I heard the story of a promising young hockey player today. He was tall for his age, with a hard shot and nice skating ability. He was always picked for the all-star teams and played in the toughest tournaments. His skill caught the eye of more than a couple of junior hockey scouts and he was chosen very high in the QMJHL draft. At sixteen, he and his parents faced a difficult decision. The young man wasn't the most mature sixteen-year-old ever born but he was so good at hockey it would have seemed cruel to forbid him to pursue his dream. They decided he could go for training camp and see what happened. He was lucky enough, and good enough, to make the team. His parents then had to choose to hand over custody of their impressionable son to a team of strangers and a family they'd never met.
It turned out to be a bad decision. The talented kid, away from home for the first time, ended up billeting with a man with gang ties. At sixteen, he was handed a bag of cocaine and told to "go have a good time." Not long after that, he started missing buses and turning up late for practices, and he began to get a reputation for having "attitude" issues. He lasted most of that rookie season before addiction caught up to him. The following year, he stayed in the Q only a little while before falling out with the team and having no choice but to quit and return home. He never managed to get straightened out, and now that boy plays for a pick-up junior team in his hometown.
That's not the kind of story you hear every day, and it's an extreme example of the perils of leaving home to chase the hockey dream at a young age. But, it's an illustration of one of the many reasons why the Canadian junior hockey system is not healthy for developing young men.
Physically, junior hockey is as demanding as the pro game without any of the luxuries. Teams play nearly seventy regular-season games, often travelling for hours by bus to get to road games. On those road trips, they eat fast food more often than not, so nutrition and sleep are often neglected by boys who are hoping their bodies will be their passports into the world of hockey riches.
Then there's the physical disparity among the players. Junior hockey accepts players between the ages of fifteen and twenty, so it's not unusual to see 5'8", 160lb sixteen-year-old rookies sharing the ice with 6'2", 200lb twenty-year-olds, with the benefit of three or four years of junior experience to their names. We saw the results of that when 204lb, 20-year-old Michael Liambas hit 175lb, 16-year-old Ben Fanelli hard enough to put him in intensive care. I honestly think Liambas didn't mean to cripple Fanelli. But his being so much heavier, older and more experienced helped make the hit a very devastating one.
If players manage to survive the physical hardships of junior hockey, they then have to face the struggles of trying to keep up with their studies. The sad fact is, many of them don't bother. Some are sure hockey will provide enough opportunities to make education unnecessary. Others just can't keep up. I spoke with the dad of a junior player who told me his son is expected to spend up to three hours at the rink and in the gym every morning. He goes to school in the afternoons and has games or workouts most evenings. There's no way he can keep up with a full class load, so he takes fewer courses than most of his classmates. Even with a reduced workload, he finds it nearly impossible to stay on top of homework and assignments. So, this year, when his classmates graduate, he won't be among them. He'll have to continue with high school for an extra year, perhaps even two, to get his diploma. The dad I talked to says his son will graduate because it's a condition of his parents' permission to play hockey. But some parents aren't as insistent and some kids aren't as motivated. There are kids playing junior hockey who aren't getting any schooling at all.
Then there's the emotional toll on players of having to leave home and family before they're ready, if they want to pursue a hockey career. Players find themselves living with strangers who may or may not provide the encouragement and support young men need as they're growing up. They get lonely, discouraged and scared. They can fall prey to people like Graham James, who made Theoren Fleury's life a hell.
And there're the temptations they face. Boys who were a big deal in their hometowns suddenly find themselves stars in bigger centres where hockey is a main attraction. There are puck bunnies, drugs, booze, sharks claiming to be agents and other hangers-on. There are the stupid things teenaged boys will do when they've got too much time together with too little to occupy it.
What's most bothersome about junior hockey though, is that adults are using children to make money for their teams. And make no mistake, at sixteen or seventeen, these boys are children. When money's involved, not every team is going to worry about whether the children in their employ are eating right, getting enough sleep or studying like they should. When billets are in short supply, not every team is going to thoroughly screen every volunteer who takes a kid into his home. These kids have no CBA that ensures they get their fair share of the money they help bring in. One hockey dad told me he has to send money every month to supplement the stipend the team pays his son, just to ensure the boy is eating properly.
It doesn't amaze me that some kids...many, many more than the junior leagues will admit to for fear of image problems...fail to make it in junior and disappear from hockey. What does amaze me is that so many of them actually survive the experience and go on to become successful hockey players. Even then, while they're successful at hockey, a lot of pro hockey players aren't successful at life. The limited experiences junior hockey provides them in their formative years don't teach them how to relate to people outside their own teams and social groups. They don't take part in extracurricular activities or expand their studies outside hockey. And they live in a culture in which decisions are made for them and life revolves around the rink, the gym, the bus and the bar after practices and games.
There are exceptions, of course. Some players take it upon themselves to improve their minds and involve themselves in their communities. But life in junior makes accomplishing much outside hockey a difficult task. Still, junior is so entrenched in the old-world mindset of the hockey community, it will continue to work in the flawed manner it does now, paying only lip service to the well-being of the kids in the system.
I much prefer the American college system, in which players live normal university lives, play a reasonable number of games during the winter, and have time to study as well as play. The system has turned out a good many top-tier hockey players, and many more well-adjusted, well-educated young men. The junior scholarship program offering a year of university for every year of junior played just doesn't compare, with the lack of focus on studies at the high school level making it tough for players to qualify for university when hockey's over.
Parents have to make a choice. They have to decide whether to expose their kids to the perils of the junior system, or insist on their sons going to college if that option is open to them. A lot of parents, unfortunately, see only the hope in a budding hockey career and not the perils awaiting their son if he doesn't make it. They make choices on the assumption that their kid has the ability to make it as a pro. And sometimes, junior is a boy's only option if he wants to continue to play hockey at a high level.
I was really glad to hear Louis Leblanc had decided to go to Harvard. A lot of fans are complaining about the lower-level Harvard hockey program, but sometimes it's not all about hockey. Leblanc is talented and smart. If he wants to use hockey to ensure his future with a Harvard education, good for him. Players are pushed too hard too young anyway. Better for Leblanc to balance hockey with life and become a more well-rounded person, if he's to withstand the pressure he'll face to succeed in Montreal.
The boy whose sad story I heard about today has a younger brother. He's a real up-and-coming hockey player. About the same time his brother was struggling with the beginning of a drug addiction in junior, the younger kid was sent to Toronto to play against better competition in the city Metro league. He was thirteen, and the team had promised to find him a good billet. The parents met the billet family and were convinced their son would be in good hands. But just before the season began, the billet family withdrew from the program. The team didn't tell the kid's parents, so when the mother went to Toronto a week into the season to see how her son was doing, she found him and another thirteen-year-old living in an apartment by themselves because the team couldn't find another billet and didn't want to lose the players. This time, the parents took their son back home, against his protests. When he was seventeen, he went away again, this time to play junior. He ended up billeting with the owner of the team, who made sure he stayed on track.
He's doing well, but the parents will always worry and wonder whether junior hockey will end up chewing up and spitting out their younger son like it did his brother and so many other kids they'll never hear about.