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Examining Politics in Youth Hockey

By Minnesota Hockey, 10/15/19, 10:30AM CDT


Politics. There may be few words with a more negative connotation than politics, even if we’re talking strictly about youth hockey.

Yet, every year it seems to surface in rink side conversations, especially after tryouts, as people voice frustrations and doubts about decisions made by coaches, evaluators and board members.

But what are politics in youth hockey? And does it really occur the way people think?

We sat down with Minnesota Hockey president Steve Oleheiser and CCM High Performance Director and USA Hockey Coach-in-Chief Mike MacMillan to take a closer look at the “politics” of youth hockey in Minnesota.

The Core Issue

“In my experience, what people mean when referencing politics is they think there’s favoritism occurring,” said MacMillan. “One parent’s child is a friend or knows the other parent’s child who somehow is involved with the association, and they think there’s bias towards that kid in a positive way. Or they think that because of something they did or their child did there’s a bias against them in the selection process.”

As a high school coach for 30 years and having spent years assisting with tryouts in several different programs, MacMillan witnessed his share of those conversations prior to assuming his current roles.

“I used to hear it all the time,” said MacMillan. “You still hear it, but really, it’s less than five percent of the people that you hear from. I think 90-95% of the families are usually pretty happy with the process. They think their kids fell where they should, and they have a good perspective on youth sports.”

“With the thousands of kids who go through HP process in the spring, if I get 25 calls about the process, that would be a lot in a given year.”

When the topic of politics does come up, it’s usually a product of an emotional time and people trying to figure out how to manage their frustrations and understand why certain decisions were made.

“You can look at it from an association standpoint too,” said Oleheiser.  “People wonder why does that team have the good ice time, and they think well, the president’s son is on that team. That’s why.”

Oleheiser cautions that, while there are occasionally situations where it appears obvious board members’ kids are getting preferential treatment, there are almost always processes and policies in place that guide those decisions, not who is on the team.

Process & Prevention

“The majority of it is perception,” said MacMillan. “Associations and coaches can do themselves well by being open and communicating what the process is, how it’s going to work and then follow through with it. That helps to break down that perception of bias.”

“There are so many different ways to do tryouts, and everybody tries really, really hard to take the bias out of tryouts from my experience.”

That holds true not only for tryouts, but really for any board decision or policy. The key to preventing rumors or perception of politics is communication and being prepared to openly answer questions when they come up.

“A lot of it is trying to explain the process,” said Oleheiser. “How did the decision for those players get made? How did the decision of who gets what practice time get made?”

“You have to combat it with the truth and the reality.”

On the other side of the situation, the crucial step for parents is being willing to ask questions. The answer may not always be what you were hoping for, but hopefully, the discussion results in a better understanding and respect for the process.  

Tryout Takeaways

While the goal of tryouts is truly to help place all kids on teams that they can experience success, unfortunately, the reality is it’s a time filled with stress for everyone involved and often comes with many uncomfortable conversations. The good news is most coaches and administrators do have the right intentions.  

“First off, when you’re picking a team at any level, most coaches, if not all coaches, want to have the best team possible,” said MacMillan. “They’re trying to put together a team to be successful. I don’t think anyone goes into it thinking about a bias in that perspective. If they are, they shouldn’t be coaching or in a board role.”

With any tryout or team selection, the coaches are usually able to pick the top players fairly easily. The challenging part is determining the last few players selected, as there are often several who could go either way.

“I would say almost 100% of the angst is about those bubble kids,” said MacMillan. “Every player on the team has a different role, and every coach is going to see that a little differently. Sometimes those bubble players get caught up in that. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to be a top player down the road. It might just be at that time in they’re playing career they didn’t fit what that coach was looking for.”

For bubble players who don’t make the top team, that can be a difficult time, but with the right attitude, it often works out in a positive way as they have an opportunity to be a leader and go-to player, rather than a role player. Parents can play a key role in helping kids understand that and refocus on the season.

The Region Rotation

It’s far from just tryouts that lead to references of politics though. Minnesota Hockey’s Region Tournament rotation is one of the common arguments Oleheiser has heard as a former District 12 Director and Grand Rapids native:

‘What’s District 10 doing in a North Region? What’s District 3 doing in the West Region? They shouldn’t be here. It’s all because whoever set it up doesn’t want northern teams into the State Tournament.’

“They don’t understand the way the rotation was set up, and the way it’s been done,” said Oleheiser. “They think it’s all about not having out-state teams qualify for the State Tournament.”

“That’s certainly not the reason why. It’s for balance.”

The Minnesota Hockey Region Tournament rotation is a multi-year system designed to provide every district with an equal number region seeds over a period of time. If you look at a single year, there are always idiosyncrasies such as a metro district playing in a region with two out-state districts or certain districts only having two seeds, but the rotation is designed to be fair to everyone and balance opportunities in a system that must assign eight seed to three districts in four region tournaments.

No Place for Politics

The most ironic part about politics in youth hockey is the system most people believe creates favoritism is often what prevents it.

“Quite honestly, one vote doesn’t make the decision,” said Oleheiser. “That’s the good thing about the board. The whole board has to agree.”

“One person comes on the board and thinks they’re going to change everything to benefit their kid. The rest of the board says time out, we see what’s going on here.  The same thing with Minnesota Hockey. There are a lot of people who want to do this or want to do that, but the board of directors sit down and looks at it and says there aren’t enough votes.”

Whether it’s Minnesota Hockey or a local association, the board of directors frequently consists of people with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Finding a path that channels all of those points of view towards the shared goal of making hockey better in their community and statewide can be challenging, but it leaves little room for bias, favoritism or politics.

“If there are politics in an association or the selection of a team, I feel very bad because there certainly shouldn’t be,” concludes MacMillan. “My experience with the groups I’ve been around is that’s not the intent going in.”

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