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Daily Dish: Guest Disher Cliff Cook Canadian Junior Hockey News

Published: Friday, 26 Jul 2019  
By: Cliff Cook


As I found myself suckered into a no-win conversation the other day regarding Tier III junior hockey, really my own fault, several things began to occur to me; some I’ve thought about for years and some that perhaps I had not prior.

I have long been a player advocate. No matter where I’ve found myself coaching or what age group, my players came before anything else, including my own career. I have been fortunate, yes fortunate, to be able to coach at the Tier III junior level going into my seventh season now and coaching youth hockey overall over 20 years.

But no level I’ve coached at has had the same level of scrutiny, debate or negativity of Tier III juniors. So, as I found myself going back and forth on a forum the other day arguing about the comparison of leagues, something kind of snapped with me and I found myself getting as upset about this whole Tier III debate as I have in many years.

Let’s begin with this, stop comparing leagues. It is, without question, the #1 question I get from players and parents during the recruiting season.

“How does your league compare to ‘insert league here’?”

My response is always that I refuse to compare leagues because there is not tried and true answer to that question. Every league, EVERY LEAGUE, has positives and negatives. Every league has quality programs and not so quality programs. Every league has high-character coaches/operators and shady coaches/operators.

I have had the fortune, yup said it again, to have coached in the WSHL, MnJHL (RIP), USPHL and now NA3HL, so I’ve seen what each league has to offer, good and bad (have worked for both in fact). I also have very good friends who currently coach in all those leagues, plus the EHL and the upper-echelon leagues of the NAHL, BCHL and USHL.

There is no cookie-cutter approach to finding the right Tier III home for your son. I wish there was, my life and the lives of my colleagues would be so much easier.

There is no tougher time of year for hockey families looking at junior hockey than right now. And here’s a newsflash, there is also NO tougher time of year for junior hockey coaches than RIGHT NOW. Recruiting season over the past 5-7 years has become a massive meat-market and the negative recruiting has put a dark cloud over Tier III hockey that some just won’t except will ever change.

With over 200 Tier III teams, you heard that right over 200, it’s a question of numbers now more than ever. I can’t give you the exact number of teams currently as that number seems to fluctuate by the day. Too many teams in Tier III juniors is something EVERYONE agrees on and yet little to nothing is being done about it.

I’ve been one of those who don’t see a change on the horizon, but deep down there is still a slight bit of optimism that someone in power can make the changes needed.

If that’s you, please step up!

But, enough of the negativity. Because as I continued with the conversation with the gentleman on the forum the other day and whether he realized it or not, I think not, we actually agreed on most things save for the league comparison issue, I was reminded as to why Tier III junior hockey is still important.

The kids.

Some of you out there forget, it’s about the kids. It’s not about the adults in the room. It’s not about me as a coach and GM, it’s not about owners or commissioners, etc. These kids are what makes this all work and their passion to fulfill their hockey dreams.

And it’s what makes junior hockey at ANY level, fun.

There is nothing that makes me happier than seeing a player’s face or getting a phone call from a player saying, “hey coach, guess what, I made the team!” or “hey coach I graduated!” I had a few of those calls just this past month in fact and it’s a reminder on those awful days of recruiting why we love what we do and do what we love.

Which brings me to my final point and whether that gentleman on the forum meant to or not, based on some of his comments I started to get the idea that he felt I should feel ashamed to be coaching at this level.

I am not ashamed; I am proud to coach at this level and proud to have coached in all those leagues.

Are there hard days? LOTS, especially this time of year.

But those success stories with these young men, whether that’s hockey-related or more importantly life-related make all those tough days worthwhile.

“For me success as a coach is defined by how many graduations and weddings I’m invited to by former players not by wins and losses,” now that wasn’t quoted verbatim. Try as I might I just couldn’t find the original quote or who said it, but the sentiment is what I live by as a junior hockey coach (maybe someone out there can help me find the original quote).

Sure, I made a lot of this about me, which is ironic considering what I said just about six paragraphs ago, but as I’ve talked to my buddies around the coaching world and discussed the state of affairs right now, I was reminded as to why we do this.

Prior to writing this I talked to a great friend of mine (who happens to coach in the USPHL by the way, don’t tell anyone, I don’t think our leagues are supposed to mingle, haha) about wanting to sit down and write this, but didn’t know if I should and he said absolutely I should.

My concern was making this too personal but having talked to so many of my coaching buddies, this is about all of us and more importantly about the kids and how, at the end of the day, all the negativity effects them more than any of us. We can be stressed, we can be frustrated, but these kids are just starting their hockey and collegiate lives. It’s up to us to provide the positive platform, whatever level of juniors that might be, to help them continue to chase that passion.

I implore all of us, coaches, general managers, owners, commissioners, etc to remember why we are here and if we see the negativity and bad situations around us, either try and help solve the problem or do what we can to rid Tier III of the problem.

We can all be better. It’s more than a game.


Cliff Cook is the Head Coach and GM of the Missoula Bruins in the NA3HL and a staff member of Victorious Hockey Company. He is entering his 40th year in hockey as either a player, official or coach and 20th season as a youth hockey coach overall.

Author: Cliff Cook


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