Some hockey wisdom from hockey giants

My dad, Bob Dunn, used to be a sports journalist. He had the 1960s storybook experience of starting as a paper boy in Winnipeg at the Tribune, getting on doing odd jobs in the news room, and managing to work himself into a desk job and, eventually, up to a position as a columnist not only at the Trib, but also at the Vancouver Sun, the Montreal Star, Sports Illustrated and for Reader’s Digest, if you can imagine. He now writes a cruising blog six times a week, and he’s still a talented writer.

Since Gareth, who’s now eleven, is a thrice-weekly hockey player, we’ve had our share of experiences of the hockey mom/dad/coach, though thankfully few. Dad sent this old article he wrote, somewhere around 1985, with some opinions on hockey fundamentals from legends of the game, Scotty Bowman, Howie Meeker and Ken Dryden, three men who my dad had the opportunity to interview a number of times over the course of his career. While some of the info is dated, I thought it worthwhile to share…

Three years ago, the University of Saskatchewan’s athletic department conducted a study for the Saskatoon Hockey Association on minor hockey.

It compared boys who had dropped out of hockey with boys, of the same age, who were still playing. Also involved were parents.

The study touched the three levels of minor hockey, which this week is being celebrated coast to coast — players, coaches, parents.

The results were these:
• The reasons the boys wanted to play hockey were fun, skill development and being with friends. You may notice that “winning” did not make the top three.
• The qualities players wanted to see in their coaches were encouragement, attitude and fairness. Once again, desire to win failed to make an impression.
• Nearly 50 per cent of the parents quizzed said they wanted their boys (and girls) to play hockey to “develop good sportsmanship.” However, the players believed 76 per cent of their parents exhibited poor sportsmanship.

In at least one Vancouver-area arena, there is a sign that reads:

“Hockey is for the kids. Let’s keep it that way.”

When it comes to minor hockey, EVERYONE has an opinion, and each of them deals with kids, or coaches, or parents, or all of the above. But there is more to minor hockey, and to Minor Hockey week.

* * * * *

Scott Bowman is recognized as the greatest coach in the history of the National Hockey League, and with good reason. Earlier this season, his Buffalo Sabres won a game that made him, statistically, the winningest coach ever, surpassing the immortal Dick Irwin.

The side of Scotty Bowman that few see is that of the hockey father. It has given him reason to analyze the grass roots of the game that has consumed his life.

“My own philosophy,” he says, “is the young boys are playing far too young. I really can’t buy this at all. I think we’re influenced by Little League baseball. When my son was five, he could’ve been involved in hockey. A boy that age is getting one hour of practice time. He thinks he’s a hockey player. A boy 12 years old is probably getting the same. The problem is that, for the 12-year-old, cannot replace the eight-hour day that kids on the ice had 25 years ago.

“My son was figure skating when he was three. When he was five, there were boys in the neighbourhood who’d played two years. They couldn’t skate close to him. They could play hockey better. But when I put a puck and a stick on the ice and stood him in front of the net, he shoots them in the net and doesn’t skate. That’s got to be the thing you shouldn’t be doing.

“Our biggest problem is allowing these boys to get on a team. They’re outfitted like a National Leaguer. If he never had equipment and all these things until he was 10 or 11, he’s got something to look forward to. I know one boy — he was six — who was in the program and came home one day and said he didn’t want to play any more. He said to his mother, ‘I go to school five days a week, and teacher tells me what to do; on the weekends, toy and Daddy tell em what to do. Can I have one day when somebody doesn’t tell me what to do?’”

The Bowman method would be to take hockey back outside, for the kids, something that can be done in the 90 per cent of the country that excludes the Lower Mainland. He contends that more kids would play hockey if there were backyard and street-corner rinks, and if they didn’t experience playing indoors until they were ten.

“You’d develop a lot better skaters,” he says. “This was a concern of the NHL. There’s been the odd team has done it without skaters, but they’ve bent the rules pretty much to do it.”

* * * * *

Howie Meeker can be loud, as his legions of TV fans and foes know. For years, he has been just that — loud — whenever the subject of Minor Hockey week comes up.

As a man who runs a highly-successful hockey school, he is well aware of the values of minor hockey. He is equally aware of its flaws.

“The biggest problem we have,” he said during one such interview, “is it’s designed to further the abilities of the boy who is eventually going to get to the NHL. It’s not designed to keep in the game the boy who has average, or less than average, skills. We must teach skills — how to skate, how to develop power on the inside/outside edge, how to skate backwards, how to make 180-degree turns, how to handle the puck, how to give and take a pass, how to think at the same time when he’s moving his hands and moving his feet and moving the stick and moving the puck. All of these are teachable skills.

“That is a major reason why we have 100 boys playing at ages 7-8-9, and ninety at ages 10-11-12, and forty at 13 and twenty at 14-15. By the time they’re 16, there are maybe three boys left. It can change. More players are realizing that their boy who is of average or less ability loved hockey at 7-8-9-10, and now he doesn’t play. I see this revival and tremendous growth of oldtimer hockey and I think it’s a crime all these guys had to quit at 14 and wait 20 years before they could get back into the game. We have to teach them the skills, make them very proficient at skating and handling the puck in the early formative years.”

Meeker’s deep-running feelings get right down to the nuts and bolts of hockey, too.

Equipment.

“Two things,” he said. “One, skates have to fit, and you don’t fit the liner to the skate, you fit it to the liner. When the toe’s touching the end, to take a pair of scissors and cut the toe out of the liner. When the toe’s touching again, you take the scissors and cut the heel out. The skates will always fit, and you’ll get two and a half to three years out of every pair of skates. The second thing is the stick has to be cut off at the chin or lower. Then, the boy is teachable.

* * * * *

Ken Dryden has been retired from hockey for almost six years. As a product of minor hockey, of college hockey, of international hockey, he’s aware of the right way and the wrong way to play the game. Or at least he has an opinion.

As an all-star who spent the ’70s in goal for the Montreal Canadiens, he’s aware of the tremendous influence the NHL has on minor hockey.

“The NHL for 30 or 40 years existed by word of Foster Hewitt’s mouth,” Dryden says. “so you could essentially build up your local styles and have local people have great influence on minor hockey and on different styles. For the last 25 or 30 years, there’s been considerable homogenization of hockey with television. Just as a national advertiser has a way of dictating taste, so the NHL as the only national hockey entity really dictates what form hockey takes in all of the outposts of Canada. And it dictates that as the highest model of the sport.

“You can say all you want about junior hockey operators having too many goons or too many one-way hockey players. If you have goons and one-way hockey players on your NHL team, there’s going to be considerable attractiveness towards that style of play. The kids are not influenced by junior hockey, they’re influenced by the NHL. It’s easy to decry the fact kids don’t learn how to check, but if those who do know how to check aren’t drafted until the fourth or fifth round, then there’s a considerable incentive towards learning how to score and not much incentive towards checking.”

Dryden has a theory on handling this role model approach by the NHL.

“The NHL can provide an active role with junior hockey because it is a funder,” he says. “It’s a funder of junior hockey. It’s a funder of Hockey Canada. There are a lot of very good people there, and there are a lot of very good people around the country who have good ideas. But our hockey has developed through the NHL and the NHL, until recently, was not very receptive to the approaches of the colleges, of academics, of minor hockey people who are very willing to involve themselves to work on programs.”

* * * * *

A hockey father is said to have written this letter to his son’s first coach:

Dear Coach:

Tomorrow morning my son starts hockey. He’s going to step out on the ice and his great adventure, which will probably include many joys and disappointments, begins.

So I wish you would take him by his young hand and teach him the things he will have to know. Teach him to respect the referee and that his judgement is final. Teach him not to hate is competitors, but to admire their skill. Teach him that it is just as important to be a playmaker and get an assist as it is to score a goal.

Teach him to play as a member of a team and never to be selfish. Teach him never to blame his goaltender when a goal is score against him, because five mistakes were made before the puck got to the goalie. Teach him that winning is not everything, but trying to win is.

Teach him that it is far more honourable to lose than it is to cheat, and teach him to be a competitor. Teach him to close his ears to the howling mob and to stand up for himself if he thinks he is right. Teach him gently, but don’t coddle him.

This is a big order, coach, and I place my son in your hands. See what you can do for him. He is such a nice little fellow.

* * * * *

A hockey player is said to have written this letter to his parents:

Dear Mom and Dad:

I hope you won’t get mad at me for writing this letter, but you always told me never to keep anything back that ought to be brought out in the open. So here goes.

Remember the other morning when my team was playing and both of you were there watching? Well, you kind of embarrassed me. Remember when I went after the puck in front of the net trying to score and fell? I could hear you yelling at the goalie for getting in my way and tripping me. But it wasn’t his fault. That’s what he’s been told to do.

Then do you remember yelling at me to get on the other side of the blueline? The coach told me to cover my man and I couldn’t if I listened to you, and while I tried to decide they scored against us. Then you yelled at me for being in the wrong place. But what really got me was what happened after the game. You shouldn’t have jumped all over the coach for pulling me off the ice. He’s a pretty good coach and a good guy and he knows what he’s doing. Besides, he’s just a volunteer coming down at all hours of the day helping us kids just because he loves sports.

And then neither of you spoke to me the whole way home. I guess you were pretty sore at me for not getting a goal. I tried awfully hard but I guess I’m just a crummy hockey player. But I love the game. It’s a lot of fun being with the other kids and learning to compete. It’s a good sport. But how can I learn if you don’t provide a good example? I thought I was playing hockey for fun, to have a good time and to learn good sportsmanship. I didn’t know you were going to get so upset because I couldn’t become a star.

Category: Gareth, Lincoln
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