Lidabet (biggersandwich) wrote,

"Selling the Dream" by Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels

Hockey fandom really, really needs to read Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels' Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and Their Kids Are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession. It's both a terrifying look at the systems that produce NHL players, and a wonderful source of bizarre facts about current players.

Essentially, the system, as it currently stands, is kind of fucked. It's pretty much horrifying that the selection process for the NHL is so heavily funded by the parents of the kids who don't make it. It's not that every kid who plays some atom level is going to be good enough, sure, but the number who don't make it, but still mortgage their futures for the chance is pretty horrifying, especially given that primary beneficiaries here are the NHL and the incredibly small percentage of players who end up with some kind of pro career, let alone the even tinier fraction who end up in the NHL.

As well, it seems increasingly likely that the intensity of the training these kids are going through, and the pressure that's being put on them does more harm than good. Doing weight training young does give kids an edge against other kids, but it's not as clear if it gives them an edge later when they're playing against adults, and it really doesn't seem like it gives them more of an edge than the kind of old-school practice in things like stick-handling that you get from spending a lot of free time just messing around.

It's also kind of ridiculous that people are moving halfway across the country for the chance to play in the GTHL (Greater Toronto Hockey League), simply because there's better competition there. Honestly, there's some evidence that it actually might be much better for the development of children to be a top player on a shittier team, than to be one of several excellent players on a good team, both because of the amount of responsibility the former has to take, and because the scouts that these parents are desperate to have see their kids are actually looking a lot harder at the top guy on a small town team than they are at the 6th best guy on a big city team. And all that aside, that's a lot of upheaval for a 12 year old to play some sports.

It's certainly something to think about, either if you're their intended audience of people who do/will have kids enrolled in hockey, or for fandom because it's interesting for sure just how hard all the guys we like have worked, but maybe sometimes we need to take a step back, given that it's actually sort of fucked up for 12-13 year olds to be doing certain kinds of training? Perhaps it's just because I'm terribly, terribly angry this week at the system because of the sheer number of concussions and stupid things like that, but I do sometimes need a counter to the romanticisation of the work that players do because it's charming when guys were driven at a very young age, and it's amusing how peculiar they are sometimes, but some of the reasons that kids are driven, or that guys end up fucked up are not as charming or funny, and it kind of freaks me out sometimes.

Campbell and Parcels do spend what seems like an excessive amount of time arguing with Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, in ways that indicate that they've misunderstood him entirely. Gladwell's basic point is that 10,000 hours of practice is enough to make most people pretty damn good at most things, and that a lot of people who are seen as exceptional had better chances to get that much practice at whatever their skill is, rather than being necessarily gifted. Campbell and Parcels are indignant about the fact that this doesn't really work for the NHL because thousands of kids can do that, but only a tiny fraction are good enough for the NHL even so.

Gladwell is a pop essayist, and should, of course, not be taken as an ultimate authority, but Gladwell's point isn't opposite to Campbell and Parcels'; it's orthogonal, in a way that would back up their own if they could only see it. Although Gladwell does talk about individuals who stand head and shoulders above the rest in their fields because they were given particular chances early on, his hockey examples are of junior teams that are largely populated by kids who were identified at a young age as being particularly good, and therefore ultimately got the amount of training necessary to become at least Junior-level good.1

Now, Gladwell is making the point that the kids who are getting this kind of attention from early on tend to be chosen on the basis of fucked up criteria, such as who is taller, which isn't actually a great predictor of future success, particularly when you're talking about eight year olds, whose height has a strong correlation to actual age in months (i.e. the 8 year old born in Jan vs. the one born in November). His concern is that we spread those opportunities out even more. Campbell and Parcels on the other hand, are talking about how so many, many kids in Canada are being put into high levels of hockey when only a few of them will ever make it past the bottleneck of the NHL draft, and even fewer of those will have real pro careers, so the last thing they want is MORE kids trying to get into Junior. (They are concerned about equality, to be fair to them, but they're looking more at the economic inequities that prevent kids from getting the same hockey opportunities, which is reasonable for a book on the role of money in children's hockey.)

But Gladwell's point, which is that lots of people with the equivalent quantity of practice can achieve fairly similarly, is exactly the problem that creates the Junior/AAA system that Campbell and Parcels' agree is fucked. 10,000 hours of practice won't necessarily get you into the NHL because that's such an incredibly tiny group. But it will get you into Junior or high-level AAA, and that's why we have thousands of kids at that level, which wouldn't be a problem except that they're often bankrupting their families and ruining their health to do it, and the NHL/CHL are the ones making a profit off of it.

Furthermore, when Campbell and Parcels start scoffing that 10,000 hours of practice is an impossible criterion in hockey because it's nearly impossible to afford that much ice time in Canada, they seem to have missed that all the things they're lauding in the previous generation of hockey players (namely, hours spent messing around with hockey sticks on a driveway rather than engaging in organised drills) are precisely the sort of things that make up the 10,000 hours that Gladwell refers to.

On a less depressing note, this book is also a delightful source of peculiar hockey-player facts. Some of it is evidence that particular guys' parents were kind of obsessive (though for me, no one beats the couple who lived in a boat in the Toronto Harbour for a couple of years so their son could play in the GTHL.)

Campbell and Parcels talked a lot to Matt Duchene's parents, which is the less depressing side of things, as Duchene obviously made the show and is doing pretty well. There are a lot of excellent Matt Duchene facts here. It's charming that Duchene is so very serious about repaying his parents for the >$300k they spent on his hockey, but it is also amusing that the house they were finally able to buy with his hockey cash includes space for him to live there in the summer, and that his paycheques go straight into his dad's bank account. I really wanted better citations for some of these facts though, because I really need to know who thinks that if Duchene wasn't a hockey player, he would be a graphic designer, which they tossed off like it was practically common knowledge, and then I need alllll of the AUs on this theme.

I think I've heard the story about Carey Price's bush-plane trips to hockey practice with his dad before, but it's well-repeated here, and then there's assorted other titbits about various players who share particular trainers (including Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal, I'm just saying, fandom), or whose parents are incredibly pushy (Stamkos, for example, though his dad seems less mad than Ryan O'Reilly's, who manages to seem way over the line even when he's complaining that it's other parents who are fucking up their kids.)

There are also some nice stories about parents being sensible: Giroux's parents were very practical, and the whole Thunder Bay minor hockey organisation seems to have its shit together, though it was Henry Staal who was interviewed specifically.

1They also keep criticising his statistic that nearly the entire roster of the Medicine Hat Tigers - as a random example - was born before August, by pointing out that Tyler Ennis (Oct 6) was actually one of the few guys off that team to make the NHL, which is a terrible fucking point to make off a dude who has publically complained that he spent his childhood getting cut from teams before he ever got a chance to try out entirely because he was "too short" (he is now 5'9"). He's not exactly your poster-boy for the idea that parents don't need to get involved.

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Tags: books, fucking hell: i have a hockey tag now, recommendations, reviews
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