Tryouts, Cuts, Placements, Coaches, Parents, Kids, Skepticism and a Healthy Dose of Paranoia

Nigel Shackles Seafair Minor Hockey Tryouts Ice Hockey Coach Tips and Drills

One the best part of our jobs is that we get to meet a ton of great people in the hockey community. From minor hockey to the NHL, our game enlists so many committed individuals who go out of their way to provide a first class experience for players, mostly kids or kids at heart. And in most cases, these individuals don’t get paid. Their reward for donating countless hours of their time to their local minor hockey organization is to see their community rink become a welcoming meeting place for families and social classroom for the players.

Nigel Shackles is the President of the Seafair Minor Hockey Association and currently in his 20th season of service. According to him it will be his last. If so, he will be missed by many. He’s had an enormous impact on a lot of young people’s lives.

Outside of his position as President he has had other roles within the association; coach, dad, fundraiser, mediator, you name it. Heck it wouldn’t surprise us if he drove the zamboni from time to time. Throughout the season Nigel submits a President’s Message to Seafair’s website. Generally it’s reminder to all involved in minor hockey to have fun and enjoy the journey. His latest message was brought to our attention and after reading it we felt it was worth sharing.

IT’S AWESOME!

..and captures perfectly what so many of us try to preach but can’t always articulate. It’s a long read but worth it. If you feel inclined, by all means pass it along. If it can help shift the culture in your organization than all the better.

Finally thank you Nigel and all the other volunteers who invest their time, energy and passion into ensuring kids have a fun and supportive environment to grow up in at the rink.

Inspire Connect Lead

Seafair Job Post

Dear Parents

(and before anyone goes down the wrong path, this message is NOT in response to any particular email about any particular situation I have received this year. It’s merely a collection of thoughts based on twenty years of calling the Ice Centre my second home……..and I’ve got the mortgage payments (sticks, helmets, equipment, sock tape, tournaments, team fees, bribes, etc…) to prove it really has been a second home)

By now your kid has been cut……or not. Congratulations. And I mean that both ways and in both circumstances. You can consider this email my way of putting my arm around you and telling you it will be okay. That no matter what the outcome of these tryouts your kids will have grown from the experience. An experience that is good, bad or indifferent. Fair or unfair. Complex or simple. As a once great Canuck was heard to mutter…”it is what it is”

But what exactly is ‘it’.

Well ‘it’ is the worst part of the year for all of us. For parents seeing their kids upset, for coaches having to be the bearer of bad news, and for kids being told ‘you’re not good enough for us here, go over there with that group instead’.

For parents it means this….Since the day your child was born every single fibre of your being has been dedicated to protecting them from all harm. Both physically and mental. And yet here is a situation, probably the first, where real palpable disappointment is introduced into their young lives and you not only have to be silent about it but you have to support the process by which that disappointment was delivered.

For coaches it means this…..You might think that any coach, even the rougher and gruffer ones, sail through these cuts salivating at the prospect of investing time in their best players and not overly concerned with the feelings of any kid deemed not good enough. I can tell you that is simply not the case. Unless the coach is a machine or an alien they actually DO care and, having been in the room many times, I can tell you that it is the most gut wrenching task for any coach who has a heart that is too big, just right or even two sizes too small.

For kids it can be devastating…..Not because they have some notion of climbing the hockey ladder and they want to get drafted but merely because, many times, it means that friends, friends that have been around for years, will no longer be around because they made the cut and your child didn’t. Coupled with that soul emptying feeling of ‘rejection’, something they may have never experienced before, it can all be a little too much in any kids life. Rejection is tough to take at any age.

I get all of that and much more. I get it year after year after year. I get it because I’ve been though it as a parent, team official, administrator…you name it. I get it. Anything involving culling and kids can’t help but engender ill feelings. It will always suck. And I have so much empathy for any kid, brimming with dreams and nervousness, who’s ever entered a tryout and subjected themselves to the vagaries and mysterious metrics of the scoring on the coach/evaluators coffee stained clipboard (and that awesome pass your son just made?…yep, the coach wasn’t looking as he was distracted by his hot coffee/basket of fries/friends joke/ idiot President or lack of purpose in life). There is simply no way of doing this, choosing teams based on perceived ability, without crossing the intersection of all that is emotional in your life. This is about your kids after all and there will never be anything in your entire life that comes within spitting distance of meaning more to you.

And then we (me, coach, division manager, coach coordinator, Board of Directors) cuts your kid and tells you, from the pulpit of perceived condescension, ‘don’t worry, everything will turn out okay’.

So yeah, I get it.

Those emotions you experience are real and they are not to be discounted or disregarded. In these instances it’s not ‘just a game’ and the thoughts that come your way because of what you feel was an unfair process or a mistake or a ‘fix’ are real. As I’ve told many players over the years who have had trouble keeping their emotions in check on the ice, the trick is not to ignore feelings, but to accept them and deal with them. I can’t tell you to not feel disappointed about the cut that came your child’s way. That’s a real emotion and one I fully accept. My message to you is not about the feelings you experience but more about what to do about them.

To that end I wanted to give you some thoughts about things I have heard over my many years of being involved with minor hockey at the grass roots level.

“This team was picked before the tryouts started”
I’m sure you expect me to cobble together some breathless report which would read like a sanctimonious defence of the process and that every single position is wide open..yada, yada, yada. But of course, on some level, that is not true. To the extent that we employ flesh and blood beings to pick/coach our teams we can’t expect them to not have any preconceived thoughts/notions as to at least some of the players trying out. The more known commodities for sure. If a kid made the A1 team as a first year player the likelihood that they will make it again as a second year would appear to be fairly strong. Particularly if the coach is a returning team official. Is that wrong? Is that shocking to think that a coach may have already pencilled that player in when his thoughts turned to his team as he was lounging on the beach in Penticton last summer? I don’t think so. It’s just reality.

So yes, to some degree, there is always going to be an element of ‘pencilling in’ before the first blade hits the ice. It shouldn’t be advertised or broadcasted but most teams, when the coach is returning, have as their makeup players that were known to be at this level before the tryouts started. Should that be the case? Well, there is no alternative. The world isn’t perfect and we have to recognize that infallible people, people with memories, opinions, strengths and weaknesses occupy the positions you’ll find in organizations such as this.

“My son didn’t get a good enough look”
Yep, you’re probably right. But let’s remember that this process, trying out for a team, is just a part of the process we endure in launching the season for all the kids. And those kids are involved in hockey to play hockey. We have rep teams to form,’ C’ teams to form, a mountain of administrative minutiae to deal with and you can add in a curve ball or two from BC Hockey. It’s busy. Most of us are volunteers with real jobs (that thankfully pay real dollars). There is only so much time any kid is going to get to ‘show their stuff’. Is that fair? Nope. But I can tell you that the volunteers that organize the tryouts go overboard in making sure that every kid gets as much a chance as can be possibly be given. Within that time frame are mistakes made? Yes. But those mistakes are the coaches to make. If you want to be in that position and be able to make decisions that will affect those that are trying out then please start coaching.

“The tryouts were fixed”
I believe in completely honest tryouts and that honesty expresses itself in admissions that we should all recognize that some players do have an inside track based on their ability, previous years placement or simply because he’s the coaches son. My expectation is to be surrounded by adults who also believe in the integrity of what they are doing and how they are doing it while still recognizing those paradoxes. That doesn’t mean I haven’t seen some coaches pull some stunts over the years…..I have. Two decades does tend to ensure you eventually see everything, both good and bad, at the rink. But the incidences of ‘fixing’ and the often reach for accusation are completely out of proportion to reality.

“That player took my kids spot”
Every player on every team took someone’s spot. Yes, this usually comes about when a player comes in from Richmond Minor or South Delta or any other place. Do people (coaches, parents) talk before this happens? Yes, most likely. But everyone talks all the time in minor hockey, throughout this association and many others. People from RMHA or others in Seafair. Friends in Tbirds or relatives in Langley Minor Hockey. Everyone talks all the time. It’s not a crime. Everyone’s looking for an edge or a sense of being wanted….or a more competitive team or simply to play together. Some people use fake addresses to move around while others don’t (I know, I know, it’s a crazy world out there). The problems occur when said player makes a team and someone else, usually a kid who’s been with us since H1, does not. And then what? Is that fair? No, not really when you look at it in a purely emotional way. But what is the alternative? That any player moving into Seafair, either as a legitimate ‘we just moved here from Saskatoon and my kid needs a place to play hockey’ or a less legitimate ‘we’re here to just play on the A1 Team’ should not be allowed to tryout because it takes a spot away from your kid, or any other kid? There is simply no way to endorse and manage such an idea. Every player who registers in Seafair is entitled to the same opportunities. The chance to tryout being one of them. We can’t head into tryouts and vet every player (even using Donald’s ‘extreme’ vetting) as to their loyalty to us or what their motivations are. Sometimes things happen, good, bad or indifferent, because the alternative is far worse and we don’t want to create two classes of player……one that is allowed to tryout because they’ve been here longer and one who isn’t because they just arrived. And on that note, I know people may think that it’s up to the association to ascertain everyone’s housing status and eligibility to play here but the day I have to follow people home is the day I will no longer be volunteering. There is only one person I know for sure lives in this city and is therefore eligible to be in Seafair and that is me……because I follow myself home everyday.

Which leads me to this…..

A lot of crappy stuff happens in kids sports because it involves people. We all have our frailties, fears, strengths and biases. We see and hear what we want to particularly when it helps build a narrative we have written in our own minds (the team is already picked, the coach doesn’t like my kid, this was fixed, etc…). And sometimes unscrupulous stuff does happen because, like I said, this whole endeavour called minor hockey involves people. But most stuff, in fact the overwhelming amount, is just the result of people pushing/pulling in relatively the same direction and each one displaying their own set of characteristics. Most people you come across are good people. You may disagree with them but aside from what their opinions are about who should play where and what the power play should look like, they are good people. Some are more misguided than others, some more passionate than others and some more easily led astray. But most people you encounter in the rink are, by and large, good people.

But…..

When we truly want to believe in a story (the tryout was rigged, that kid was promised a spot, Richmond is doing what?) we all will find compelling reasons to believe the story we want written. During my first few years in hockey I used to hear odd things about Richmond Minor and what so-and-so or whomever was doing over there. Not having any experience in these matters I generally believed what I heard (give or take the odd outlandish rumour or two). But after a few years and as my involvement in minor hockey increased I found myself having to fight ridiculous rumours about Seafair. And then I realized that there is an element of any group of people who want drama and discord and are quite happy to throw as many logs on the fire as they can. So if I’m having to fight crazy, stupid rumours probably most of the stuff I heard about Richmond Minor is not true as well. Over the years I’ve come to realize that most of what we hear in the hallways and dressing rooms of the rink is to be taken with a grain of salt. Or several. Or several large grains. But the problem with that is that it doesn’t jibe with our wanting to believe things we know in our gut to be true even though there is no particular evidence suggesting same. So we go on believing that this coach in Seafair did this or that, or that parent did something, or that Richmond Minor is doing something or that someone, somewhere, for some reason has or is doing something, right now, that will result in a loss of enjoyment by you or will in someway bring injustice to you and your child. And our minds manufacture that evidence because it helps us make sense on a nonsensical world where randomness can’t be accepted let alone explained.

So all I’m asking any of you is this…..

The rink is just a place your kids play. Hockey is just a sport like any other. People at the rink are just like you. They care about their kids and they care when things don’t go or turn out right for them. If you bring the right attitude to the rink, no matter the circumstances of Rep or House, no matter who said what, no matter what your heard or didn’t hear, no matter what little slice of drama is being fed freshly written lines by those who love such things……..then you and your child will have a much, much better time. On this team or the one below or the one below that or on a ‘C’ team or a different ‘C’ team if you get moved. Every last thing about the rink, minor hockey and your kids place in the sport comes from the attitude you bring.

As a minor hockey dad this is my last year of twenty. If I can get even a few of you to understand the importance of these years you have with your kids then all the writing I have ever done throughout those two decades will have been worth it.

Kids are always worth that effort.

Nigel Shackles
President, Seafair MHA


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Shackles has been described as the “heart and soul” of the Seafair Minor Hockey Association. A visionary who is passionate about promoting the core values of sport, he continually challenges himself and others around him to make the game better. To Shackles, winning and losing isn’t nearly isn’t nearly as important as ensuring players are afforded an environment that first and foremost emphasizes the love of the game.