Puckheads: inside the crazed arenas of the GTHL
The world’s largest amateur hockey organization is also a breeding ground for unscrupulous coaches, raging parents and miserable preteens
Sometimes during my 11-year-old son’s hockey games, usually in the second period when the play has settled into a rhythm but before the pressures of the clock begin to swell, I do calculations in my head. Not stats about assists or goals. Instead, I tally these sorts of things: the hours logged in gridlock getting to the game, the pages of math homework that still need to be completed later that night, the likelihood my kid’s head will someday be driven into the boards, the minutes he might spend in the penalty box should he chirp at the ref, and the time the alarm will need to be set for the next morning so I can drive him to his 8 a.m. practice.
This is what it means to have your child play in the vaunted Greater Toronto Hockey League. With 40,000 participants on 587 teams, the GTHL is the largest amateur hockey organization in the world. It’s also a star factory, with alumni including current NHLers P. K. Subban, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and John Tavares.
Within the city’s hockey culture it’s a powerhouse, monopolizing precious (and expensive) ice time in arenas throughout the fall, winter and early spring, and spawning a microeconomy in private instruction and coaching, anything to transform promising young prodigies into Hall of Famers. Families relocate to Toronto so their gifted 10-year-olds can compete with other wunderkinds and be coached by former pros. Each winter, the GTHL hosts the Scotiabank Top Prospects Game, showing off the league’s 40 best 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds, many of them en route to the minor leagues and possibly the NHL.
My kid’s team sits in the middle of the pack of his age group in the A division, the bottom of the league’s three competitive levels. It’s as low-stakes as you can get in the GTHL, and the odds of the players going on to stardom are essentially nil. He and his teammates are being very expensively groomed to play in an adult midnight beer league. Yet, even for them, the experience is demanding: two practices and two games a week. There are about 60 games a season (plus tournaments)—by comparison, NHL teams play 82. Many of the boys also participate in spring and summer leagues.
While my wife is a lifelong fan and player, I am a reluctant hockey mom. Having spent much of the past decade shivering in rinks, my emotional terrain feels as twisty and perilous as the dipsy-doodle stickhandling manoeuvres of my son’s idol, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane. Some moments give me enormous pleasure, watching my kid and his friends play a sport that is at once gritty and graceful. Others fill me with dread that some child will wind up curled into a ball on the ice yelping in pain, or that the genial air of competition in the stands will erupt into high tempers, heckling and even fist fights. Like a lot of GTHL parents I know, I trawl for sanity in a culture that seems increasingly unhinged. Over acidic arena coffee we flatter ourselves that we’re not crazy, not like some hockey parents. But when you find yourself driving 90 minutes through Toronto traffic so your child can play 10 minutes in a game, or shrieking “Hustle! Hustle!” to a bunch of fifth graders, or charging a thousand dollars to your already overloaded credit card for a weekend tournament in Niagara Falls, you have to admit that every hockey parent is a crazy one.
It can take years to become merely adequate at hockey—what other sport requires mastery of an extension of both the hands and the feet, and then plunks the whole affair on ice? Skating lessons begin not long after toddlers start to walk. It’s only when children can manage a steady, lurching forward motion that they are handed a stick. Our son put on skates when he was two and joined a house league team when he was five. Even in the early years, there is no casual experience of hockey: his first games were at a Scarborough arena at 6 a.m. on Saturdays, with 7 a.m. practices on Sundays.
The annual fee to join a GTHL A team is around $3,000, and that doesn’t include the cost of equipment, like skates (the price tag on a pair of CCM Tacks 5052 Juniors is $299) and sticks (a Bauer Nexus 8000 composite also rings in at $299). There are tournaments and extra skills sessions, too: at the more elite AA and AAA levels, the costs and time commitments can quadruple. It’s not unheard of for a parent to spend $50,000 a year on specialized year-round training. One mother of an 11-year-old AA player told me their annual financial commitment is $20,000. “I have a leaking roof that I can’t afford to fix,” she says, “but somehow we find the money for our son to play hockey.”
Soccer and swimming have outpaced hockey as youth pastimes. Hockey is only played by about 10 per cent of kids nationwide. Its hold on the Canadian imagination is increasingly a nostalgic and sentimental one, with little resemblance to the current reality of the sport; the amateur game looks less like a sepia-toned Tim Hortons’ ad about the joys of pond shinny and more like a sports industrial complex, with a proliferation of pricy private academies that promise to give young athletes an edge.
Parents, having invested so much time and cash into their children’s extracurricular life, claim an outsized ownership of it. It’s common to hear hockey dads or moms use the plural first person when referring to their child’s team, as in “We had a great game today.” Or, “We really need to keep our feet moving in front of the net.” One GTHL parent I spoke to says, “Even if you put your child in hockey with the best of intentions, the craziness becomes contagious. Everybody has an opinion, about how their kids play, and about how your kid plays. You feel exposed as a parent if your kid is perceived as being lazy or makes an error. Everyone notices.”
Hockey doesn’t have the monopoly on pushy parents—as one hockey dad put it to me, “Have you met a dance parent?”—but it does exemplify a particularly privileged culture of micromanaged childhood. Mike Saini is a professor of social work at the University of Toronto and the coach of the GTHL’s Ted Reeve Thunder minor peewee AA team. His son, Patrick, is on the team. “Imagine,” Saini says “surrounding a child’s school classroom in Plexiglas and then having parents watch a math lesson, and bang on the glass when the teacher doesn’t call on their kid, and yell at their kid when he gets an answer wrong, and confront the teacher afterward to criticize how he explained fractions. We’d never do that, right? Well, that’s what we do in youth hockey.”
Everyone with a child in the GTHL has a crazy story: a mother berating a teary child after a game, or a dad cursing at a coach, or parents from opposing teams taking swings at each other. The mom with the leaky roof has seen several instances of parents punching or pushing each other. She was once in the dressing room with her then-nine-year-old son when a father barged in and barked at his own son, who was crying following a rough game, to “stop being a pussy.” Another mother told me about a hockey dad who spent games pacing alongside the rink, calling kids “little shits” when they screwed up. At a AA minor peewee game in 2004, a hockey mom from Woodbridge was banned from GTHL arenas for a year after she lifted up her top, flashed her bra and shook her breasts at the parents on the opposing side. (For what it’s worth, her 11-year-old son’s team won the game 4–0.) In 2007, the coach of the Toronto Marlboros minor peewee AAA team filed a complaint with the GTHL against Tie Domi, whose son, Max, played on the team—the coach alleged that the former Maple Leaf enforcer was aggressive at the rink and left intimidating voicemails. (The GTHL considered the complaint and decided against taking any action. Domi said it was all a misunderstanding.)
Coaches can be as cutthroat as parents. Last winter, NHL hall of famer Paul Coffey, who coached his son’s Toronto Marlboros midget AAA team, was suspended for three games by the GTHL for insulting the coach of the Mississauga Senators. When kids are selected for a GTHL team, they sign a contract committing to a full season, and coaches have limited time frames for when they can hold tryouts and approach players. Still, coaches surreptitiously scout year-round, inviting kids they’re interested in to what are called “birthday skates” (not tryouts) and courting parents with informal offers.
I was put in touch through a mutual friend with a woman in her 40s who has two elementary school–aged sons playing AA and AAA in the GTHL. She asked that I not identify her and her children any more specifically than that because she was afraid they would get shortened ice time or less attention during practice. The elite hockey world is insular and self-protective—“it’s worse than the mafia,” she says.
One of her sons had a coach she says was physically and emotionally abusive: he would train the team for 90 minutes without a water break, until they were nearly delirious with fatigue and dehydration. Alone with the boys in the dressing room, he called their parents “a bunch of fucking punks and losers.” The kids were afraid that if they snitched about how he treated them they would lose ice time during games. Once, she says, when the coach heard that scouts from better teams were looking at some of his players in the hope of recruiting them, he benched those boys to ruin their chances of leaving his team. In the dressing room after a game, he told the boys that he could make them look good and he could also make them look very bad. The mother didn’t hear about this until days afterward. Parents who did know about the coach’s behaviour were reluctant to speak up because they feared their child might be punished.
She and her husband have no delusions about professional sports careers for their kids. In fact, she says, though her one son has since moved on to a better team with a kinder coach, she’d be relieved if they both quit hockey. When I ask her why she lets her kids play at all, especially after the experience with the abusive coach, she says her sons love the sport. They want to be on the ice all day. It keeps them fit, and it teaches them discipline and commitment. “We’ve let our kids follow their dreams and let them make the choice to play hockey at this level,” she said. “Then again, they didn’t put themselves out on the ice for the first time—we did.”
The pressure on young players to train like pros continues to intensify, despite the well-documented risks of emotional and physical burnout, as well as skyrocketing injury rates, associated with year-round development and early sports specialization. While other sports, like soccer, also have a high rate of concussions, hockey is the lightning rod, due to its unique aggressiveness and to high-profile cases like the head injuries that sidelined Sidney Crosby for most of 2011. Bodychecking accounts for anywhere between 50 and 80 per cent of injuries, and boys who play in contact leagues are two and a half times more likely to get hurt and three and a half times more likely to suffer a concussion. In 2013, Hockey Canada, the organizing national amateur body, banned checking for male players 12 and under. It also prohibits checking in girls’ and women’s leagues.
There are arguments in favour of teaching young boys to check, one being that they need to learn to take a hit before puberty, when the rate of development varies wildly. In the 12 to 15 age range, it’s common to see 180-pound bruisers playing against scrawny kids a full foot shorter. However, studies indicate that head injuries have significant consequences on the developing brain. In 2014, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and St. Michael’s Hospital looked at a survey of 4,685 Ontario teenagers in grades 7 through 12, and found that adolescents who had suffered a traumatic brain injury were more likely to experience depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, as well as having higher odds of bullying or being bullied.
Michael Cusimano, a neurologist at St. Mike’s and one of the study’s authors, says that while awareness of concussions has increased, the underlying attitudes that heighten the risk have not changed. “People are spending so much on their kids that the stakes are higher than ever, even for kids who have no chance at playing professionally. Young kids, 10 years old, are training and playing as much as players in the NHL. All of that is creating more opportunities for them to get hurt.”
Cusimano recommends that contact be removed from youth hockey altogether. Parents cried foul when the GTHL announced plans to progressively phase out bodychecking at the A level. They’re concerned that it will affect their A-level kids’ ability to play in tournaments against teams from leagues with checking, or that it could curtail their children’s chances to someday move up to AA or AAA where checking is permitted.
Even with the new Hockey Canada rules, concussions are commonplace. One parent told me her son left his AAA team for a AA one after experiencing two concussions when he was nine. One occurred as the result of an illegal bodycheck that was not called by the referee. (A teammate was concussed as well during the same game.) “The kids are giants in AAA,” she says, “and they are rough. Even if checking isn’t technically allowed, it happens all the time.”
Brad Oliver started coaching youth hockey 11 years ago, when his son, Patrick, was five. Oliver is 54 and works in sales for a tech company. He is lean and energetic, with the confidence of a lifelong jock. As his son progressed in competitive hockey, into the A level, Oliver found the culture increasingly toxic. “Rabid parent syndrome” is what he blames for much of the ugliness. While coaching, he saw 11- and 12-year-olds break collarbones and get concussions. In three instances, he had to intervene when parents tried to return their concussed children to hockey before it was confirmed by a doctor they were fully recovered. “I began to feel tense and anxious before games,” he says. “I hated the antagonism between the benches. I hated how serious it was and how little fun the kids seemed to be having.”
When Patrick played contact hockey for a year at age 11, Oliver was the team’s assistant coach and trainer. Patrick was close to five foot five and 140 pounds at the time and physically able to take a hit, but he told his dad that he felt scared during games. Patrick’s size made him a target of “assassins”—kids who would leave the opposing team’s bench and make a beeline for Patrick, not the puck.
There was one game when Patrick went down hard after a hit and stayed down. Because Oliver was the trainer, he was sent out onto the ice to check on his son. When the kid who hit Patrick skated past, “I felt this surge of anger toward that boy,” Oliver says. “I felt like calling him out. Then I stopped and realized that I was an adult about to yell at some 12-year-old child I didn’t know. And I thought, ‘I don’t want to be that guy.’”
The following season Oliver took his son and four other kids from the team and joined the newly formed Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League, which he had learned about from parents of players who had been concussed in contact hockey. (About half of Patrick’s fellow players ended up leaving the GTHL team altogether because it had been such a bad experience.)
The TNC league was established in 2009 by a small group of Palmerston school district parents who wanted to create a safer alternative to leagues like the GTHL. Bill Robertson, one of the founders, says his interest in forming the league arose from the high rate of injuries combined with his unease with GTHL hockey culture. “My 11-year-old son was the top scorer on his team, and I was the only parent who wasn’t convinced he was headed for the NHL,” he says. “Everyone had stars in their eyes, and it seemed to be all about the parents’ dreams, not about what was good for the kids. Even if concussions weren’t an issue, I would go to a rink and think, ‘I don’t fit in with these people.’ ”
In early November, I watched a Monday night game between the Redhawks (Oliver’s team) and the Wolverines, two midget teams, in the Mattamy Athletic Centre’s arena in the former Maple Leaf Gardens. The boys, who are between the ages of 15 and 17, are big kids for the most part. Dressed in red and green jerseys, they played a fast and physical game, with aggressive digging in the corners. The coaches paced on the bench, in the manner of minor coaches everywhere, jaws working wads of gum and hands jammed into coat pockets.
The spectators peppered throughout the stands seemed conspicuously quiet. A couple behind me murmured compliments about the Wolverines’ passing in the hushed tones of a rosary recitation. Further back, a man urged “To the point! Back to the point!” and then quickly fell silent as a Redhawks’ winger got hemmed in by defencemen close to the Wolverines’ net. When the Redhawks scored, there was staccato applause and a lone whoop before the crowd once again went mute.
Compared to other leagues, the TNC is cheap (the annual fee is $1,500 and there are no team-branded jackets, tuques or hockey bags to buy), and light on time commitment, with just one game and one practice per week. The dialed down schedule has a mellowing effect on parents, as do the strictly policed guidelines that prohibit bullying, shouting and disruptive behaviour. The TNC remains small: at the moment it hosts just five midget teams and four bantam (ages 13 and 14). It tends to attract kids leaving the other competitive leagues at an age of natural attrition: when bodychecking begins, when school becomes more demanding, when teenage social life takes off, and when boyhood plans of playing in the NHL give way to more realistic ambitions.
The GTHL seems to be coming around to accepting that not all of its players can aspire to be the next P. K. Subban. In addition to removing checking in A, the league recently announced it would consider cutting lower-performing teams, to equalize the level of play. There are teams that go an entire season without winning a single game, games where the score is a lopsided 20–0, and too many kids, it seems, being encouraged to play at a level beyond their ability.
At the same time, the league is contending with stagnant registration numbers. A couple of years ago, Hockey Canada and the sports equipment company Bauer asked non–hockey playing families why they didn’t have their children in the sport, and the top four reasons were: it was too time consuming, it was too dangerous, it was too expensive, and most notably and sadly, it just wasn’t any fun. There are predictions that in the next 10 years, 200,000 fewer children in this country might be playing hockey. In an attempt to build enrolment, the GTHL is running pilot programs in Scarborough as part of a national initiative to attract new players by offering them comprehensive instruction and a full set of equipment for a nominal fee.
For hockey patriots, it’s unimaginable that the source of our national athletic pride requires a recruitment campaign for children. But that’s what happens when the sport is no longer allowed to be just a game.
Which isn’t to say it can’t be fun—if we let it be. I once asked my son why he liked hockey, and he looked at me as if I had just wondered what the big deal was with oxygen and sunlight. “It’s hockey,” he said. “I don’t like it. I love it.” The game has been the making of him: it’s given him friends, focus and discipline, a source of self-expression, and immeasurable moments of joy. And for all my reservations, I have those moments, too. My son will never, ever be the next Phil Kessel or Patrick Kane, but when he has a gorgeous breakaway or comforts his goalie with a helmet pat or throws himself onto a team pileup after a hard-fought win, the wave of pride and love is as great as if he were hoisting the Stanley Cup.
22 thoughts on “Puckheads: inside the crazed arenas of the GTHL”
Sounds awful. I wonder what these parents tell themselves when their kids inevitably don’t make it to the NHL.
@Rachel, this is a column full of anecdotal evidence. I am a coach in the GTHL and I think your column does a disservice to people like me who volunteer their time because they have passed on their love of the game to their children. Yes, there are jerks who are part of the hockey culture but this is no different than in any sport or area of life. The lessons my son is learning from hockey I believe will put him in good stead as he makes his way in life. And like your son my boy plays because it is hockey and he loves the game more than anything. That love is more important than not being able to pay for a family vacation or fixing a leaky roof.
always amazes me when Canadians watch a show like Friday Night Lights and remark about how “crazy” the football culture is down south when this sort of shit is rampant all over this country.
“Oh! The good old hockey game,Is the best game you can name;
And the best game you can name,
Is the good old Hockey game!”
I have two separate good friends that have both lost jobs due to coaching kids hockey. All they can talk about now is their kids hockey. Its messed up.
I think most of these parents are using the overnight tournaments to get away from their spouse and have affairs in hotels. We stayed at a hotel in Guelph and the hockey parents there were all each others rooms, hammered out of their minds. Hitting on all the yummy hockey mummy’s, and some of the not so yummy.
4 stars out a possible 40,000. chances aren’t so good. The star factory isn’t running at full capacity.
Rachel, the math is deceiving in your numbers 587 teams would have 9,979 players in the GTHL, the rest play House League with their own local association and of those 6,290 play in the first level of competitive hockey in Select.
Some of the players who move up to the GTHL for a more efficient business model and reasonable local scheduling rather than two teams driving 45 km each way for a 32 minute game between two west end teams going to Scarborough or two east end teams going to the west end. There is a lot good people and good things happening in hockey, and yes there is improvements needed at all levels. I am also still involved in hockey at the association and GTHL level as my son has gone onto university and it is still a great game!
I don’t know–leaky roofs are pretty important.
If the kids and parents enjoy it, more power to them.
Me? I was quite relieved when my two older boys lost interest after two years in the game. I have another one who wants to play, and he will next year, but it won’t break my heart if he’s not into it either (but if he is I will commit).
Andy you are living inside the “bubble” thats why you dont see this article as real. Do you really think that as a coach you can read this article with an unbiased view?
Great article, it describes hockey so well
When did it become fashionable in media circles to pile-on minor hockey? I have a son who plays in the GTHL and a daughter who plays competitive rep soccer in CGSL. Do you think the politics, expense. parent-player-coach-referee behaviour, living vicariously through kids, not to mention risks in terms of physical injury are any different between the two? If anything I would say girls soccer is worse since many parents have convinced themselves their daughters are destined to college level and beyond, while the hockey parents I know don’t talk about which NHL team their boy is headed for.
Hockey is too expensive, and some coaches take it too seriously, but other than that this article is crap!
Bang on article from my perspective….especially about the coach being physically and emotionally abusive. I have seen coaches who think they are in the NHL or something from house league to rep. Not all coaches are like this mind you. It isn’t just the parents that lose site of things…Coaches are just as guilty.
I have coached several sports and still do , hockey in the GTHL is only one that does not seem to provide parents the ability to comment/review the coach. There is no accountability for coaches in the GTHL – maybe some GTHL organizations do but the the ones I know…many give unfounded sales pitches and parents do not get what they were promised. This is the cause of a lot of problems.
Not all coaches are volunteers. More are getting paid.
A slightly terrifying article for a parent of a hockey obsessed 4 year old. This year he’s playing in Swansea, a seemingly magical little community with an outdoor hockey league. He’s been getting some attention from parents who are involved in the GTHL, who have asked if we’d be interested in him playing select hockey an age group up (apparently some teams allow a couple of under age players to play in their youngest divisions? I don’t know, I grew up playing and watching basketball, almost exclusively. Hockey is all new to me). I can honestly say, the happiest I’ve ever been is just seeing him on an open neighbourhood rink for hours…feeding him his spaghetti as he zips around the ice with his stick and puck. I’ve grown fond of the sport myself. I was never nearly as passionate about something at that age. But this article makes me think twice about the GTHL and more about community rec leagues like Swansea, where the mood seems more festive and dare I say, fun. I know the article is anecdotal, but I’ve heard similar horror stories from others. Can any GTHL parents maybe recommend some GTHL programs with level headed coaches and parents…where the emphasis is still on fun and a love of the game?
Surround yourself with good people, and give your kid a positive environment. If you are spending $20K on hockey and leaving a leaky roof, your priorities are obviously different than most. What hurts pocketbooks the most are the $50/hour skill sessions that the parents buy-in on…confident little Johnny will improve and get to the next level. Does he work on the skills on his own at home? No matter the coach, won’t get better without repetition with the right technique. Subban, Tavares, etc. – all have passion & dedication beyond the norm.
This is a pretty sensational view of minor hockey in Toronto, geared more to getting eyeballs than to accurately portraying the minor hockey experience for most families. Sure, we can all point to problems with the GTHL (cost, over-zealous coaches, players who lack respect), but when I compare our 2 sons’ experience (1 played hockey, progressing from house league to Select to A and back to Select for his last year, the other who was in recreational ski racing) our family experience was almost identical – the vast majority of parents viewed the sport as a fun, recreational activity and the social aspect was as important as the sport itself. Hockey definitely has a greater chance of injury but it also adds a real emphasis on teamwork and getting along with others. Have there been a few wacky parents along the way? Some ugly incidents on the ice (& even in the stands)? Sure, but those don’t define the experience as this article implies. We also know plenty of kids who have played AA & AAA hockey. Again, their experience has been overwhelmingly positive for both the kids and their families, even taking into account the increased pressure at higher levels and those who have suffered injuries along the way.
While I wouldn’t recommend hockey over any other sport, our son has benefited from the experience & I wouldn’t hesitate to advise anyone whose child loves hockey to take it as far as their chlld’s ability & their pocketbook permits; as long as you keep things in perspective your child is likely to have a great time.
As someone who has played, coached and now currently watches my kids play hockey in the GTHL, I do see some minimal truth to the article. That said, I think for the most part, my experiences and kids experiences have been fun and positive. I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, but I know my kids love going to hockey and generally enjoy being out there. No, they aren’t going to make the NHL, no, I don’t spend $299 on their skates and $299 on their sticks, but I don’t need to.
I could pose the same question to you, Steve. You are living outside the “bubble” and that’s why you see this article as the ultimate truth.
I’m a little bit confused, is this article written by two hockey mothers of the same child?
Perhaps, your perspective on hockey is different than most, as it is your perspective on life.
Wow, this is quite a one-sided view of the GTHL and minor hockey in general. The author, as mentioned already by a previous poster, needs to get her facts straight first – GTHL is composed of mostly house league players who only play within their own association rather than competitively, hence making up the bulk of the 40,000 players; plus, the lowest of the competitive levels in the GTHL is the Select level (i.e., house league players who play against other house league associations). Until Rachel Giese can get her facts correct and be a little less biased again hockey, it’s really difficult to buy into this article. Where are the interviews and quotes from parents like me who have in general had positive experiences with competitive hockey? Yes, there are obnoxious parents and overbearing (maybe even abusive) coaches, but which competitive sport doesn’t? Getting hurt and concussions? Yeah sure, it can and will happen in hockey games, but I worry more about my kid getting hurt when he’s ski racing and playing soccer than in hockey. Spending $20K on hockey? We don’t spend anywhere near that, even with adding in expenses for out-of-town tournaments, full team branded jackets/bags/tuques, and decent equipment like skates and sticks, plus off-season training. We have no delusions that NHL is in our family’s future, except as a spectator sport. In the end, it’ll be sensational articles like this one which kills hockey in Canada, portraying it as not fun but aggressive and contributing to the stagnant registration numbers. You’re doing a bang up job in burying “our source of our national athletic pride”, Rachel!
“60 games (plus tournaments)”?? The GTHL season has always been 36 games. Why did you make up this number?
$299 for a stick? So that’s the top price, what is average? My son’s sticks usually cost around $60 and I don’t usually spend over $100 on mine.
There may be some information and maybe even some worthwhile opinion in this article but the blatant misinformation designed to clearly push an agenda lost me right away. Very poor journalism.
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