The Issues with Hockey Academies – Part 3

In part one of our series, we explored the rise of hockey academies in Canada and whether hockey academies are the right thing for youth players in Canada. [Read: Hockey Academies: Friend or Foe]. In part two of this series we examined if elitism in hockey leads to hazing and bullying. In this part of our series, we delve into the complex issues with hockey academies. While they offer promising young hockey players specialized training, they also come with a host of challenges. These academies, like the Okanagan Hockey Academy, have become increasingly popular, but it’s vital to scrutinize the implications of such programs. This piece sheds light on the various hurdles associated with these academies, providing a comprehensive view of what one could expect when considering this route for athletic growth.

A Closer Look at Hockey Academies

From grassroots level to the NHL, hockey players have been flocking to hockey academies. These institutions, including the Okanagan Hockey Academy, offer a high-intensity training environment for on-ice and off-ice development. The approach provides a fast-track for talented individuals to reach their full potential. However, the demanding schedule and substantial financial commitment make it a considerable decision for families.

These hockey academies have been met with criticism for fostering a sense of elitism and entitlement, potentially putting the next generation of hockey players and their parents at risk. This culture in hockey academies and the broader hockey culture needs to be re-evaluated.

The Unseen Side of Hockey Academies

Aspiring hockey players often see hockey academies like the Okanagan Hockey Academy as a stepping stone to the NHL. These academies are marketed in a way such that they provide top-tier coaching, cutting-edge facilities, and a competitive training atmosphere. Yet, they also bring with them certain obstacles. The significant cost of enrollment, coupled with rigorous training schedules, can place immense physical and mental pressure on young athletes.

It’s important to note that hockey academies vary in their focus. Some prioritize specific skill development, while others take a more comprehensive approach, integrating on-ice training, off-ice conditioning, mental preparation, and academic support. Regardless, it’s crucial to weigh all factors before deciding to enroll in a hockey academy.

Academics, Athletics and Hockey Culture

One of the major issues with hockey academies is the struggle to balance academics and intensive hockey training. The high demands of being a student-athlete often leave little time for academic responsibilities. This juggling act requires effective planning, prioritization, and time management from the student-athletes. Many of which are not mature enough to handle. For the athlete, more often than not their interest is in playing the sport and training and not reading the books or studying.

However, the importance of education cannot be understated, as it provides a solid foundation for life beyond hockey. (Remember the average length of an NHL career is a little over four years so players need to have an education for life beyond hockey.

Despite the emphasis on athletic skills, these hockey programs understand the value of a solid education. They strive to foster a supportive learning environment and appoint academic advisors to help students balance their academic and athletic commitments. All academies will tell you that they place emphasis on academics as well as training but just how much emphasis they put on academics will vary.

The hockey culture within these academies can sometimes sideline the importance of education. While many academies do offer academic programs, the focus is often skewed more towards hockey than education. This imbalance is one of the significant issues with hockey academies.

Financial Challenges and Hockey Academies

Another major issue with hockey academies is the financial implications. The costs associated with these programs can be a significant barrier for many families. The tuition fees, along with additional costs for transportation and accommodation, can make these academies inaccessible for some aspiring NHL hockey players.

Despite financial aid and scholarships, the high costs of these programs continue to exclude children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This issue not only limits their access to quality training but also perpetuates inequalities in the sport. Not all of the best players attend academies due to financial or other conflicts of interest.

The high costs related to hockey academies, such as the Okanagan Hockey Academy, can pose a significant challenge for low-income families. Therefore, it’s critical to evaluate one’s financial situation, explore all available aid options, and seek financial advice before committing to a hockey academy. The financial burden of Hockey Academies en route to “The Show” is a real thing.

Training, Development, and Hockey Culture

Hockey academies can play a crucial role in the training and development of budding hockey players. They offer a structured environment for skill enhancement, valuable experience, and goal setting, preparing players for a possible future as NHL hockey players (most academy players will not play in the NHL).

The quality of coaching and training provided by hockey academies plays a vital role in the development of potential NHL hockey players. Hockey programs offer specialized resources catering to the unique needs of players at different skill levels. They provide clear player development paths, charting the journey from grassroots hockey to elite levels. The influence of hockey academies on a player’s long-term success can be significant. The focused training, expert coaching, and comprehensive development programs contribute substantially to a player’s growth. The experiences gained here can form the foundation for a player’s future in the sport, whether at the collegiate level, as professional NHL hockey players, or on the international stage.

While specialized programs and resources aim to enhance players’ skills, the hockey culture within these institutions can sometimes overshadow the importance of holistic development.

The culture of entitlement and elitism that can be fostered in such environments is a significant concern. It’s crucial to ensure that these academies are nurturing not just skilled hockey players, but well-rounded individuals. In our previous post we looked at how hockey in Canada now has this perception of being a toxic culture. Part of this perception of the toxic culture is a direct result of all of the stories of hazing and bullying and recent negativity around off-ice actions by hockey players.

In addition to this, there is that lingering perception about the hockey culture and the elitist attitude that comes with it. This past weekend my son was in a Spring hockey tournament in Calgary, Alberta where a couple of members on our team were from a notable hockey academy from the BC interior. While the overall experience resulted in victory, there were a number of eyebrows raised at the inclusion of the academy players. Without getting into specifics, here are some of the observations from various players and parents:

  • there was a parent coach of one of the academy players who as you can guess tried to keep their child in the spotlight with extra shifts (even after a staggering seventeen turnovers (yes seventeen) in game one of the tournament
  • after the first game this same player was observed crying after the game and talking to the coaches about not being able to play with his academy buddies on the same line (oddly enough for the rest of the tournament these players played together) – coach’s kid.
  • multiple players on the team complained that the academy players were not great team players and were not the nicest people off the ice
  • in the gold medal game, one of the academy kids was one the ice for a four and a half minute shift, prompting one parent to deliver a pity clap and comment “…why not keep him out there for another four…” The best players in the game do not take a four and a half minute shift, yet this academy player apparently could. (Editor’s note: This particular player was in fact the son of one of the coaches).
  • After missing pass after pass, one of the academy players continually slapped his stick on the ice and on the boards and chirped the officials on a number of occasions. Body language and mannerism were poor at best. Don’t hockey academies make good people in addition to good players?
  • With the score out of reach, one of the academy players scored a goal and performed a celly like he had just won the Stanley Cup. The whole flamingo, bird swoop thing. Not a lot of class there.
  • Another academy player was issued a penalty and was being escorted to the penalty box and not only pushed the official twice but attempted to punch the official in the helmet. Should have been an automatic game misconduct and suspension right? Nope.

It was evident about the sense of entitlement of these players. Quite honestly it was pitiful to watch. It was pitiful to watch the parent coach play his son (even after poor penalties and poor play) and reward the player with extra ice time, when other players were having more success and were more useful players to the team. This stuff happens all of the time. It truly is an amazing spectacle to watch the entitled players play. I was embarrassed for the player, but probably more so for the coaches. Yet they don’t think anything about it. These coaches, mentors, and players simply continue to get rewarded. You wonder why hockey culture has a problem, especially in Canada.

Evaluating the need for Hockey Academies

Considering the issues with hockey academies, parents must carefully evaluate the best course for their children’s development. While these academies offer specialized training, they may not be the best fit for every child. The high costs, intensive training schedule, and potential for fostering a sense of elitism are all factors to consider.

The 2018 World Juniors scandal is a stark reminder of the potential risks associated with the culture within some hockey programs. As we look to the future, it’s crucial to ensure that our hockey culture, whether in minor hockey associations or elite hockey schools, is fostering a safe and inclusive environment.

While hockey academies focus on developing high-level players, there needs to be a balance on developing good human beings. Perhaps this means less emphasis on “elite” and more emphasis on being well-rounded, respectful and passionate.

A lot of the game’s “greatest” players have come out of academies, but with these great players we sometimes see people who are not as self-aware even referring to themselves as being perceived as “Gods” or above others that play the game. The “Hockey Academy’ is an elitist environment…

In terms of youth hockey in Canada today, the sad news is that if you want to get eyes on your child because their goal is to be a professional player, then you most likely will need to play at a hockey academy. For the simple reason that academies, in particular accredited ones, have people in the system, they get your kids in “the database”, they participate (and sponsor) showcase events where scouts are invited. Very rarely will you see scouts at non-academy events. AAA hockey teams now play Academy teams, minor hockey associations regardless of tier level are but an afterthought. You can hear the recruiters saying now “… well if your kid is so good they should be playing at an academy anyways.” Well as mentioned, some families simply do not have that option. It may mean sending your child to a different town or city at a young age, it may mean spending tens of thousands of dollars per year to play at a “reputable” hockey school. It just doesn’t work for all families, and it is a shame because that is simply how it is now.

Many high level hockey programs are not inclusive. For some parents, it’s not an issue. The road to the NHL is clear. To be noticed you have to play at an Academy or have very good representation for your youthful athlete. An agent at the age of thirteen?  Not unheard of.

Think about this. What would happen if there were 50% less hockey academies out there? Well players would remain in their local hockey associations. Recruiters and scouts would potentially need to attend more “minor hockey” tournaments to observe the talent levels.

Hockey Academies are not going away. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Money/Revenue – make no mistake about it, hockey academies are a business. You can look at the bottom line and look at the balance sheet. When you charge $425 for a tryout for say 500 players X5 GEO locales, and then cut that down to say 160-200 players and charge them another $900 for the next round of tryouts, yes you can guise that as a culling of players… but we all know it’s pay to play.

  2. Prestige – youth hockey in Canada has become an elitist activity. People who are elitists care what other people think of them. They like to prove that they are better than the masses. There is a sense of being respected because of the position you hold or because of what you have achieved. Should a hockey player earn more than a doctor, or an electrician or a mechanic or a police officer? It’s just what society has become. In North America it’s about keeping up with the Jones’. It’s about perception. When it comes to hockey academies how many times have you been in a rink in BC and heard an observer comment about a kid playing at OHA or at Burnaby winter Club? These hockey programs want that perception that they are prestigious programs.

The Western Hockey League conducted their annual Bantam draft last week. Take a look at home many players came out of academies. The Socials of these academies as well as institutions such as BC Hockey are promoting the success of getting so many players from their organization get drafted… yet there are a number of surprises in many of the players who were drafted, more noticeable were a number of the great players that did not get drafted (academies or otherwise). If you are not feeding the machine, you’re most likely not getting looked at or taken seriously. The Hockey Academy has made scouts and directors of players personnel lazy. They don’t attend “regular” hockey games anymore. They go to a few showcases through the season, they look at the databases and make their decisions based on that. I’ve had conversations with various team representatives and they are all the same. In the case of our family, we’ve made the decision to not play at Academies (yes we get invited every year). There is no fear of missing out. We simply have a different end game.

There has been a seismic shift in youth hockey in Canada in the past twenty years. To play competitive hockey you have to move away from your local association. To get anywhere in the game you have to play at a Hockey Academy.  BC Hockey thinks so. The Hockey Academies themselves think so. Visit the Okanagan Hockey Group’s about page and they say “our athletes have the inside track to move on to the next level.” If you’re not in, you’re not in. The old boys club is alive and well in hockey programs all across Canada.

Hockey Canada you’re on the clock…

Part One: Hockey Academies: Friend or Foe?

Part Two: Does Elitism in Hockey Lead to Hazing and Bullying?