bounds down the steps into the basement of his parents'
house. He hops over his younger brother's toys that are spread
over the carpet and plops himself in front of the big-screen
TV. It's Wednesday night, and for the first time in years he
has plans to sit and watch an NHL game.
15 and a heck of a hockey player. He has good size, loves
to hit and glides effortlessly over the ice. The scouts have
been watching his development over the past few years and
love what they see. But this season Luke isn't playing. He's
caught in a trap by a hockey executive who's forgotten that
kids are more than pawns in his game of hockey power.
nothing original about Luke's situation. Each year kids who
play in leagues affiliated with the Canadian Hockey Association
sign a registration card that officially commits the player
to a particular hockey organization. Until the player is 18
years old, a parent or guardian must also sign. It's like
a contract. For the younger players it's a one-year contract,
but for older kids, like Luke, it's a two-year commitment.
season, in the first year of his contract, Luke was delighted
to play for the Rangers. The team was good, his teammates
were his buddies and the coach was demanding, but fair. When
they played poorly the kids got less ice time, but they also
got plenty of compliments when they worked hard.
fell apart when the genial general manager of the Rangers
decided to sell. The buyer wanted to do things his way and
got rid of Luke's coach, replacing him with a guy who pushed
a lot harder. The kids thought he was mean.
new general manager also took a harder line with the parents;
registration fees went up and deadlines for payments were
strictly enforced. But what bothered the parents most was
his unwillingness to listen to them. The old owner used to
let them air their complaints; he didn't necessarily change
things, but he listened. The new guy told them it was his
organization and he'd run it the way he thought was best.
showed up for the summer practices and was shocked by
the new way of doing things. The coach was gruff and abrasive.
He worked the players hard as they did simple drills time
after time after time. He made them skate until they dropped.
It was routine for kids to vomit from exhaustion some time
during the practice.
first exhibition game was a disaster. The team could do nothing
right and the coach got more angry after every shift. In the
first period Luke missed a check and that led to a goal; he
was benched for the rest of the game. By the time it was over
there were four players doing nothing except getting cold,
their punishment for making mistakes.
next day at practice was even worse. The team was put through
a gruelling series of drills. Then they stood and watched
as the four players who'd been benched were forced to do five
minutes of "starts and stops." When it was over
they were on the verge of collapse. That's when Luke decided
he'd had enough.
parents told him to give it another try. Luke's dad phoned
the coach to talk about Luke's reluctance to continue. The
coach didn't return the call. Luke went back to practice and
nothing was said.
few days later he got ready for the second exhibition game.
He played his first shift as usual, then the coach told him
to stay on the bench. Luke got on the ice once more in the
second period. He sat out the whole third period.
walked out of the dressing room as quickly as he could get
changed He certainly didn't wait for the coach's post-game
comments. He told his parents he was quitting.
next day Luke's dad, Phil, called both the coach and the general
manager. No response. Then he called the league office but
the league wouldn't intervene. His only way out was to work
with the coach or to get a "release" from the general
manager, the same guy who wouldn't return phone calls. If
he got the release Luke could play for another team.
word quickly spread that one of the best players in the league
wasn't playing. Coaches aren't allowed to talk with players
from other teams but parents can. The phone at Luke's house
kept ringing. Parents from other teams wanted to know what
was going on and they all had the same message: if Luke could
get a release he was guaranteed a spot on their team.
Rangers' GM still wouldn't return calls, so Phil took an afternoon
off work, drove to the guy's office and posted himself outside
the door. This time there was no avoiding the conversation.
tried to be pleasant as he explained that he was there to
talk about getting a release for Luke. He explained that he
understood the importance of the card he'd signed, but conditions
had changed radically since they'd signed up a year ago. Phil
was definite: if Luke couldn't get a release, he wouldn't
play hockey this year.
GM barely looked up from the papers that covered every bit
of his desk. "Luke's a good hockey player. He should
be out there, but there's no way he's going to play against
my team. The coach is there for the season and Luke plays
for him or he doesn't play at all. Your choice."
tried to go on but the GM dismissed him by picking up the
phone to make a call. The meeting was over and, for the moment,
so is Luke's hockey career. Instead of playing the game he
loves he sits at home and watches.