The NHL dream has never been more expensive, or risky.
For any NHL fan, the stories of the trials every young player goes through to realize his dreams are the stuff of legend. T.V. commercials glamorize fitness sessions with teenage superstars, who conduct their dry-land training with the help of an army of personal trainers and the best technology sports science can offer.
But behind the hype and the images that are routinely beamed into hockey households across North America, there are literally thousands of individual stories of players and families whose dreams never came true.
An effort to demystify the modern NHL dream is the subject of a new and important book by Ken Campbell, a reporter and analyst for The Hockey News.
Ken's research contains some startling findings, which should be closely examined by every one of North America's hockey parents.
Ken was gracious enough to speak with us about his findings, and the lessons they hold for all those who love the sport and the children who play it.
Q: Ken, the title of your book is Selling The Dream, which would seem to imply a focus on the business and marketing side of elite hockey pursuits.
Certainly, many of the stories you cover in the book hold lessons in that regard, but to start, perhaps you could talk about what you learned at the level of children and parents.
What was your most surprising find about how much time, energy and money many hockey families find themselves shelling out, in support of their child?
A: Actually, there wasn't one that stood out, but it does become a little mind-boggling when you put it down on paper. For example, in terms of expenses and lost wages, Matt Duchene's parents spent more than $300,000 on their son's hockey career; and that's just the financial sacrifices they made. That will actually turn out to be a great "investment" on their part, but what about the families who make all these sacrifices, only to find out there's not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
Q: While there will certainly be stories in which a family's investments, no matter how large, will pay off, as their son signs an NHL contract, you also detail stories of many families whose sacrifices have serious consequences.
Was there one that struck you as, perhaps, the most heart-wrenching?
A: I suppose the most drastic example was that of a young man by the name of Max Strang, a goaltender from the Pittsburgh area. He wanted to play in the Greater Toronto Hockey League (G.T.H.L.) so badly that his parents both quit their jobs and sold their house. For three years they lived on a boat, in 150 square feet of living space, in Port Credit Harbour near Toronto.
Their son played three years for three different teams in the G.T.H.L. and is now playing at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., where he's getting more academic scholarship money than athletic.
The Strang family certainly stands out; but I think anyone who makes that kind of sacrifice, only to be disappointed like that, would have a heart-wrenching story.
Q: As a hockey parent yourself, what do you think motivates parents to go to such extremes on behalf of children and what are some of the warning signs that things may have gone too far?
A: I think a big part of it is not that parents necessarily want to get their sons into the NHL, but parents simply want what's best for their children. The only problem is that once they get caught up in the elite stream of hockey, things can spiral out of control very quickly.
I think there are a couple of warning signs. The first is when parents start spending money on hockey and they wonder where it's all going. Another is when they start maxing out their credit cards and credit lines to pay for hockey. The third, and the most important, is when parents begin looking at their child's investment in hockey as a financial "investment."
You often hear parents say things such as, "Well, if he can just get a scholarship, then this will all be worthwhile." That implies that parents are looking for a payback on their investment and I think that's where it gets dangerous.
Q: One of the other things you touch on in the book is the raw and unforgiving math of just how many young men go on to play at the elite junior or college level, let alone the NHL.
Exactly how small a target are these families and young men shooting at?
A: A very, very small target. Regardless of the birth year, you're basically looking at about a 1-in-2,500 chance of playing one game in the NHL when it comes to the general population. When it comes to boys who play hockey, the chances are about 1-in-1,000 of playing one NHL game.
But even when you get to the elite levels such as major junior hockey, the odds are still against you. The fact is that players who play at that level basically have less than a 1-in-5 chance to play a game in the NHL.
When it comes to having a career of 400-plus games, the odds go down to about 1-in-20. So think about that. Go to a major junior game and look down both benches and you're probably looking at two or three players who will have an extended NHL career.
This line is often thrown around elite coaching circles and can often be understood to mean that, with enough practice, one can develop an elite set of skills.
Is this a trap hockey parents often fall into?
A: Yes, and those who are selling the dream are the ones most responsible for propagating it. With theories such as the "10,000 hours" theory, we've been led to believe that if we're willing to work hard enough and make enough sacrifices, we can become part of the elite. Which is a bunch of rubbish that fails to take natural talent or physical gifts into account.
Those who are selling the dream are giving the impression that all that hard work can be bought.
Q: This notion of the need for more hours of hockey training has given rise to a vast industry that caters to children seeking higher levels of elite training.
What surprised you about the size and cost of all of these services that market themselves to hockey families with young children?
A: Well, it's an enormous industry that is totally unregulated. Basically, anyone can sell himself as a skills coach. What is most surprising is how much money parents are willing to spend on their children and such a young age. Kids under the age of 10 are taking part in these things and their parents are spending thousands of dollars on it.
One parent I spoke to for the book was spending $20,000 a year on hockey for his kid, about half of which was for extras.
Q: One of the things that you talk about, and something that stood out for me, is the notion that a pathway to elite hockey may be beyond the reach of most families, because of the costs involved.
What are the implications of cutting off so many children from their hockey dreams at such a young age?
A: Well, first of all, I think you're cutting out an enormous number of children who might have as much passion and talent as other kids their age, but simply can't keep up because they don't have the resources. I worry about burnout and injury for those who play hockey 12 months a year.
I also worry about future fans and beer league players. If young people are being excluded from the game at a young age, will they have the passion to continue watching and playing the game?
Q: Finally Ken, as hockey parent, what lessons can your research offer for your fellow parents, who are going to raise their hockey-playing child in this environment?
A: I think there are a couple, and all of them involve having perspective. Parents, I believe, should think long and hard about the motivation behind their child's involvement in sports and if there is a perceived payoff at the end; that's the start of a very slippery slope.
In most cases, as well, I believe it's important that young people stay where they live to play hockey. So many families move around to chase the dream and, in almost all those cases, the player would have been just as well served by staying at home and playing with his friends.
That supporting a child in his or her aspirations to play elite sports is expensive will not come as a shock to most; however, Ken Campbell's research sheds light on the vast interconnected equipment and services industry that has risen up to market elite hockey to families with young children.
For the average hockey parent, keeping up with the Joneses has never been more expensive, and, for the truly ambitious, pursuing an elite hockey dream has never been a bigger gamble.
Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise stated, all quoted material was collected firsthand.
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