I read the Washington Post column on parents letting their 10-year-old try ice hockey. What I thought about her column was dreadful.

The moment I read the Buzzfeedesque headline on Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak retelling her experience navigating youth hockey with her son, my eyes convulsed.

The pretentious style of those headlines turn me away at all costs and here, I’m writing (and righting) a wrong.

Dvorak is as much to blame here as the other problems she brings up in her piece, “Our 10-year-old decided to give ice hockey a try. What we encountered was dreadful.” She wove a tale about how her 10-year-old was just trying out hockey and by golly, it turns out he magically ended up in a program where he’s pushed to be a pro from the start.

The story has a good ending despite the horrid headline that I blame on the copy editor or Web editor. The kid finds another team, after all, and he has fun. And really, it didn’t have to be like this.

What Dvorak describes in her column is a cross between a parent not doing her research before enrolling her child, her family experiencing the byproduct of an elitist D.C. culture and lack of effective communication by the operators of the hockey programs.

Here’s how she opens:

Our son had always been a great ice skater. But beyond lapping everyone at the rink and trying tricks in the middle of the ice, he never wanted to do anything more with it.

Then he decided he wanted to give hockey a try.

Turns out, he was waaaaay over the hill. At 10.

Here’s some data she leans on later on:

No wonder participation in youth sports has dropped by 4 percent nationwide in the past six years, according to a survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

USA Hockey shows that membership in D.C., Maryland and Virginia has largely grown. These numbers are comparing the latest numbers from 2014-2015 to the last date available where data was similarly tracked, in 2005-2006:

USA Hockey Membership

Every age group in every state saw an increase in USA Hockey registration from 2005 to 2015 except 17-18-year-olds in DC and Maryland and 15-16-year-olds in Maryland.

Those are some difficult ages to capture because of high school, the focus on being on competitive teams and your best players at those ages are moving to states with top tier junior leagues, thus moving their registration.

The younger age group membership nearly doubled in each of the states and the district over the 10 years, save for 13-14-year-olds in Maryland. That age group grew but it’s somewhat stagnant.

So, already Dvorak is leading up on a false premise coming to hockey registration.

Moving on, she says her son did additional hockey lessons and a tryout before joining a team. Hey, there’s a lot more going on in hockey than T-ball. For your child’s safety and the safety of others, you want to make sure the ability is there and they understand the fundamentals. If they don’t they’re not going to have fun.

Hockey takes a lot of explaining and repetition because you’re controlling these tiny steel edges that can cut you or someone else, trying to shoot a puck and twist and turn to get in place. Then you have to read the play.

Hockey Parents

At this point, it’s time to dig up the worst hockey parents you can find:

They’ve done it with technique clinics, personal trainers, elite travel leagues, pricey tournaments — fine-tuning kids for athletic glory before they’ve amassed a respectable archive of knock-knock jokes.

I’ve been fuming about this for some time, because I see the larger toll this takes on communities.

If her son is skating with other 10-year-olds that are in these elite travel tourneys and she’s raising concern…why isn’t she removing her son from that environment if she doesn’t feel it’s level or the same? Are these house players who happen to find a spot on another team that is travel hockey? (Which in this case, those parents are overdoing it. That would be like a Little League pitcher playing in two leagues to surpass pitch limits.)

There are success stories of players not taking the traditional route to hockey, including Emerson Etem (now of the Rangers) who played roller hockey initially in California. Heck, even Olie Kolzig didn’t become a goaltender until 13, despite playing other positions when he was younger. Don’t worry about where kids are at this age, even if he or she is in competitive hockey.

Unless they show they are an elite talent, don’t worry about where they are at until age 15 when you can make the decision on added lessons, practice, and the decision if the child should move away to play a higher level of hockey.

Every sport has parents that are the worst. It’s why MTV documentaries exist on these horrible parents, so don’t be surprised that there are nutty hockey parents.

USA Hockey does a good job of setting guidelines for parents to behave and it’s up to Dvorak to be part of the solution to broker some peace and improve the environment. I know that as a columnist and journalist it’s easy to selectively isolate yourself from the life experiences you’re writing about and that either everyone is either the savior or Judas. Here’s an instance where intervening could have brought a better outcome.

To that end, she thinks that her son’s hockey experience would be more like the Mighty Ducks. That rag-tag team ended up having talent and because the team was bankrolled by Mr. Ducksworth in the movie, you bet that they didn’t have to pay travel fees when playing in those international tournaments in Los Angeles. Inspiration was great, but so was the money coming in.

Fun and fundamentals

After her son’s tryout, which could be considered a skills evaluation, her son might have been placed on a competitive team because his skill was deemed to be at that level. I would think that would be the case based on her saying that her son was “always a great skater.”

Here’s where a conversation needs to take place between the parent, the kid and the youth hockey program. More importantly a question that needs to be asked: “If you’re playing hockey at this rink, what do you want to get out of it?”

If her son wanted to just have fun and not be on a competitive track, ask if there are recreational or “house leagues” available. These are designed to make sure kids are having fun, integrating skills but still pushing them to be better.  How does your son define fun? Is it playing a good game, is it just being on the ice, is it being a good team player? Is it being the absolute best, sees winning equated with fun, sees working hard in the gym and in practice as fun because you know that in the game you’ll be even be better?

Track those answers and figure where your son’s passion is. And while those sets of answers should not be mutually exclusive, I think we all can agree that winning is pretty fun. But then look at your son’s skill level, and what he can do and wants to do–and then understand that kids mature. Their tastes change, their abilities change.

He may naturally progress and stay with hockey because it’s fun or find that hey, hockey made me a great baseball player, so I’ll play both until I have to make a decision later.

While you make an inventory of your son’s desires, check your pocketbook. Travel hockey has always been more expensive. Can your family afford this? Will you make certain sacrifices for your child to continue his dream? If he’s not as passionate, dial it back. If you can’t make the money work, check with the youth hockey organization to see if they have a player assistance fund. Reach out to sports non-profits and area foundations if they have scholarships for players who cannot afford fees.

Because this is a two-way street, all rinks and youth hockey organizations can do a much greater job at communicating available assistance programs. Most help with free or rental gear while some may be able to do payment plans or at least reduced fees. My family had to do all of that to get me started in hockey.

What happened?

When Dvorak wraps up, her son turns 11 and finds a team where fun is the name of the game. Everyone smiles. Yay!

Here’s what I want to know:

  • How long was her son stuck in that competitive environment? Was it for an entire year or a few months?
  • Was the child placed according to age group only and not by skill level?
  • Obviously a different program exists as her piece concludes. At what point did she ask questions about the program her son is in? Why did she choose the first program?
  • Is the rink able to accommodate a mid-season switch? Some do
  • How much research did the family do before engaging in organized hockey? The days of reading a rule book and sending your kid out on the ice was gone over 15 years ago.
  • And so, you thought to interview sources for context to support your arguments, but you didn’t apply to I don’t know, ask questions of the right people at your rink or with USA Hockey about how beginner players be guided?
  • Was she aware of the USA American Development Model designed for kids? If not, who at the rink is doing the intake of beginner youth hockey players? Programs in larger cities almost need a guidance counselor or just really, another trusted parent to lean on, to navigate what happens next. Not every new hockey parent is going to know about the ADM model and how USA Hockey has designed recommended practices.

I am typically harsh on ice rinks and programs not doing enough communicating and customer service. From what it looks like in the photo, her son is at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Ballston, Va., a rink that was built by the Washington Capitals to be its practice facility, so they have the right people in place. The website could use some more materials.

Still, as rinks try to cater to the competitive, they have to keep in mind there is a cohort of players who need time and space just to be kids and figure it out: Players who want to do well but don’t want to be a professional athlete. Parents who need to keep purse strings tight. Parents who are so new to organized hockey, they need more resources and education.

But a WaPo columnist playing victim to a organized youth hockey system where her family is innocent in all of this and everyone else is evil save for that one coach is garbage.

Actually, it’s dreadful.

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