by Hannah K.
As a (soon to be) sports and recreation professional, I get a lot of questions from parents regarding the development of their child athletes. This being Canada, the birthplace and centre of the Universe for hockey, I get a lot of youth hockey-based questions. A common question is around youth attending hockey-based schools and development programs. Many parents want what’s best for their children and will do everything they can to try to give them the best chance of making the National Hockey League (NHL) but wonder if the expense and time spent away from home are worth it. I will give my opinion, but I find the most useful way to address this with parents is by presenting them with facts.
As a note, there have been several professional women’s leagues over the years, but they have only recently started paying players and it is a supplemental income, not a primary one. For this reason, and the fact that there are few statistics available for female hockey players, this blog post will stick to male players. When female players start playing hockey as a primary source of income the question can be revisited from that perspective.
There has been a trend in recent years of hockey schools and developmental programs popping up in high numbers across the country. Many are affiliated with an elite level team and there’s significant pressure on parents to enroll their child in these expensive programs in order for them to get to the next level and ultimately to the NHL. The schools tend to have a keen focus on hockey and very little academic focus because their credibility and therefore marketability is governed by the quality of teams and athletes that they produce, not by their students’ academic achievements. They also insist that the child participate in hockey only and extend the season with camps and spring/summer/early fall programs to keep kids playing hockey, and paying money, year-round.
The first thing I’d like to address is the chance of a player making the NHL. There have been several studies done on the slim likelihood of a child making it to the NHL, the most often cited one was done by Jim Parcels in 2003. In Mr. Parcels study he follows approximately 30 000 minor hockey children born in Ontario in 1975. The 1975 group was one of the stronger years for producing NHL players. His findings were:
- 30 000 played minor hockey;
- 232 were drafted into the OHL (Major Junior), of these only 105 played OHL;
- 42 were drafted by NCAA teams but this has been steadily trending down and full scholarships are pretty much non-existent now,;
- 56 were drafted by NHL teams, 48 of those were signed by a team;
- Of the 48 signed by teams, only 39 actually got an NHL contract;
- Of the 39 with contracts, only 32 played in the NHL;
- Of the 32 who played only 15 played more than one season;
- Only 6 played 400 games, the league minimum to be eligible for a pension.
Those were pretty long odds back in 2003 for Ontarians (approximately 1 in 1000) but Hockey Canada uses a number of 1 in 4000 so the chances in the rest of Canada are even slimmer.
Another of the issues with these schools and camps are that they often carry a hefty price tag. Most of the elite programs on the shoulder seasons of the regular season require the child to pay to play (generally a high price that includes paying for ice time, referees, coaches pay and travel and a profit to the organization) plus travel, lodging and food for the player and his/her parents. Hockey schools across Canada have tuition and residence fees of up to $50,000 per year. Often parents will argue that is an investment if their child can at least get skilled enough for a full University scholarship, but these are a myth as well. According to Tim Turk Hockey, the average sports scholarship in Canada is just over $1,000, not nearly enough to cover even tuition at a Canadian University. NCAA schools in the United States can offer full scholarships for Canadian athletes, but it is a very rare occurrence as more and more American youth are playing hockey, and at a much higher level. Therefore, it is likely to occur even less, if at all, going forward.
Early specialization, as we have discussed in our class, can be a major issue in youth sport. In these hockey schools or intense training programs, there is often a huge emphasis on playing hockey and hockey only. Specialization can lead to burnout, injury, inability to learn transferrable skills, and an overall loss of interest for youth in their sport. There is some research studies done on professional athletes and their experience with early specialization vs. multi sport and often times they highly recommend to stay in multiple sports for as long as you can (Russell, 2014). Multi-sport athletes have a much more well-rounded skill set that makes them an overall better athlete and positions them for better hockey success. Wayne Gretzky, Brendan Shanahan, John Tavares and other hockey stars were also great lacrosse players; Steve Nash could have been a professional soccer player but chose to be an NBA MVP. Sydney Crosby teaches kids to play diverse sports at his hockey school in Cole Harbour, N.S. based on the same logic that I, and several others in the sports world, have been embracing.
So, based on all of the above, when pressed for my opinion, I generally make a recommendation similar to that of Mr. Parcels’ study. If they want to put their child into developmental programs and schools in hopes that they will end up an NHL player, then they’re probably setting themselves and their child up for disappointment. If they feel that participation in these programs is what’s best for their child’s full development and it does not interfere with school and other interests, then by all means enroll them, just be sure to temper your expectations to reflect the facts.
Russell, W. D. (2014). The relationship between youth sport specialization, reasons for participation, and youth sport participation motivations: A retrospective study. Journal of Sport Behavior, 37(3), 286.