It's a family affair

DAN TOTH, CALGARY SUN

, Last Updated: 10:43 AM ET

Hockey is a team game, but when one young player signs up, it's suddenly transformed into a family activity.

We're all better off for that, with plenty to be gained from the sport we love.

Day 1 of the minor hockey season is as much about enlisting parents to build a winning team off the ice as it is for putting a group of young players on the ice and improving their hockey skills.

While my 11-year-old son, Ryan, eagerly joined this autumn for his first year of peewee hockey in the Crowfoot Association, his somewhat reluctant father also signed on to help coach.

Little did I know, despite my reservations, the experience would be as valuable for me (or maybe moreso) than for my budding hockey player.

While the kids are sweating their way through skating, passing and shooting drills, the parents are learning virtues such as patience and understanding.

When we talk about hockey being the fabric of our country, we immediately envision Hockey Night in Canada or the Stanley Cup playoffs. In reality, it is the thousands of children from coast to coast, playing for fun, who make the game important.

It is part of our daily lives, mine included, and I can only hope Ryan one day passes along the passion to his son.

One parent of every other child on the 16-player squad -- as with each minor hockey team -- also put his or her name on the dotted line to play an off-ice role.

Peewee is the first year for body contact and while it is a crash course in checking for young players, the minor hockey experience can also provide a few bone-jarring jolts for the parents.

For most, the money spent is worth every nickel and the season can be a growing experience for the parents as much as the kids.

The commitment needed to make it all work is a shock to some, who naively think it is enough to pay the $600 registration fee while also doling out for increasingly expensive and rapidly outgrown hockey gear.

In fact, the financial obligation is merely the tip of the minor hockey iceberg, with so many other jobs needed to be filled.

There are managers, fundraising co-ordinators, treasurers, etc.

Without the volunteers, minor hockey would become as extinct as the old WHA's Calgary Cowboys.

Although coaching appears to be a simple and straightforward role, it is much more than just running the players through on-ice drills in practice and opening and closing the gate on the bench during games.

It is an induction into the contradictions that surround organized minor hockey, despite the honourable intentions of everyone involved.

While Hockey Canada is drumming home its message through TV and print ads, urging us to "Relax, it's just a game," a mixed message is sent to the kids.

Of course minor hockey is ensconced in the notion of "fair play" and "fun first," why else would any child want to play?

Regrettably, minor hockey is slowly developing the appearance of a mini-NHL.

The games are played in expensive arenas complete with referees, scoreclocks, official time keepers, scoresheets (in triplicate) and an occasional dash of over- exuberant parents.

Don't forget spiffy game sweaters, too precious for the players to cram into their hockey bags. Instead, the jerseys are carted around in garment bags like rented tuxedoes.

The standings are even published in the newspaper, fine for teams with winning records, yet squads that can toil through the entire season without hitting the win column also have their futility recorded in black and white.

Thankfully, none of this can tarnish the experience.

But sometimes lost is the whole reason organized hockey exists -- the pure enjoyment of the world's greatest team game -- one that Canadians excel at unlike any other country.

Getting back to our roots, rediscovering the reasons we love the game should be our priority.

It can still be found on the frozen ponds where kids play for the pure joy, without keeping score and free of parental control.

For the seventh consecutive winter, we've built a small backyard rink, no easy accomplishment in Calgary's unpredictably mild weather.

It is a pleasant reminder of what the game is all about.

Gripes aside, each day as a minor hockey dad also comes with a healthy dash of pure joy, arriving in a variety of forms.

Ryan's first goal, an event that seeming took an eternity to achieve, lit up the young lad's face brighter than Christmas morning.

"See Dad, good things happen when you go to the net," Ryan smiled, proving he really is listening when I recite the same sage advice my father fed me.

Arriving home from the rink usually elicits a sincere, "Thanks, Dad, for taking me to hockey."

Reward enough for any parent.

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THE THREE STARS ...

Back in the day, getting your favourite team's jersey was next to impossible, unless you cheered for the Habs or Leafs. And if you did find one, chances are Mom shrank it in the wash. Now, hockey fans can wear exact replicas. And they don't shrink.

Hockey Night In Canada is as dependable as death and taxes. Sure, it's become Leafs TV, but at least the doubleheader allows western fans to feel in the game. And one plus is CBC doesn't have Pierre Maguire raving like a lunatic. Now, about that Greg Millen ...

Maybe it's global warming or the sheer number of indoor arenas, but don't you miss old-time shinny on rickety outdoor rinks with patches of concrete making even the best players do the face-first snow shovel? And all kids should have to look for the darn puck in a snowbank.


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