Letter From a Youth Hockey Coach

Letter Youth Hockey Coach
Sarah Davia, via Flickr

A youth hockey coach talks about the 5 things he’d like to see changed in the game

By Topher Scott

Dear Youth Hockey,

How is everything going on your end? Not great?

Yeah, I can see where you are coming from. I spent the past season as a youth hockey coach in your world, and my goodness, did I witness the craziness you have to deal with. From what I can tell, you have a really tough job ahead of you. But it’s time for you to step up. Like NOW.

Because I see your future. The way it’s headed. And I don’t exactly love what I see. Although there are many good people still doing incredible things on your behalf, there are also a lot of things that need to get cleaned up.

But before I get into that I think it’s important to say something first, and that is: Thank You.

What you gave me in my younger years will last with me a lifetime. You gave me lifelong friends, a tireless work ethic, a dream. But most importantly, you taught me lessons that I use every day as I try to live a happy, meaningful, fulfilling life.

You taught me how to be a good teammate. You taught me how to work hard towards a goal. You taught me how to fail and persevere. How to win. How to lose. How to be a leader. And how to have fun and be passionate about something greater than myself.

I owe my life to my youth hockey coach. And for that I will forever be grateful.

So let me shine a light on some things that need to improve on your behalf. These are things that have evolved since I was a kid, and are diminishing your ability to help kids grow and develop a love for the game.

What I am about to ask you comes from this one, singular belief: That your number one priority should be in doing what is best for the kids.

Here we go:

No. 1: Ban the words  “Elite” and “Showcase” from anything in the summer

Tell parents to stop spending their money on these countless “elite” events in the summer. For one, a youth hockey coach doesn’t like recruiting at that time of year. They will tell you that making a decision on a kid in the summer comes with enormous risk, because… well… it’s summer hockey. There’s no competitiveness, it’s all about the individual (not the team), and many of the kids look tired and burned out.

Many a youth hockey coach will even tell you that going to a summer showcase is actually harmful to a kid’s exposure, because all we see in summer hockey are individual bad habits.

Tell parents that if they want to spend money, spend it on something useful that will benefit their kid’s development. Hire a trainer, go to a reputable camp or two, chip in for skill sessions, or even play another sport. These kids need time away and balance to maintain their passion for the game. The summer is for recharging the battery and focusing on becoming a better hockey player… not for the pressure of playing in front of scouts.

Put the focus on development, not exposure.

No. 2: Bring U18 Hockey Back to the Forefront

When I was a kid, I would beg my parents to let me stay at the rink to watch Midget Major (U18) hockey games. That was the level we all aspired to play at. We would stand by the glass and watch in awe as those older kids would play at a pace that we thought rivaled the NHL.

But today, U18 hockey has unfortunately become an after-thought. Why? The abundance of really, really bad junior teams.

These teams are piling up players who should be playing midget hockey—at home—by selling families on the fantasy that their kid will get seen all the time because it’s Junior Hockey.

And since everyone is in such a rush nowadays to make a commitment, kids are leaving very good midget programs earlier and earlier to play low-level junior hockey. This creates a trickle-down effect that waters down every level below it.

But here’s the thing: Kids don’t get a college commitment because they play junior hockey. They get a commitment because they are a good hockey player and a good person.

Taking a young kid away from home to play junior hockey is bad for their development as a hockey player—and a person. I should know, as I played in juniors when I was 15. And looking back, it was one of the worst experiences of my hockey career.

I wasn’t physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to handle playing against kids up to four years my senior. And I wasn’t mature enough to be part of a team where teammates had such a different life experience than me. I left that year feeling the worst I’ve ever felt about myself and the game of hockey.

A kid’s work ethic, attitude, and consistent improvement are what gets them noticed. Not the level they play at.

No. 3: Educate Parents on the Role of Advisers

Before I begin, let me just say that there are really good advisers out there. These are guys that have a track record of representing successful players whom I trust and do a really good job. They care, they are organized, and they are genuinely good people.

But ask any of them and you’ll find they do not want to chase around 14- and 15-year-olds. They think it’s insane, immoral, and an incredible waste of their time.

But that’s the way their business is nowadays. And it has gotten that way because there are countless other “advisers” that are courting kids younger and younger and promising them the world.

And since most first-time hockey parents admittedly don’t know a lot about the process, they listen, sign up, and pay these people a ton of money.

First: Tell parents to do their research on anybody that is asking to be a representative of their child. Because at the end of the day, this person will be attached to their kid and to their family’s reputation… for the good or the bad.

Here are a few examples of the questions they need to ask about a potential adviser:

  • Are they honest with my kid on their strengths and weaknesses?
  • Are they honest with my kid about how he or she plays, after a game?
  • Are they honest with my kid that it’s their work ethic, not their adviser, that gets them noticed?
  • Are they honest with my kid about their contacts? Or are they just going to put him or her with one of their buddy’s teams?

See a trend? Families need to steer clear of people who promise their kids the world and tell them they are “studs” or “sure things.” These “advisers” are business people, not hockey people. The advisers that are honest are usually the ones that have the real relationships with coaches in the hockey world.

As a youth hockey coachell parents to ask the right questions. They will find out very quickly who they can trust and who is just a salesman.

Second: People working in junior, college and professional hockey have contacts that are far and wide. Scouts work ridiculously hard and are very good at what they do. They don’t spend 200+ days a year on the road and hours a day on the phone for nothing. If a kid is good, they will be found.

And that is because of their work ethic, a consistent improvement in their abilities, and a high level of character. Not because they had someone being a salesman on their behalf. That is what a good adviser will tell them.

No. 4: Get Rid of All Those Ranking Reports and Websites

Every time I have a conversation with a parent about how their kid’s team is doing, they always tell me where they are ranked in the country, where they should be ranked, where other teams are ranked, and how they can move up in the rankings.

Apparently, this “My Hockey Rankings” site is a big deal. I honestly never heard of it much until recently. But I guess people are really, really into it. Heads of organizations tell me that some parents wake up at 3:00 a.m. once a week when the page updates to see if their team has moved. If they go down: TRAGEDY! If they go up: EUPHORIA! This site epitomizes everything that is wrong with youth hockey.

I shudder when I see youth teams ranked. I shudder even more when I see youth players ranked. I once saw an article ranking the top 2003s at a tournament. Those kids were 13 years old! How in any way can that be good for the kids?

I’m glad that I’m not 13 years old today—or even 14 or 15. I wouldn’t have been able to handle what these kids have to go through. As a young teenager I cared a lot about what other people thought of me. I would have based my confidence on what those “reporters” wrote about my abilities, and I didn’t have the social or intellectual ability to handle that.

There are pros that don’t have the ability to handle that.

I just had fun playing hockey. It was a game I loved to play. But the pressure that these kids are under to perform at such a young age strips them of their passion to play the game. And all these ranking sites do is exacerbate the problem. Tell parents that you are about improvement—not about rankings.

No. 5: Eliminate the Saying, “If I Don’t Do ‘X’ I Will Get Left Behind

  • “If my kid doesn’t go to ‘X’ showcase, he or she will get left behind”
  • “If my kid doesn’t play for ‘X’ team, he or she will get left behind”
  • “If I don’t recruit other teams’ kids, my youth team will get left behind”
  • “If I don’t recruit younger players, my program will get left behind”
  • “If I don’t sign younger kids, my company will get left behind”

There are a few common themes regarding your problems today. They are centered on how everything is getting younger and how you have become such a business. And we are all guilty of saying any of the above statements at some point in our workings in your world. From the top of the hockey ladder down. As a college coach, I know I am.

Hockey is a sport that is celebrated for its competitive nature. It’s what sets our great game apart from all other sports. But our competitiveness as adults is beginning to ruin our game for the kids. Parents, youth hockey coaches, advisers… we are forgetting that the decisions we make and the things we say have real consequences for the kids we are trying to develop.

Turning you into a business and exposing kids to certain things before they are ready are not good for our sport. They are counterproductive to a child’s development and hinder their passion for the game. We all need to take a look in the mirror and decide whether or not the actions we take are good for the kids, and good for the sport as a whole.

This leads to me to my last and most important thing you need to do:

Educate the Youth Hockey Coach (and Parents) on What You Are Really About

Hockey is an ever-evolving sport that requires a consistent willingness to learn and change. There is still a lot that I don’t know about the game. But here’s what I do know:

  • You are about development… Not about winning at all costs
  • You are about fun… Not about pressure
  • You are about relationships… Not about getting a leg up on others
  • You are about being hard on kids… Not about giving them a trophy
  • You are about teaching life lessons… Not about money
  • You are a game… Not a business

I have everything in my life right now because of you. The values, the people, the experiences, the memories… I would not have these if it weren’t for the platform you gave me years ago. I cannot begin to tell you how appreciative I am for the opportunities you laid in my path.

And I am so lucky that my parents and every youth hockey coach respected you. They understood what you represented and allowed you to teach me things that I continue to use in my life, every single day.

And as I enjoy my growing family, I can’t help but think to the future and envision what you will give to my children. If it is anything like what you have given me, there is nothing more that I could ask for as a parent.

Thank you, and with much love,


Topher Scott both played and coached hockey at Cornell University, and is a former Chicago Steel hockey player. His article “Dear Youth Hockey: 5 Things You Need to Change” appears on the Prodigy Hockey website. Published with permission of Prodigy Hockey, a website that helps educate players, coaches and parents on the game of hockey.

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  1. Dear Topher,

    Thank you for the very nice letter. I sincerely appreciate the time you took from your day and the passion of your words. As I ponder the many items you mention, I thought I owed you a reply.

    First, times have changed since you were a kid but we’ll cover that in more detail in a moment.

    Summer Showcases: Coaches & scouts may not like being at summer showcases but they are there. Despite the downsides, you mention it is an opportunity for them to watch players that may not be on their radar; players from smaller programs or lower level schools that they wouldn’t otherwise see. In addition, as you know, Coach, you are mired in all sorts of regulations limiting your contact with kids. This is a chance for them to reach out to you, to learn about you and your program. It might be a complete waste of time for 99% of the attendees but for 1% it’s worth it, and besides, it gives your program some added exposure.

    Juniors: You are correct, in many ways Tier-III Juniors is having a negative affect, particularly in my favorite part of the country, New England. But don’t blame me in the rise of “pay to play” schemes; rather, look at your fellow coaches, fellow taxpayers, and free market economies.

    Let’s start at the top with coaches. At the NCAA level, you are becoming big business. But there is a dirty little secret you don’t want getting out. In addition to the traditional boosters funneling money your way, so are professional clubs. You see the NHL likes a system where kids graduate at 24 or 25, as it allows them to delay making decisions on players until they are much more mature. Additionally, if they don’t sign a player until he’s in his mid-twenties, they get him in his prime years on a rookie salary wage. This is the reason you resist any significant changes to the current system, as you realize it will hit your pocketbook.

    If the NHL turns back north again to the CHL because you no longer have grown men graduating your ranks, not only will it impact your pocketbook but will make it harder for you to recruit players. You see, I firmly believe part of the reason you have become such an attractive alternative to Canadian Major Junior hockey is more teams are selecting players heading your way. As one GM once told me, “I will almost always draft a college bound player after the 3rd round. At best it’s a crap shoot at that point and the longer I can delay making a decision on a professional contract, the better the chances I’ll make the right one.” You know that if you lost that particular advantage, you will not only lose the money but many of the players as well.

    At the lower ranks, your fellow coaches have ruined town hockey with the “friends and family plan.” Perhaps you should have done a better job in monitoring this all those many years ago. It’s sort of sad that by 9, kids can correctly name the makeup of the top team before evaluations simply by looking at who the coach is going to be. As kids progress to high school, friends and family may be out the window but many of these coaches care only about W-L, not about developing. Go to a practice, from D-I to D-III high school level and you will see the same thing, first lines and pairings getting 60% of the reps, second line 30% while the others stand around waiting for their turn. Again, don’t blame me, blame your colleagues who, through their actions, are pushing the 3rd & 4th line kids (usually sophomores) to private teams as they are going to get significantly better development opportunities. Once a kid leaves public high school hockey, he seldom returns.

    Now onto your fellow citizens. Years ago, most rinks in New England were owned and operated by the state, well at least in Massachusetts. However, because these citizens are a generous lot, having zamboni drivers as state employees became problematic. When we embarked on the great rink expansions in the ’70s, we didn’t exactly think about the guy driving the zamboni was going to be collecting a pension in 1990.

    We also didn’t really think through how expensive these rinks were going to be to maintain once the shine left them. So your fellow citizens, through their elected officials, decided to privatize the rinks. The state still owns the land but the taxpayers are off the hook for all the perks. However, like any private company, the new operators wanted to turn a profit. Perhaps you didn’t know that even when kids aren’t out there skating, the owners are still paying the operating costs. In order to ensure a profit, these newly minted rink operators needed to rent more of the ice, which resulted in expanded operating hours. This helped lead to the explosion of club teams in New England, along with parents & players having seen enough of the “friends and family” plan noted above, as the rinks needed more paying patrons.

    This leads me to my last point, free markets. I’m with you. I miss the old days but these owners are simply responding to a market desire. If the market couldn’t or wouldn’t bear all of these teams, they simply wouldn’t exist. If coaches at the lower college ranks (D-III) didn’t recruit 20-year-old freshman, Tier-III wouldn’t exist. If high school coaches worried half as much about development as they do winning a game with only two lines, full season U18 and U16 wouldn’t exist. If town hockey had taken the idea of rewarding kids for development, rather than who they know, fewer club teams would exist.

    Hockey is still a great game, and continues to teach all of the lessons you learned & maybe even some new ones. Unfortunately, it seems as though I never taught you about economics, brand marketing, or employee management. I will work on that. In the meantime, feel free to blame parents, club owners, etc., for all the evils that have beset this great sport. Just make sure you don’t look in the mirror, for that is where much of the blame lies.

    Youth Hockey

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