The ugly side of kids competitive sports – travel

I think it’s clear, even if you are new to this blog, that we are heavily involved on the sports side of things with our kids. It’s the kids that have requested to play in organized sports, and we started them out slowly, at local community centres and summer camps, to find out what it is they wanted to take out of these kinds of activities.

select hockey player

Turns out they never looked back, and once they picked a passion or two, it became increasingly clear that certain sports will remain in our foreseeable future.

When Ben was a toddler and expressed interest in skating and playing hockey we took him to recreational family skates. Then we put him in an outdoor league which started in November (weather depending) and ended in early March. It was a shorter season than at an indoor rink, and we were willing to spend the money on used equipment for that period. Worst case scenario, he would learn to skate and would not want to continue with hockey after the season ended.

Well he loved it. By the following year he went to a local indoor league and started in October. By Christmas time he did a tournament (again, locally in our home arena) and was approached by a few coaches about trying out for the select team.

And that was the beginning. He went into hockey school the following September, continued with House Leagues starting in October, and played on the Tyke select team as a defenseman. By the following year he started scoring, switched to centre position, and became a highly regarded 6, then 7 and now 8 year old hockey player with awards lining the shelves.

Select, as part of the Novice age group (Minor last year, regular this year) started traveling locally within Toronto, a metropolitan city with over 2.5 million inhabitants (2006).

Toronto has a reputation of being as bad, if  not worse, for car travel within its surrounding area (also known as GTA, or Greater Toronto Area) as other major North American cities (Vancouver, Montreal, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago). The gridlock can be crippling under normal, nice weather circumstances, and god forbid there’s a fender-bender somewhere on a major artery and the entire city seems to fall apart. That’s not even taking into account major traffic accidents, and construction. It is said that for Toronto drivers, there are only two seasons: winter, and construction.

My point is, traveling by car in the GTA sucks.

Well, we live in the west end of Toronto. The local hockey league we belong to is registered with another league for the select (competitive) side of hockey. This select league resides in the northern part of the west side of the city. And last year, most of our select hockey games were located either north of us, or slightly east of us with the occasional trip to an eastern, or north-western part of the city.

It was doable, mostly. The main reason was that last year’s Minor Novice select team was new-ish to the select organization (I think – sometimes they have enough kids to break off a Minor Novice from the Novice group, by age) and the kids were only 7 years old. It gave us a taste of what it’s like to be part of the select team and for the most part, even if the weather was bad, we managed ok. Partly this was because the travel didn’t start till after the Christmas tournament, so traveling around the GTA was really only for a few months ending in May. Usually it was one game a week, and sometimes that game was on a weekend (usually Sunday). We would have had less travel had we been eliminated in the playoffs in April, but we managed to play well enough to make it to the very last game (and lost) which is why we went into the month of May. Most select teams are eliminated by April or early May.

This year, so far, has been a nightmare.

The Novice select team now consists of 8 year olds, and we started the what feels like a pre-season competitive game time early (in October, two months earlier than last year). To date we have already played three games, and one more is scheduled for Monday night. Each game so far has been scheduled at an arena that is a minimum 74 km return trip (that’s over 40 miles). Add to that any traffic problem, or weather, and you’re looking at horrible driving times. So far the weather hasn’t been bad, but last Monday night’s game was scheduled at 6:55 pm, requiring the team to be present and dressed at least 30 min prior to game start, and we got there late. So late that Ben wasn’t on the ice until the bottom of the first period… (there are three periods in hockey, each one of them about 12 minutes long).

Ben’s dad arrived at home to pick him up at 5:20 pm. He shoveled some food in and left at 5:35 pm. They didn’t get to the arena, due to a traffic situation slowing them to a crawl on a major highway, until 6:55 pm which was starting time. By the time Ben was dressed, it was obvious that about half his team was either absent, or late.

It was awful.

I launched an email asking questions to our coach. He is a fantastic guy and extremely approachable. He responded that it took him 90 minutes to get there, and he has to bring the jerseys for the team. (Select jerseys are kept by the team coach allowing for reduced costs. If we would have to buy the entire outfit it would raise the price even higher to the currently $450 it costs to participate in select.) He also calculated that it cost him $15 in gas to make the return trip to his home.

Crazy.

He forwarded me a couple of other emails of others who addressed, or tried to address, the unreasonable locations of games within our west league.  It’s becoming clearer with each passing season why so few people participate in select, even if they, or especially their kids, would love to play in a competitive environment. The struggle with the travel, particularly for families who work full-time outside the home, and/or only have one car, is beyond reasonable, and if affects us too with me being a stay-at-home mom. I’m less than willing to upset the entire family dynamic for the sake of an 8 year old kid to play a bit of competitive hockey, especially when you take into account that when the game is done, he will only have had about 12 minutes of ice time.

Many of us are questioning if it’s all worth it in the end. We’re talking about 8 year olds, here, children.

I always maintained that Ben is a child first, and a hockey player second.

It’s not like the select league is paying us to show up, either. (In fact, we have to pay $5 each person over the age of 12, including the player himself who is only 8, to enter the arena for a select game.)

The entire thing is nuts.

The ultimate question remains:

Is it worth it?

For us, we look at the child and see a passion that translates into a skill he is not only very good at, but is excelling at. He would be heart-broken if we would take him out of select now that he’s had so much fun, and enjoyed playing in a competitive environment as much as he had. Ben has been a competitive kids since toddlerhood and has found his passion in hockey. It’s a slippery slope, and leaves me challenged with what to do when we have these unreasonable travel distances to deal with.

My immediate solution is to evaluate each select game’s location individually. I take into account:

  • who is going (the whole family, or only Ben and his dad?)
  • the time the game starts (6:10 pm at a far away location is harder to get to than 6:55 pm at same location)
  • the weather (obviously in a snow storm the traffic situation will be worse than during dry weather)
  • traffic predictions (we use tv and social media, or Ben’s dad’s personal views since he travels on part of that highway home from work)
  • the geographical location of the arena

If the arena is located east of Yonge Street (which is the street that divides Toronto into east and west) and also north of the major highway, then we will assess current and potential weather conditions and decide whether or not the drive is worth it.

How this will continue into the next few years I don’t know, but if the ball is rolling and enough parents are vocal about this situation, them perhaps we will succeed in returning the league to playing mostly in the west or north-west end.

In the meantime, we do what we can. If we can manage to get to the game without too much stress and disruption, we will make the effort. If it looks like we’re doomed to get there on time due to external factors, then they’ll just have to play without us.

Sad, and likely not unheard of.

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