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Hockey: When Sports Become An Obssesion

Hockey: When Sports Become An Obssesion

Posted by Bruce McDougall on March 31, 2014

As children, we imagine ourselves becoming rock stars, princesses, undercover agents, athletes or actors, someone a step beyond the humdrum life of our parents. As we grow older, most of us put the dream aside. At thirty, becoming a sports star looks less appealing and far less likely than it did when we were six.

Once in a while, we remember our dream and wonder if we tried hard enough to pursue it. If only we’d tried harder. If only we’d stuck with it. If only we’d spent less time with our friends in the pub.

Most of us allow ourselves a moment of reflection and then get on with the real challenges of life: going to work every day; raising children; paying taxes; driving at the speed limit. But a few individuals become so obsessed with achieving their dream that they can’t cope with their missed opportunities. Even as adults, nothing compares with their childhood dream or compensates for the disappointment of not achieving it.

In Canada, young boys have dreamed for almost a century of becoming professional hockey players. In the U.S., they dream of playing baseball. In Latin America, they dream of becoming football stars. Regardless of the sport involved, children need a dream. The trouble starts when the dream becomes an obsession.

When nothing in a kid’s life matters more than the sport, the fun disappears. And adults, who should know better, allow it to happen.

For a teenager in Canada with a vague hope of a professional future, life revolves around hockey. “Hockey becomes who we are,” says a former junior player named Gregg Sutch. “We grow up playing hockey, and after a while we allow hockey to define us. Hockey consumes our lives.”

Earlier this year, hockey consumed the life of a former teammate of Sutch’s named Terry Trafford. At the age of 20, Trafford was playing in his final year for a team called the Saginaw Spirit in the Ontario Hockey League. Some of his teammates had signed contracts with professional teams in the NHL, but after competing for 15 years in organized hockey, Trafford wasn’t one of them. This year, his chances of a professional career were becoming faint. They became even more remote when he was caught smoking marijuana by his coaches and suspended for the season. In his mind, he had failed at his last attempt at a professional hockey career. According to his girlfriend, he was “completely devastated”.

A professional hockey player in the National Hockey league earns an average salary of $2.4 million. Thousands of players are good enough to advance toward an NHL career and the money and glory that come with it. About one in a thousand might get there.

Trafford took the news of his suspension without expressing any emotion. “He didn’t seem sad,” said his coach, Greg Gilbert, “he didn’t seem happy, he didn’t seem anything. Kind of stoic, I guess you could say.”

If Trafford felt sad about his suspension, he wouldn’t have expressed his sadness to his coach. Like all elite athletes, hockey players are supposed to suck it up and get on with the game. “A hockey player is supposed to be a man’s man and as tough as nails,” says Gregg Sutch in a blog for Yahoo Sports (http://ca.sports.yahoo.com/blogs/jrhockey-buzzing-the-net/sutch-learn-trafford-tragedy-160536315.html). “If you're a hockey player, you don't want to speak out if you need help. Why? Because you're supposed to be tough.”

Trafford packed his belongings into his SUV and started to drive home to Toronto. But before he reached the Canadian border, Trafford pulled into a Walmart parking lot, found a spot farthest from the store, lay down in the seat and killed himself. His body wasn’t found for more than a week.

Like Terry Trafford, everyone who has come close to a professional career, not just as a hockey player but as an actor, a writer, a cyclist, a singer or a human being, knows how it feels to fail. Failure is an unavoidable part of life. Accepting failure helps us to become well-rounded human beings.

Unfortunately, sport in North America doesn’t encourage well-rounded human beings to participate. “If you’re a kid with lots of interests,” says Bobby Smith, a hockey player with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1980s, “forget about being a professional athlete.”

Money has fueled the single-minded obsession, but all talented athletes reach a point where they compromise the joy they feel in their sport for mere accomplishment.

“When I immersed myself in the business of professional bike racing,” says Toronto’s Michael Barry, who participated with Team Sky in the Tour de France, “I began to feel distanced from what I loved most about riding. Instead of the pure joy of real racing, I felt conflicting emotions. Those same conflicting emotions arise now in amateur sport, as well, as it becomes progressively more professionalized.”

In Canada, professional hockey players earn 100 times as much as they did in the 1960s. Children who once spent hours playing with their friends in a skating rink with a puck and a hockey stick, making up the rules as they went along, now participate from the age of five in organized, regimented games under the supervision of adults, many of whom have less interest in fun than success. And by success, they mean money.

“But structure and organization don’t always equal success,” says Vince Ganzberg, a coaching professional from Indiana. “Many great players who have played the game of soccer weren’t organized into structured clubs, teams, training and games as young children. The Dominican Republic doesn’t really organize their kids even in baseball, yet they produce some of the very best players and teams. In countries like Brazil and Argentina, players grow up in an environment where they see the game, live and breathe it, but play largely unorganized as youth.”

From Canada to Argentina, the more structured a sport becomes, the less fun a kid has playing it. Without fun, he learns less about anything that really matters. The most fortunate athletes, at any level, learn to put their sport into perspective. Despite the influence of adults who believe in winning at all costs, they learn that life revolves around more than a game.

“But there’s not enough emphasis on helping players grow as decent individuals,” says Gregg Sutch, “as opposed to how much emphasis is put on the win column.”

Sutch recalls an encounter with a leadership counselor, who asked him to write down five things in life that he valued. “We weren’t allowed to write hockey, family or friends. After 20 minutes, I had nothing on my paper. I couldn't think of one thing I valued aside from the obvious. That day I vowed to grow myself as a person and value more than just the obvious. Fortunately, that's what helped me move on from the game because I knew I was more than just a hockey player.”

Whether he lives in Toronto, Moose Jaw or Bogota, every kid deserves to dream. But every kid also deserves to learn how much more there is to life.

 

* Bruce McDougall’s book, The Last Hockey Game, about the culture of professional hockey, will be published this fall by Goose Lane Editions.

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