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Daily Dish: Engaging The Player Identity - Canadian Junior Hockey News

Published: Thursday, 22 Jul 2021  
By: Stephen Heisler,

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 and businesses.

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 needs oriented. 

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 community engagement.

The Challenge of Engaging Players
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. 

Smart 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 particularly upset.

The Hockey Player Identity
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. 

Unfortunately, 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 skill. 

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 the game.

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.

Author: Stephen Heisler from
Stephen Heisler has spent a lifetime in the game of hockey. Stephen is also working with individual teams, coaches, and players as a director with Victorious Hockey Company. Stephen, his wife Deysi, and four children reside in Orlando, Florida.

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