National Post (Latest Edition)

Dreams put on ice worry hockey organizers


- Steve Simmons ssimmons@ postmedia. com Twitter. com/simmonsste­ve

Tom Renney is more than worried. About hockey playing kids not playing hockey. About soccer players and tennis players and basketball players and just about any other kind of players, not involved in their own pursuits.

Hockey Canada did a national survey recently and found out, rather alarmingly, that 45 per cent of hockey parents were worried about the mental health of their children, the affect of being without organized sport as this global pandemic continues to play havoc with our lives.

“I think it’s a very real problem,” said the head of Hockey Canada. “When you get to a certain age, and you’re pursuing a dream, and that dream is put on hold, that’s a problem.

“This has been kind of a lost year for so many people in so many different ways. And we don’t know right now what the affect is going to be long term. And it’s not just about the elite players, it’s about everybody at every level.”

In the big picture, with COVID-19 dominating the headlines and the numbers getting worse, not better, with businesses failing, with schools trying to figure it out, with too many dying, a season without minor hockey or junior hockey seems rather irrelevant. Unless it’s your son or daughter involved.

It doesn’t matter the sport, Renney said. The questions are the same. How are they doing? How are they handling life with their dreams or their activities on hold? What are they doing?

“This isn’t about ability, this is about human behaviour,” said Sherry Bassin, the career long junior hockey operator, father of three, grandfathe­r of six. “Kids have a dream until they’re told it doesn’t come true. Parents have to be aware of how their kids are doing right now, how they’re feeling about themselves, how they’re coping.

“If this is your minor midget season, and this is your chance to show yourself, you have no games. That kid in the middle, who may come on at 15 or 16, may get lost now. The same with the 18 year old who is up for the NHL Draft. I don’t worry so much about the elite kids, they’ll be elite. That’s what they do. I worry about the rest of them — the kids who are going to get lost in the shuffle because of this lost season.”

Jamie Kagan is a Winnipeg lawyer who has been involved in hockey most of his life. His son, Josh, is a 20- year- old defenceman in the British Columbia Hockey League. Josh chose to play in tier- two junior rather than the Western Hockey League because he wanted to chase a U.S. hockey scholarshi­p.

Last year, 127 players from the BCHL got scholarshi­ps to American universiti­es. So far, in this mostly unplayed season, just seven players have been so rewarded.

“This is a national crisis waiting to happen,” said Kagan, talking about the mental well being of the youth of this country. “You work your whole life for something. You have a dream and you chase it. And through no fault of your own, it’s slipping away from you. You can’t train. You can’t play. You can’t advance. You can’t go anywhere. It’s frustratin­g.”

Renney worries about filling all the hours that sport normally consumes on a young person’s calendar.

“To be honest, I’m concerned about the power of the hand-held device and the damage that can come along with it,” said Renney. “The (phone) can become the surrogate parent, the surrogate coach, the surrogate teacher, the surrogate agent. You can have a groundswel­l of opinion that’s contrary to reality. There’s no filter. How is a young person dealing with that?”

The suicide of junior hockey player Terry Trafford in 2014 changed the way commission­er David Branch and the OHL viewed hockey players and mental illness. “It took a tragedy to be the impetus for us to seek support for all our players and our teams,” said Branch on Monday. “We started a program called Talk Today, which is now national, a tribute to Terry. We’ve worked with the Canadian Mental Health Associatio­n on this.

“The statistics are, in fact, startling. The number of young people in need of help. The first step, the important step, is communicat­ion with players and our families. Throughout the stoppage for us, we’ve had monthly and bimonthly Zoom calls with our teams, with guest speakers, talking hockey, talking tactics, talking mental health. And we continuous­ly mention our contacts. We urge the players to reach out if they need to.”

Mark Hunter has 13 draft eligible players, including those who have already been passed over, on his London Knights OHL roster, and he communicat­es regularly with all his players, primarily online. “There’s no words you can use to make them feel better,” said Hunter, who runs Canada’s most productive junior operation. “We can all sit here and be negative, but I can’t think that way. I believe it’s our responsibi­lity to give them hope.

“All these young men want to do is play. They see what’s going on. They’re very realistic. This is what we do and what we love to do. It’s so much a part of our culture. The good thing, they’re young, they’ll bounce back.”

Some will. Some won’t be so fortunate. Terry Trafford was in his fourth year of junior hockey when it became apparent his career had hit a wall. The young man saw no way out. He took his own life.

“Why don’t we do something to prevent some of this stuff from happening,” said Kagan, who has written to Hockey Canada and asked for some kind of interventi­on on this lost season. He would like to see the age groups frozen, which would push back the junior draft year and allow overage juniors to play an additional season.

There are all kinds of suggestion­s right now for Renney and Hockey Canada. Finding the answers in this inexplicab­le year, now that’s the hard part.

kids have a dream until told it doesn’t come true. parents have to be aware.

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