as it had been 25 years prior.

The only difference was instead of having my mom yell at me for dragging dirt into the kitchen as I guzzled juice from the container; it was one of the Tocchet brothers yelling that it was my round as we sat in the Boars Head lounge at the Holiday Inn.