There is an ambitious trend among national
governing bodies of Olympic athletics to re imagine youth sports, prioritizing
health and inclusion.
This is not the first time national interests have
overlooked the differences that is the core of ice hockey as a game. It is
nonetheless disappointing given the recent strides made in the way the game
looks at individual differences.
A number of junior hockey programs have developed
plans that integrate players with the community, and the fruit of those plans
is often higher attendance numbers. Successful clubs are reaching out to a larger
range of community groups in an effort to gain greater commitment to the idea of
interacting with their clubs. These partners include an ever-widening array of organizations
Junior hockey clubs have valued community involvement.
Club websites feature mascots hugging children, players taking part in events
for charity; teams wear pink uniforms to raise awareness for breast cancer and players
stop by local schools and hospitals to meet children.
While these types of community experiences appear
to be relatively popular with hockey players and they are undoubtedly good
public relations for the team, they fall short of meeting the public purpose of
higher education (that of educating players in the duties of citizenship). It
appears that the overwhelming approach of teams to community is charitable and
These charitable models are rarely trans-formative for players or
the communities, as they don’t require athletes to build relationships with
community members which hoped to create the need in the first place. And while clubs
have photo albums bursting with charitable activities, few if any gauge the
difference that community engagement makes.
If players are part of an ongoing
program reading to children, can the club show that the intervention of players made a measurable difference in the children’s reading scores? If not,
why do they continue to run the program? Clubs vest great significance in
performance as a measure – coaches are fired and hired based on their records
of wins and losses – so why is there such little interest in the outcomes of
The Challenge of
The challenge to engaging players deeper into
the community with activities is practical. Clubs don’t have a history of
working closely with civic organizations and players often find themselves as
little more than ornaments when they are at events.
Practically, players rarely have the time to
engage in civic work. Most players spend more than 35 hours a week
participating in team related activities, including practice, competition, and
travel. The reality is that players are exhausted, juggling the demands
of game with service expectations and often, jobs. A lot of players are also
trying to squeeze school into that equation as well. Not surprisingly, when
asked what they would do with more time, most players would quickly
respond with one word…sleep.
For any number of reasons, the service and civic
organizations have largely ignored hockey players. I believe that some of the
indifference to players has to do with the negative perceptions of athletes. Hockey
players are often stereotyped as clannish, self-involved and anti-intellectual
– more likely to harm community than to really help it.
The reality is entirely different. Hockey at the
junior level has positive effects on players’ civic habits, skills, and character.
Junior teams can have a powerful and positive influence on their players,
particularly in demonstrating and reinforcing community values.
organizations know that one of the best predictors of future civic engagement
is the extent to which players participate in activities that expose them to
working collectively toward a common goal, offer opportunities to listen to
different perspectives and ways of thinking, and require players to assume
leadership. These types of experiences help players hone the skills of
self-awareness and self-control that are indispensable for their futures as men.
One of the best arguments for players is that the game fosters values. Players
practice and wrestle with concepts of justice, equity, diversity and duty every
day. Learning to temper and control impulsive behaviors and self-centered
inclinations in the service of a larger, more collaborative goal is so
naturally aligned with the game that when players transgress we are
The Hockey Player
Hockey teams are typically comprised of players
from very different lived experiences. But the physical and emotional intensity
of the game at this level, including long trips with teammates and difficult
practices, often create spaces for authentic conversations. Many players
understand the value of diversity at depths well beyond others in the same age
group, and the imperative of ‘having your teammate’s back’ is quite literal
within the game. As such, players can be very adept at consensus building and
negotiation- skills that are imperative to a team’s success.
hockey players often do not have the time to develop identities beyond that of
‘hockey player.’ This ‘player identity’ can lead them to minimize time spent on
activities outside of the game. While players, like their others in the age
group, have multiple identities, there is a strong social benefit for
identifying primarily as a player. A failure to integrate identities is not
limited to hockey players. Just about all in this age group (16-20) are often
fixated on their potential vocational identities.
Being a hockey player at the junior level often
carries a powerful sense of self and community. Especially in markets that strongly support the team.
Undisciplined players often engage in public
behaviors that align more with perceived perceptions than with true normal behavior.
As a result, some hockey players drink excessively and/or dismiss
responsibilities because they are stooping to the perceived social norms as
opposed to pursuing more realistic goals.
Much of this has to do with the
examples and expectations that communities have set for their junior hockey
players. But again, ignorance is not limited to players. Many young people
embrace the perceived norms of communities and in the process compromise their
social, moral, and civic development. We must acknowledge that this idea of
‘perceived norms’ is a two-sided coin. With encouragement and support, players
are as likely to pursue ‘loftier goals’ and exhibit character and integrity.
This idea of character development seems to
strongly resonate with clubs and is often regarded, as one of the reasons
junior hockey exists at all. While character is an important element of any sport,
it’s a limited framework for understanding the junior level of hockey. Hockey
players tend to think that the junior team is a useful part of maturation and
development process... and it is.
Through competition, hockey players hone important
cognitive skills like observation and description, the classification,
synthesis and interpretation of data as well as translation and articulation.
In an athletic context these thinking skills are essential for mastering a
complex defense, assessing an opponent’s game plan or mastering a technical
These skills are often developed sequentially, one building upon the
other and demonstrated over and over again in practices and games with feedback
from coaches and teammates. Perhaps most importantly, these ‘feedback loops’
often occur under stressful situations that require hockey players to take
initiative, exercise creativity, and assume responsibility for how their
decisions and actions affect an outcome.
When they succeed, hockey players increase their
self-confidence, and when they fail they learn from the subsequent feedback and
revise. These feedback loops help players learn to tolerate frustration and failure.
This tolerance for failure combined with the development of complex thinking
skills can make hockey players better college students and informed members of
society. The ability to tolerate frustration and work in concert with others
toward a larger goal is a characteristic of good players and good citizens.
But perhaps the most compelling argument for
developing relationships between players and our civic service
organizations is that community partners want the community’s team and the players
are great ambassadors for the way all teams can be employed to serve local communities.
There are numerous examples of hockey players making significant contributions
to community through their work in anti-racism, fair play, inclusion, and
cancer awareness. When players act on their values they can have a great deal
of influence on the public and reach people who are completely alienated from
While there are legitimate questions about the time
commitment junior hockey demands and its impact on the players, it’s important
to note that the vast majority of junior players are late adolescents
struggling through developmental stages and striving to be good people. Their on-ice
experiences can facilitate their community development and hone their sense of
social responsibility. Their work ethic brings prestige to the team
and increase a sense of community.
While many are eager to offer criticism on the place of
junior hockey in the community, we need to balance that with recognition of the
civic value that the team can help to cultivate.
* Disclaimer: This site may contain advice, opinions and statements from various authors and information providers. Views expressed in this article reflect the personal opinion of the author, Stephen Heisler, and not necessarily the views of JuniorHockey.ca. JuniorHockey.ca does not represent or endorse the accuracy or reliability of any advice, opinion, statement or other info provided in the article, or from any other member of this site.