When a tryout is not a tryout: Survival tips for hockey parents

It's tryout season — the annual, gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing rite of passage for young hockey players and their parents. Here are a few tips to help you get through it.

4 pieces of advice for navigating a strange, stressful rite of passage

The tryout process in minor hockey may seem absurd, but parents need to know the ropes in order to give their kids the best possible experience. (Shutterstock/Lorraine Swanson)

The weather is getting warmer, but don't put away your hockey bags just yet. In arenas across Canada it's tryout season — the annual, gut-wrenching, anxiety-inducing rite of passage for young hockey players and their parents.

I'm relatively new to this world. My son is a nine-year-old goalie vying for a roster spot in the highly competitive Greater Toronto Hockey League, where the game can seem like a full-time job and teams are often formed over hushed conversations and secret skates that take place months before formal tryouts begin.

As I've learned, it takes patience, diligence and a dash of aggressiveness to navigate tryout season. Here are a few pieces of advice to help you get through it.

Tryouts aren't always tryouts

If you're heading into tryout season thinking all you son or daughter needs to do to make the team is prove themselves on the ice, you may be disappointed. In Toronto, the tryout process actually begins months before. Parent phone coaches. Coaches reach out to potential players. Informal or so-called "birthday skates" are held  (as in "Of course we're not holding an unsanctioned team practice. It's one of the kids' birthday," wink, wink). By the time tryouts roll around, the team is basically formed. For parents new to all of this, it can be dizzying and confusing. 

"There is the actual system, and then the real system where most teams are trying to put together their teams ahead of the tryouts," says Aaron Rosenthal, a Toronto hockey dad with two sons who play. "That's the nature of the way the GTHL and the NYHL [Toronto's two biggest leagues] have functioned over the years. Teams are unfortunately made in advance. And never truly opened up."

Tom Bly, the Chair of the Ontario Minor Hockey Association's Coaches Program, does not approve of pre-formed teams. He believes a lot of coaches often don't want to go through the awkward process of cutting a player, but competitive tryouts can foster improvement and growth.

"If your best player knows that they won't be pushed to improve," he asks, "What kind of culture is that?

"I instruct coaches all of the time that if, in their heart of hearts, they know they are not going to offer that child an opportunity to play, put your big-boy pants on and tell the player and the family before the tryouts."

Things change — fast

In the world of minor hockey, the ground is constantly shifting. Just when you think things are settled, they change. Take my son's team for the upcoming season. Or what I thought was his team for the upcoming season.

Heading into tryouts, everything appeared to be in order. My son had been told he had a spot on the team and it looked like only a few roster spots still needed to be filled — those rare spots that would actually be decided in tryouts.

In the Greater Toronto Hockey League, a team's roster can be mostly set by the time tryouts begin. (Erin Riley/GTHL)

But attendance at the first tryout was curiously low, prompting a flurry of emails and rumours that the team was folding and the coach was leaving. I thought the situation would work itself out, but the second tryout saw only six skaters show up. It was clear this team was in trouble.

How could something that seemed viable crumble so quickly? That leads to my third point.

Parents can be irrational

When I talked to the coach afterwards, he was beside himself. He was a non-parent coach, eager to impart his knowledge and love of the game. Why, then, were parents bailing on him left and right for other teams and opportunities?

It's hard to say, but I've learned in the world of minor hockey that many parents are constantly hustling for a better opportunity or situation for their kid. They may commit to one team while feverishly searching for something better.

Bly has a theory on why parents do this.

"It's a step-over society and people don't care how many people they need to move out of the way to get to what they perceive is their right spot at the table," he offers. "They don't care who they destroy as long as they have a better seat."

You have to play the game

Some parents may think they can exist above the fray, away from all the madness, that they're better than this. Maybe that's true, but taking the high road may only hurt your child in the end.

The most noble of parents, the ones who think they are doing the right thing, can end up seeing their kid without a chair when the music stops. It may sound harsh, but the way things are, you need to actively advocate and sell your child. You need to do your best to stay ahead of the ever-shifting politics and always-changing alliances.

Sure, it all sounds unseemly. But that's the hockey environment we've created, and it will probably stay this way until somebody has the guts to change it.


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC