When this site was still in its infantile stages, I put the word out to many of my hockey-loving writer-friends that they were free to pen a post for me whenever they felt the need to get something off their chests. One of those people was my good friend Scott Millin, who has served as the Chelmsford (MA) Hockey Association president for the last several seasons.
We spend a lot of time on this site waxing poetic about the beauty of our sport – the creativity, the open air, the roots. But in his first entry on Backyard-Hockey.com (written prior to the NHL agreement), Scott speaks of the ugly business side of hockey, a side many of us either don’t see or refuse to acknowledge for fear it will tarnish the game we love. But whether or not you want to believe it, this side of hockey exists. As you read Scott’s post, keep in mind that each of us has the ability to steer our hockey life, and the hockey lives of our kids and friends, back towards the origins of our game. It’s ok to play with wooden sticks. It’s ok to skate on ponds. And it’s ok to play for the non-select town team your dad played for a generation ago.
Here’s to Scott and a return to the hockey roots that escape us every now and again. -Joe
The Business of Hockey
Why the spirit of the game is dying in the NHL and in youth hockey
Everything dies baby, that’s a fact.
And everything that dies someday comes back.
Fans of the National Hockey League are hoping the Boss’s lyrics ring true in 2013.
Professional hockey in North America is effectively dead, and we fans are forced to wait, endure the NBA, and hope that the NHL owners and players can somehow breathe life back into it. The two sides have been arguing over the business (the money) of hockey and, to date, have killed the 2012/13 season.
Sports radio talk show hosts and columnists tell us that these next few days represent the sudden-death overtime of negotiations. If a deal is going to get done, now is the time for the two sides to perform a “miracle off-ice” if they hope to salvage what is left of the 2012/13 season (which at this point has been reduced to the 2013 season).
So while we mourn the season’s continued passing, let us take a minute to remember the wonderful, rich life hockey once had.
For those of us who reside in New England, hockey’s genesis in popularity can be traced back to the Boston Bruins’ two Stanley Cups in the early 1970’s. Before then the NHL was not hugely popular in the United States beyond a small, loyal following. But the success and fun-loving personalities of those Bruins teams won over the hearts and minds of the people, particularly the children. Similar stories played out in other American cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York. The game of hockey was catching on, and the NHL was maturing and on the cusp of a major growth spurt.
Professional players like Bobby Orr became a household name, and suddenly little Johnny was shooting tennis balls at his goalie/younger brother in front of the family garage, and with his baseball glove stored snugly in that garage for the winter, little Johnny learned to skate like Bobby. To do that, he took to whatever ice he could find, often a nearby pond or lake.
For me that place was a small, man-made pond tucked on the edge of a forest behind my house in Rowley, MA. It was known as Jaycees’ Pond – named after an organization of local businessmen by the same name.
The Jaycees got together and hacked back the reeds, dug out the muck, and created a small earthen dam. What once was a swampy drainage area that collected surface runoff from Main Street was turned into a tad pole teeming pond in the summer – which morphed into a beautiful black tablet of ice in the winter.
The pond was a gift to the people of Rowley, and it allowed friends and families to skate figure 8’s, play hockey, and spend time outdoors together during the long winter months.
Jaycees’ Pond helped fuel the spirit of the game of ice hockey, and it was only appropriate that it was christened by Boston Bruin Johny Bucyk on a frigid opening night in January of 1971. Hockey players have a reputation for being the most likeable and approachable professional athletes (perhaps being cold all the time keeps one humble), and they became the game’s best ambassadors.
In the following years and decades, professional and recreational hockey soared to incredible heights.
The NHL went from a fourteen team league in 1970 to its currently constructed thirty team league. They expanded south and west, and now play the game in sunny states where at one time ice was only known as something you put in your tea.
Towns formed organized programs and leagues to accommodate the growing numbers playing the game, and ice rinks sprung up in cookie-cutter like fashion. Girls cracked through the frozen ceiling, women’s leagues were formed, and pick-up and adult “beer leagues” became available for just about any age group.
The NHL owners and players – and the fans who loved to watch and play the game – were partners during this period of expansion and growth.
So what is the problem with the game of hockey? What is the state of the game today?
In my opinion, with the good came some inevitable bad. Success breeds competition. Competition breeds self-interest. Self-interest breeds greed. Like acne on a teenager, there were blemishes popping up at the professional and local levels of hockey as it went through its growth spurt – and we are now left with the scars to prove it.
The current year marks the NHL’s 3rd labor dispute in the last eighteen years. There were labor stoppages in 1994/95 (468 games lost), 2004/05 (1,230 games lost), and 2012/13 (625 games, and counting). During that time, the equivalent of almost two full seasons worth of games, millions of dollars in revenue and salaries (including small, local businesses who depend upon the NHL’s success), and an immeasurable amount of good-will have been lost.
I am no expert on labor issues – nor do I want to be. But I do know that I love to watch hockey, and I can’t because two sides are having an argument about money. The owners and the players need to play nice in the sandbox and get a deal done. Compromise on your bottom lines and your egos, share your untold riches amongst yourselves, and be happy with the game. Hockey may be your business, but we are your customers. Here’s a toast to the New Year, and to hoping that you remember that.
A League of our Own
The impact of business on youth hockey is less dramatic, but perhaps more damning.
A seemingly endless amount of cottage industries have evolved within the youth hockey realm. As a hockey parent, coach, and president of a local youth hockey program I have seen it firsthand.
Youth hockey leagues, for the most part, are no longer formed cooperatively by towns. They are now often created by private entities and hockey rink owners who have elongated the youth hockey season, in some cases from September into April – a whopping eight months long. All that ice usage adds up, and someone has to pay for it.
The hockey business is booming for these folks, but it is no longer affordable for just anyone. Families pay near $2,000 (some slightly less, some significantly more) each season to play hockey, and most of that goes to pay for ice. The cost to the boys and girls who spend more time playing organized hockey than playing with their friends can’t be measured, but my instincts as a parent tell me it can’t be a good thing.
Companies promoting their photography services bombard me with emails and phone calls at the beginning of each youth hockey season, and then as the season winds down, emails pour in from “select” teams trolling the youth hockey waters and inviting players to their team tryouts for next year. These are the same “select” teams who have their players (as young as 7 years old) sign contracts.
Originally, select teams were once truly that – they “selected” players from town hockey programs for an all-star team of sorts, and town players would play for both their town team and their select team. Now “select” teams are inviting and enrolling players of all levels, enticing players from the highest skilled to the lowest skilled town teams – growing their rosters and teaching the game of course, but also lining their coffers.
The “select” hockey business is booming, and as a result town hockey is contracting. “Select” teams like to refer to town teams as “recreational hockey” programs –as if they somehow lack the competitive element that is necessary to develop and bring their players to the next level. I ask the question, “Who would want their 9 or 10 year old playing for anything other than recreational purposes?” But, branding yourself as the better pair of jeans or the better brand of hockey is smart business, I suppose.
Town hockey isn’t dead, but some of the principles that helped grow the game of hockey at the grass-roots level are. What ever happened to playing with your friends and the people you go to school with? What’s wrong with wearing your town’s name on the front of your jersey?
A hockey program is only as good as the coaches and people who run it – and while hockey knowledge is important, so are a person’s motivations and priorities. Town hockey programs are non-profit and run by volunteers from within the community they serve. This doesn’t make them better hockey programs necessarily – but it makes them less vested in the business of hockey.
Parents are perhaps the biggest contributing factor to the state of the game today – simply because we have the power to make choices. Some unwittingly, and the rest quite willingly, fall victim to their own desire and need to have their child be (or feel like they are) the best.
We parents, at both the town and “select” levels, think nothing of spending money and time on hockey, and the allure of little Johnny playing in high school, college, or (suppressing laughter) the NHL is too great for us to resist. Gone are the days of shooting on your little brother in front of the garage. $200 sticks and $500 skates are manufactured and marketed at the youth level by the major sports equipment companies. Parents and coaches receive emails bombarding them with tantalizing offers of custom sticks and monogram sweat suits and equipment bags. Our kids deserve the best of everything, right?
As parents we are the consumers and the customers. We choose to buy what the companies who are in the business of hockey are branding, marketing, and selling us.
Bringing it Back Home
In the summer of 2010 I returned to the town I grew up and to the pond I learned to skate on over thirty years ago – the Jaycees’ pond, built by business owners for the benefit of, and at no cost to, the community.
What I found was an overgrown, seemingly unused, marshy plot of land. The pathway to and around its banks were overgrown. The changing shed built for skaters had been removed or had simply rotted away. The body of water once teeming with life had retreated and was nearly swallowed up by the foliage. As I made my way down the sloping bank and pushed my way through the tree branches, I found myself standing on a soft bed of mushy grass and reeds. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the time I stood in the same spot, in my skates, having just spent the afternoon skating with my friends until it was dark, slapping the one coveted puck we owned with our $5 wooden sticks.
The U.S. Geological Survey defines “eutrophication” as, “A natural, slow-aging process for a body of fresh water.” But that process can be accelerated when surface runoff containing man-made fertilizers drains into it. The increased algae levels reduce oxygen, which kills more organisms, which turn into sediment, which raise the level of the bottom of the pond. Plants and reeds begin to settle and creep in along the edges, and eventually, the body of water is no more. The pond dies.
Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing, and as human beings, we tend to learn that the hard way. The NHL, youth hockey organizations, and the Jaycees’ pond are all suffering from man-made elements. The business of hockey is choking the fun and the spirit from the game, just as the process of eutrophication is suffocating the Jaycees’ pond.
These may be the ramblings of a nostalgic man, living in his ideal world. Hockey may not really be dead. Perhaps it is just evolving. But I submit that through all these changes, the spirit of the game will continue to live, and someday, hockey will come back.
When it does, here’s hoping the game of hockey is closer to the way it used to be.
Agree with Scott? Disagree? Do you feel the burden of hockey as a business, or do you work through it in a creative way? Let us know in the comments.