Coaches courted with payment in minor hockey

In the world of minor hockey it's becoming more and more common for coaches to receive payment for their expenses and their time, and some say it's a necessity to offer incentive to draw in an experienced coach.

Gone are the days when all coaches were unpaid volunteers

For 30 years, Martin Salter's only payment for coaching other people's kids in Vancouver's minor hockey system was thousands of cups of coffee. He never expected anything more.

He sacrificed vacation days for away tournaments, he ran 6 a.m. practices, he mentored his assistant coaches, and he never got a dime for it. Until this season.

Salter, 47, was wooed to join one of the largest associations in the city with an offer to coach any team he wanted, plus $5,000 to cover expenses.

"Somebody's going to pay me, and I can coach whatever team I want?" says Salter. "That's a good thing, you know, after coaching 30 years."

It's the reason he left the North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association, where he'd been a fixture behind the bench for 22 years. Now Salter is head coach of the bantam A2 Vancouver Thunderbirds.

His situation is far from unique. It's becoming more and more common in the world of minor hockey — coaches are receiving payment for not only their expenses, but for their time, too.

One of B.C.'s largest minor hockey associations, the Thunderbirds started paying experienced, non-parent coaches three years ago at a starting rate of $3,000. There are now seven paid coaches on the roster, financed through registration fees that cover a variety of administrative positions.

League executive director Adam Hayduk says an honorarium is almost a requirement to land a good minor hockey coach these days.

"What we're finding is there are only a select number of really good coaches in the Lower Mainland that are non-parent coaches," says Hayduk. "They are becoming increasingly a more valuable commodity to minor hockey associations, so when these guys become available, it's almost become a necessity to offer incentive."

Victoria's offer: $1,500-$7,500 per season

That's why the Victoria Minor Hockey League changed its ways this season. For the first time, out of town expenses will be taken care of for all coaches, and on top of that, every elite coach will be eligible for payment of between $1,500-$7,500 at the end of the season.

The extra cash will be doled out when a team and league determines a coach is deserving, and executive director Rob Richardson says that might not even happen at the end of this season.

"It will take time to recruit some of the coaches we want in the system, so as we progress through to improving the quality and level of coaching we can offer, that's something we can turn to," Richardson says.

The idea behind the cash and paid expenses is to show appreciation for coaches who are volunteering for a job that requires more hours than it did a decade ago.

"We're asking coaches to put out more, more practices, more development, so we have to be willing to give more," Richardson says. "If our coaches are being asked to perform at a higher level, we have to compensate them for their time."

The decision to reward coaches in Victoria comes as a result of a high turnover rate in the league, with coaches leaving because the commitment is so onerous. This spurred Richardson to research minor hockey associations across Canada to find out what works best when it comes to rewarding coaches.

"It really is all over the map in terms of what associations are doing. Toronto, that's the extreme, where the most money is in Canada," he says. "I think part of why it's different everywhere is because nobody's come out, whether it's from Hockey Canada or a branch, to say, 'We appreciate and recognize the value of our coaches. Here's the compensation we recommend would be fair.'"

Paid coaches in Newfoundland's future

It hasn't hit Newfoundland yet, but president of the province's largest minor hockey association Jack Casey says he sees paid coaches coming to St. John's Minor Hockey in the near future.

The association of 900 players doesn't pay salaries or honorariums to coaches right now, but parents and the league get together to foot the bill for tournament expenses for non-parent coaches.

"We're kind of struggling with this issue, actually," Casey says. "We're all sort of saying to ourselves the day's probably here that the commitment for these things is so big you have to pay people to do it."

The coach of an elite team needs to take at least a week off for tournaments during the year, Casey says, a big commitment.

"We've had two or three potential coaches come back to us in the last 10 days and say, 'I'd love to do this, but the commitment's huge, and I can't get my employer to give me any time off.'"

At the major midget level, he says, Newfoundland is one of few Atlantic provinces with elite teams where the coaching job is fully volunteer.

"We're almost like the odd man out now," Casey says. "Paying seems to be where it's going to end up going, particularly if you want to get an exceptionally qualified coach."

Yet there are still exceptions, and leagues that don't seem to be moving in that direction. NDG Minor Hockey in Montreal, one of Quebec's biggest hockey associations with more than 800 players, does not offer an honorarium or expenses paid to coaches.

"We've talked about it, but we really don't have the funds," says president, Ray Mason. "Hopefully we don't have to move in that direction because we'd have to charge more money to have people register."

Edmonton 'playing the old game, the way it used to be'

Same goes for the Edmonton Minor Hockey Association, where president Lorne MacDonald says non-parent coaches may have some expenses paid for, but nothing more.

"At the moment it's really not even on the cusp, there's really no complaints," MacDonald says. "It's still strongly looked to as a volunteer position.

"We're still playing the old game, the way it used to be."

For a veteran coach like Salter who was behind the bench 30 years before any money was offered, the $5,000 he'll receive this year from the Thunderbirds is a welcome change.

"I'm reimbursed for what I put out, and that's a big help," he says. "If I take the team to a provincial championships, that's a reward. I look at this money as more of a reimbursement. They're paying me to get to games, get to practices.

"I think it helps a non-parent coach with no kids in the system. It takes some of the pressure off."

It's also a drop in the bucket when you consider over the last 30 years, Salter has coached more than 7,000 kids and spent more hours in arenas than he can fathom.

"The cost?" he says. "A lot of grey hairs.

"Well, let's see, if they'd paid me at minimum wage for the 30 years I've been around, they would owe me about $280,000.

"But even if they didn't pay me, I've got pucks in the blood," he says. "I'd do it anyway."

This is the second of Our Game's three-part series on paid positions in minor hockey. Also see part one: 'It's supposed to be volunteer', and part three, Big bucks behind the bench in the GTHL.