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.