By Patrick Johnston
January 14, 2014 (ISN) – Most spring hockey is not Hockey Canada sanctioned, but at the same time, it’s becoming more important than winter hockey. Why is spring hockey important to people? Is it worth the money, and should kids keep playing after winter hockey is over?
Hockey as endless season; it’s not how it always was, but it’s how it is now. But need it be so? There are so many options for the 21st century hockey player, figuring out where young players should hang their hats when the minor hockey season ends can be daunting.
Just what does a hockey kid need to do in the off-season? What should they do in the off-season? There’s spring hockey; there’s camps as far as the eye can see, there are other sports, how to decide?
Focus on the first two questions, more than anything. There’s a big difference between the two; both are questions that often elude hockey parents as they ponder what to do each spring. “Should my kid even play spring hockey?” is a common question – and it’s a good one – but there’s one other question that’s as important as all the others.
Whatever else, make sure you ask, “Is my child having fun?” Spring hockey, if that’s what you choose, must be fun; it won’t be a positive experience with long-term impacts if it’s not.
“Anyone interested in pushing their development should look at spring hockey,” says major midget coach Jimmy Ghuman.
Ghuman has coached minor hockey – for Vancouver Thunderbirds and North Vancouver – and is now an assistant with the Fraser Valley Thunderbirds of the B.C. Major Midget League.
“I tell players and parents: ‘focus on what your needs are and not just getting on the best team,'” he said. “Look into who is running the teams you are interested in, what’s their background?”
“A lot of programs do lots of on-ice and are going to tons of tournaments. A lot places do a lot of dry land,” he said. “You’ve got to look at your game needs – some players need more power skating.”
And while he notes it’s a chance to get involved with a higher level of competition, he’s also quick to point out that spring hockey isn’t a magic cure for making the next step and it also adds to the risk of young players burning out.
“Spring hockey is where the majority of kids burn out. Some programs go into July. How much hockey and skill development is your kid doing in that situation? There’s still camps in June, July, August,” he said.
But don’t go into spring hockey thinking that’s where your kid might get noticed, Ghuman gives as his final caution.
“Scouts don’t watch spring hockey as much as they watch minor hockey,” he said.
Avoiding player burnout is something Brad Bowen, long-time head coach of spring hockey program Vancouver Selects, puts at the top of the list when he’s assembling his spring rosters. The Selects emphasize skill development and smart time management; too much hockey will kill interest, he insists.
The original purpose of his program, he said, was to give higher-level players an opportunity to play with a higher number of similarly-skilled players than they would otherwise get to play alongside on their regular minor hockey teams.
“Top-end players want to play with top-end players and see where they are in the pecking order. They enjoyed minor hockey and playing with their friends – and that’s still an important part of the youth hockey mindset – but we started to do it so kids could come together,” Bowen said.
He points to the 1985- and 1986-born groups as the first real success stories, teams that were populated with now-familiar NHL names like Seabrook, Cumisky and Dubinsky.
“Back in the day there wasn’t a lot of spring hockey, just a couple of teams that traveled all over. We’d go to Minnesota looking for good competition,” he said. With the growth in local competition, skill development is now the main focus.
Bowen is also proud that his organization is able to offer different levels of competition too; it’s not just a program for the best of the best anymore, it’s also about giving kids a chance to keep playing a game they love.
The “blue” teams are focused on elite competition and elite skill development, but they’ve also developed the “black” teams, which is focused on the social strengths of the games as much as the elite competition. Both streams work, he said.
“Look at Tyler Wotherspoon, he never played in our blue team, he played in our black team,” Bowen said. “You’ve got guys in our program who aren’t overly serious, who just want to have fun. There are avenues for those kids.”
Wotherspoon, of course, was a 2012 second-round pick of the Calgary Flames, played at the 2013 World Juniors and was a blueline rock for the 2013 Memorial Cup finalist Portland Winterhawks.
Vancouver Selects’ program focuses heavily on skill development and much less on tournament play; there’s a 3-to-1 practice-to-game ratio, Bowen said. It’s a chance for players to work with new coaches and new ideas.
“I think it’s real important to get different players playing with different coaches, seeing different mindsets. You can learn a lot of things from different coaches,” he said.
Bowen believes it’s vitally important that young players have breaks, nonetheless.
“We take time off at the end of minor hockey – we’ve got two weeks off before our program starts,” he said. “Then four weeks off at the end of June but in between that’s eight hard weeks.”
“I think it’s better to have breaks periodically rather than just nine, ten weeks in one go,” he said.
“You’ve got to monitor that. Having time off at Christmas, at spring break, before spring hockey and after spring hockey – where you put everything away, you do something else, whether it’s read a book or play something else, it’s important that you manage that as a player and as a family,” he said.
“My fear is that spring hockey is getting real competitive and watered down – you’re either doing it serious or for fun. The guys who are trying to run programs in between, those are what you have to watch. It’s real important, especially the high-end programs, that there’s a balance,” he cautioned. “Kids should only be skating three days a week and parents need to realize that.”