During the 1988-89 season, I was the goaltending coach on the Nassau County Lions Midget team, which won the USA Hockey Tier II National Championship in Omaha, Neb., with a 6-5 come-from-behind overtime victory against a strong Michigan squad.
The Lions players bonded all season because their parents bonded, and perhaps this team unity made the difference.
From the first pre-season practice session, the parents genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and freely socialized at the rink. Early in most practices, a few parents would do an “ice cream run” to the nearby convenience store, and bring back snacks for the mothers and fathers in the stands while the coaches put the players through their drills. During games, the parents sat together and pulled for the team as if each Lions player was their own.
Players are sensitive to their parents’ attitudes, and our players got the message.
A ‘Voluntary Activity’
In the classic movie Hoosiers, Gene Hackman played an Indiana high school basketball coach who tells his players that sports “is a voluntary activity; it’s not a requirement.” He was right that players choose whether to participate.
“Teamwork wins games, and parents are an important part of the team.”
So do their parents, who can either assume an active role in the team’s affairs or take a backseat. With participation optional, the season should provide fun and fulfillment for the entire family – for the players who try to win, but also for their parents who sacrifice and cheer for them. Parents deserve to enjoy themselves, but whether they actually get what they deserve is up to them.
In more than 40 years, I have seen youth hockey teams whose parents respect and cooperate with one another, as the Lions parents did. But I have also seen teams whose parents divide into cliques or factions, bicker among themselves, and sometimes end up counting down the days until the season ends.
Parents defeat a major purpose of youth hockey when they deny themselves the fun and fulfillment that they seek for their children. Quarreling parents can also hurt the players because hostility wins no games and, indeed, may drag down the team once players begin imitating their elders. Quarrels and hostility are contagious. Teamwork wins games, and parents are an important part of the team.
Time Passes Quickly
Parents’ memories, like the players’ memories, last beyond the hockey season. Over the years, I have talked with parents who wish that they had enjoyed themselves more as they watched their children play a few years earlier. These parents realized only too late that they could not turn back the clock because hockey permits no do-overs. Benjamin Franklin was right: “Lost time is never found again.”
I have also known parents who made a special effort to assure that youth hockey remained enjoyable for the whole family while their sons and daughters were playing. These parents wanted to make sure that when their children moved on to the rest of their lives, the family would leave with memories of fun and fulfillment.
The Coaches’ Role
Team unity begins with the coaches, the leaders who set the tone. Preseason parents meetings typically stress what the team will mean for the players, but coaches should also stress what the team can mean for the parents themselves.
Actions speak louder than words. Coaches create a positive team environment when, in accordance with USA Hockey’s approach, they promise each player “fair and equal opportunity to participate” in practice sessions and games. This promise – to saddle no player with chronic bench warming – goes a long way toward eliminating much of the resentment that can pit parents against the coaches, and parents against one another.
Parents and players both win when the coach promises fairness and equal opportunity, as our Nassau County Lions Midget head coach did. Parents can enjoy the season, and players can carry the team as far as their abilities permit. Sometimes the team goes all the way, as we did in Omaha.
Doug Abrams, a University of Missouri law professor and a youth hockey coach for 42 years, is the 2013 recipient of USA Hockey’s Excellence in Safety Award.
Photos By USA Hockey Magazine Archives