When people ask me about the biggest things that have changed in hockey over the years, one of the things that inevitably comes up is the entitlement culture that has taken hold among many of the younger players entering the NHL. It’s not just a hockey problem. It’s a societal problem. As such, combating it is a major uphill battle.
By no means do I think today’s players are lazy or lack ambition. However, there’s an all-too-frequent attitude that rules only apply to others and everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault. That belief is quite often fueled by the young players’ parents and/or agents.
This is not universal, of course. There are still many excellent hockey parents out there and unspoiled players. But the bad ones often ruin it for the good ones and have become increasingly obnoxious and overbearing in the last 25 years or so.
The worst thing — absolute WORST thing — that ever happened to youth hockey was when the dressing room got opened to parents. Coaches could no longer coach teamwork and fundamentals, and could not prepare players for how things will be when and if they move up the ladder in this game. When the agents start to get involved, it’s even worse.
From the time he’s been out of diapers, little Johnny or Jimmy has been told he’s above everyone else and he’s destined to not only make the NHL but to be a star. Being a role player, even in the NHL, is never good enough.
He doesn’t have to respect the game but the game has to respect him. He doesn’t have to listen to his coaches. Every penalty he gets called for is a bad one, because the referee is out to get him. He never actually goes offside, because the linesman is incompetent. His production would be higher if only he had better linemates. It goes on and on.
It is sad, and it has really hurt our game. Again, this does not represent the majority of young players, but it has still become far too commonplace. Hockey parents, if you really want to help your kid make his way both in hockey and in life, emphasize character development. Teach your kids how to develop both accountability and acceptability, and they will ultimately go much further both on and off the ice.
There is more to hockey than stats and the decimal places in a paycheck. Character and coachability still count.
Last season, I got a phone call from the father of a current NHL player. He looked me up in Russia and said he was calling to “congratulate” me about something bluntly honest that I had publicly put out about about the way his otherwise gifted son plays the game. This player has an ongoing “gravity problem” as well as a tendency toward reckless disregard for other players’ safety.
“I’m calling to say good job on that blog you wrote about my son,” he said.
“Are you being serious or facetious?” I asked.
“Facetious,” he said.
“Then you have a nice day, and good luck to you,” I said, and promptly hung up.
I have known this player’s current NHL coach for many years. I would hope he can get through the guy with the way he coaches him. That would be my advice, at least, because once a player shows over and over again that he cannot be trusted by officials, it becomes tougher and tougher for the coach to trust that player, either.
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a different longtime coach who has a wealth of experience at both the NHL and minor league levels. He told me that it used to be a little easier to coach at the AHL level because the players knew they had to listen to you — whereas in the NHL, you are coaxing personalities as well as implementing systems.
Increasingly, the biggest challenge in coaching entry-level pros is not just teaching pro-level pacing and systems, it’s trying to get young players who are used to coddling to understand what actual coaching is about. Ice time is NOT an entitlement, and the rules apply only to others. Unfortunately, these lessons don’t always take hold, especially for the kids who simply bypass this type of education and find themselves handed NHL responsibilities they may be physically ready to handle but lack the personal maturity to handle.
Ever wonder why teams tire of some clearly talented young players — including ones who have put up some good numbers even at the NHL level — and they bounce around the league? The answer isn’t found on your Corsi charts, folks. It’s a maturity and character issue.
Playing the game the right way isn’t optional, and doing it for a few games and then reverting to doing whatever the hell you want isn’t being a coachable, team-oriented player. Don’t blame your coaches or GMs for why you are on your third or fourth organization. Don’t listen to the folks who tell you you’re going great because this squiggly line is superior to some teammate (who shows the right character and work ethic and commitment to the system). Don’t subscribe to the belief that the refs are simply out to get you.
Look in the mirror. Be honest with yourself. Be a man.
********* Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.
Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC).
The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget.
In addition to his blogs for HockeyBuzz every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Stewart writes a column every Wednesday for the Huffington Post.