Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tournament Time! Hockey Parents, Referees, No Sleep Tonight

Congressional Something-or-Other Tournament is happening this weekend at one of the rinks I work at, so I'm logging a ridiculous number of extra hours at the scorekeeping gig.  It's very different than my normal work, and not just because it's a tournament.  I've only peripherally worked with kids games before (and, surprisingly, only ever as a ref).  We've got several levels of play represented here, from B to AA-Travel (there's a team that came down from Toronto - 10 hours in a bus), as well as age ranges (Squirt/Atom to Bantam), so I've been getting a good look at different aspects/elements of hockey parents and kids teams.

Based upon 24 hours of extensive observation, I've come to some broad and generalized conclusions.  Brace yourselves.

So, here's the thing: 90% of hockey parents on the whole are awesome people.  They're into the hockey because their kids are into the hockey (or because the family as a whole is), they actively support their kids with encouragement and positive reinforcement, they have at least some understanding that it's a game (especially at the Squirt/Atom level).

The percentage drops a bit when you get into the higher-tier teams for a number of reasons, beginning with financial and time investments and ending with parents wanting to fulfill ambition through their kids, but it's still well into the majority.

To go down the same road that pretty much every major sports psych analyst has trod over the years, a brief look at the pressures that competitive sports exert upon kids.  For one thing, the older kids get, the stronger the pressure to win becomes - it comes from the kids and their social/peer groups and from the parents and organizing bodies of the teams.  Everyone wants to be able to list "State/League/etc Champion" on their college applications and their Facebook page, and you can't really blame them.

Then, there are the kids who are on that cusp of maybe-possibly-almost-good-enough-to-think-about-College/Pros (and the kids whose parents don't understand that they're not on that cusp).  In the North American systems, kids get singled out as talented and special in hockey incredibly young, so those pressures start early and only get stronger.  Those are the AA kids, and their parents are most likely to be the textbook definition of "Hockey Parents" that make referees and other spectators at games cringe.  Sometimes they're in the crowd, and sometimes they're on the bench.

I've spent four games sitting next to aggravated hockey parents in the last 24 hours, because teams send a volunteer to sit in the penalty boxes and open/close the door as needed.  I have heard grown men using language aimed at twelve year olds that would never be tolerated against adults, never mind being considered anything short of abusive in contemporary Western society.  Not going to harp/dwell (and it's certainly not a phenomenon that's limited to hockey, by any means), but it's no wonder that by the time kids hit Juniors their vulgar language habits are firmly entrenched.  Not to say it happens on every team (or that spouting some obscenity is the worst thing kids can do, though there *is* a case to be made for degradation and dehumanization issues), but the exposures are certainly there.

We had a couple of kids get 2 & 10 for unsportsmanlike, and I had to explain to them while they sat in the box that saying "Fuck" in front of a referee is an automatic 10 Minute Misconduct under USA Hockey rules.  Refs will allow some flexibility in enforcement if a player isn't real blatant about it and they figure it'll get the frustration out of the way in (relatively) non-confrontational ways, but technically it's supposed to be a no-flexibility call.

This morning, in contrast to yesterday's drama, I had a B-level squirt game.  It was amazing.  Laid-back parents, no fuss when kids were penalized, and the kids all looked to be having a genuinely good time - even the losing team (and it was a blow-out).

Now, in all fairness, the refereeing can make a huge difference in managing the crowd and overly-dramatic parents.  When situations start escalating, the appearance of professionalism and even the pretense of listening to bench-concerns can undercut the sense of righteous indignation before it reaches problematic levels.  Nothing pisses off parents and coaches more than a ref who looks like they'd rather be anywhere but the rink, who clearly doesn't want to be there or is unwilling to commit the effort required to make good calls - even if it's just a matter of appearances and they really are calling a sound game.


Now that I've beaten a dead horse (and while the topic *is* addressed at the USA Hockey training seminars, a fair portion of those who attend don't understand the importance of it, and the ref learning curve is hugely dependent on whom one gets paired up with early on in the running.  Bad habits beget bad habits, and all that), I'm back to work another 8 game stretch (broken up by two 45 minute driving intervals, yay!!).

I haven't spent this kind of time at one sports event since I organized/worked/competed in Wrestling tournaments in high school.  Man, was that a lifetime ago...

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