Year-round hockey a growing dilemma for parents

In today's hockey, it's not uncommon for kids as young as six and seven to be on the ice 12 months a year. But research shows taking a break and trying another sport is actually better for kids.

Say no to spring hockey and risk your child falling behind

Things like spring hockey have become part of the development suite for kids that's seemingly necessary to compete at the highest level. (Jeremy Mandell)

Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest hockey player ever, never played hockey in the spring or summer as a child.  

For years, Gretzky told reporters about how when the hockey season was over, he'd put his bag away and enjoyed baseball, lacrosse and tennis. For years he spoke about the importance of a being a multi-sport athlete and the dangers of hockey burnout.

The game has obviously undergone a tremendous evolution since Gretzky was a kid. Just watch the speed and fitness level of the current NHL game.

Gretzky knows the idea of putting away the equipment today is unthinkable.  His family even operates a summer hockey camp in six North American cities.

In Canada, the hockey season never ends. There never seems to be safe time to put the bag away.

Today, it's not uncommon for kids as young as six and seven to be on the ice 12 months a year.  

During the steamy summer months, there is an endless array of camps for parents to choose from.

But the real growth has been in the months in between. The growth of spring hockey continues to explode.

Mark De Ciantas is the owner of Golden Glide Hockey and one of the players on Toronto's crowded spring hockey landscape.

The company, which runs clinics and camps during the regular season, operates seven spring teams at different age levels.

"There are more teams, no question, because anybody can put a spring team together. If you can access 12 players that want to play, you can put together a spring team," De Ciantas says.  

"People think this is an elite thing. It's not anymore. Back let's say 15 years when I was playing, spring hockey was an elite thing, now it seems everybody plays spring hockey."

De Ciantas says the growth of spring hockey is simply a response to parental demand.  Across the GTA there are hundreds of spring teams that play in 4-on-4 leagues or in various weekend tournaments, many in exotic locations across North America. A typical spring team will pack six practices and three or four tournament into a tight six week window.

"People realize now that it's a 12-month a year sport. You can't really take time off and expect get better," De Ciantas tells CBC Sports. "Every other kid is getting better playing 12 months of the year and if you are taking time off, you kind of fall behind."

Research contradicts year-round hockey

Most of the research says that's actually not true, according to University of Toronto professor Katherine Tamminen. For overall long-term development, taking a break and trying another sport is actually a good idea.

"I think we have developed a narrative around the need to specialize. That's the message being sold and told, but there isn't much research that supports that approach being better than playing other sports," Tamminen says.  

"Taking some time off, playing other sport, developing different skills, being coached by different people, interacting  with different adults, different groups of friends is all important to a child's development, as both a child and an athlete."

De Ciantas, however, says many parents aren't interested in that message.

"I coach and I always encourage the kids to put the bag away for at least month. But a lot of the parents just don't see it that way and don't want to."

Jeremy Mandell never planned for his eight-year-old to play spring hockey. Now, he is playing on two teams.

He says his son made the choice and is happy to be playing with friends.

"The reason we are doing it is you are basically cramming in 15 games into a month which is almost the equivalent of his regular season," Mandell says. "And they get a lot out of it. The kids I know improved a lot out of it."

It doesn't mean he's entirely comfortable with the idea. Mandell, who played high-level hockey growing up in Toronto, never played in the spring or summer.

"When I played there was really a mentality that you don't play in the spring or summer. When your season ends — win or lose — you're done until the [next] season starts," Mandell recalls. "There now seems to be a large portion of the kids playing spring hockey, especially the higher level kids and then a lot of those kids are playing on teams right through the summer. I personally think that's a mistake.

"I don't want my eight-year-old to become a one-sport athlete. I want him to play baseball, go to camp. I want him to take break from hockey and have a rounded social life."

It's a typical dilemma for hockey parents. Things like spring hockey have become part of the development suite that's seemingly necessary to compete at the highest level. Say no and risk your child falling behind.

It's something De Ciantas hears all of the time.

"A lot of kids today are manufactured hockey players. They need to become multi-sport athletes. I don't think playing hockey 12 months a year is going to make you that much better."

About the Author

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


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