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I Hope They Didn’t Bring Apple Juice

By Steve Simmons, Toronto Sun 

There was about two minutes to play in the playoff game and I was
anxiously pacing behind the bench, barking out whatever instructions
seemed important at that very moment. You watch the game and you
watch the clock in those final seconds, sometimes precisely at the
very same time. We were up by a goal, poised to advance
to the next round of the playoffs, when I felt a tug on my jacket. “Ah
coach,” one of my players said on the bench. “Yea,” I answered,
concentrating more on the game and the clock than on him at that
instance. “Is there snacks today?” “Whaaaat?” I barked exasperated. “Did
anyone bring snacks today?” “Huh,” I looked away. “I hope they didn’t
bring apple juice.” The young boy said. “I don’t like apple juice.”
The moment froze me in all the playoff excitement, the way all special and
meaningful moments should. If somehow I could have captured that
conversation on tape, I would have had one of those special sporting
moments for parents everywhere, the kind you need to play for coaches
and executives and trainers and managers and all of us who take kids
sports way too seriously. It isn’t life or death, as we like to think it
is. It isn’t do or die, as often as we pretend it to be. In one tiny
moment in one game, youth hockey was reduced to what it really is about.
Apple juice. OK, so it’s not apple juice. But what apple juice happens
to represent in all of this. The snack. The routine. The ritual. Kids
can win and lose and not even give a second’s thought about either, but
don’t forget the post-game drinks. If anything will spoil a good time,
that will. You see, it’s all part of the culture of youth sports. Not who
wins, not who scores goals, not which team accomplished what on which
night, but about whether Mom and Dad are there, whether their
grandparents are in the stands watching, whether their best friend was
on their team and they got a shift on the power play, and yes, about
what they ate.
When you get involved in youth hockey, when you truly put your
heart into the game and into the environment and into everything it can
be when it’s at its best, the game is only part of the package. It
becomes a social outing for parents. It becomes a social outing for
children. It should never be about who is going for extra power skating
and who is going straight from mites to the Ottawa Senators but
about building that kind of environment, the kind of memories kids and
parents and families will have forever.
Sometimes, when I stand around the arenas I can’t believe the tone of
the conversations I hear. The visions are so short-sighted.
The conversations are almost always about  today and who won
and who lost and who scored. Not enough people use the word fun
and not enough sell it that way either. Hard as we try to think
like kids, we’re not kids. Hard as we try to remember what we were when
we were young, our vision is clouded by perspective and logic, something
not always evident with children. Ask any parent whether they would
rather win or lose and without a doubt they would say win. But ask most
children what they would prefer: playing a regular shift, with power
play time and penalty killing time on a losing team rather than playing
sparingly on a winning team, and the answer has already come out in two
different studies. Overwhelmingly, kids would rather play a lot than win
and play a little. Like we said, it is about apple juice. It is, after
all, about the experience. You can’t know what’s in a kid’s mind.
I was coaching a team a few years ago when I got a call from the goaltender’s
Father. It was the day before the championship game. The Father told me
his son didn’t want to play anymore. “Anymore after tomorrow?” I asked.
“No,” the Father said. “He just doesn’t want to play anymore.” “Did
something happen?” I asked. “He won’t tell me,” the Father said. I hung
up the phone and began to wonder how this happened and who would play
goal the next day when I decided to call back. “Can I talk to him?”
I asked the father. The goalie came on the phone. “I don’t want to play
anymore.” “But you know what tomorrow is, don’t you? Are you nervous?”
“No.” “Then what? You can tell me.” “I don’t like it anymore.” “Don’t
like playing goal?” “They hurt me,” he said. “Who hurts you?” “The
guys,” he said “What guys?” “Our guys. They jump on me after the game.
It hurts me and scares me.” “Is that it?” “Yea.” “Do you trust me?”
“Yea.” “What if I told you they won’t jump on you and hurt you anymore.
Would you play then?” “Are you sure?” “I’m sure.” “Then I’ll play.” And
that was the end of the goalie crisis. The kid was scared and wouldn’t
tell his parents. The kid loved playing but didn’t love being jumped on
after winning games. You can’t anticipate anything like that as a coach.
You can’t anticipate what’s in their minds. It’s their game, we have to
remember. Not our game. They don’t think like we do or look at the sport
like we do. They don’t have to adjust to us, we have to adjust to them.
We have to make certain we’re not spoiling their experience. Our
experience is important too, but the game is for the children and not
for the adults. We can say that over and over again, but the message
seems to get lost every year. Lost in too many coaches who lose
perspective and who think nothing of blaming and yelling and bullying.
Lost by parents who think their son or daughter is the next this or the
next that and they are already spending the millions their little one
will be earning by the time they finish hockey in the winter, 3-on-3 in
the summer, power skating over winter break, special lessons over March
break, pre-tryout camp before the AAA tryouts in May and a couple weeks
of hockey school, just to make certain they don’t go rusty. I have asked
many NHL players how they grew up in the game. My favorite answer came
from Trevor Linden, who has captained more than one team. He said he
played hockey until April and then put his skates away. He played
baseball all summer until the last week of August. He went to hockey
camp for one week then began his season midway through September with
tryouts. No Summer hockey. No special schools. No skating 12 months a
year. “I didn’t even see my skates for about five months a year. I think
the kids today are playing way too much hockey and all you have to do is
look at the development to see it really isn’t producing any better
players. “We have to let the kids be kids.” When, I asked Gary Roberts
recently, did he think he had a future in hockey. “When I got a call
from an agent before the OHL draft,” he said. “Before that, it was just
a game we played.” Do me a favor: Until the agent comes knocking on your
teenager’s door, let’s keep it that way. A game for kids.
And one reminder, I don’t care what the age: Don’t forget the snacks.
 
Steve Simmons writes a city column for the Toronto Sun when he isn’t coaching
his Avenue Road minor atom select team or Vaughan Peewee house league
team. His syndicated Sunday sports column is the most read sports column
in Canada.