Father of a 20 year old ex-Junior Hockey Player

A Message to All Parents

As parents our primary goal is to ensure that our children are given the best chance for a long, happy, healthy life. To that end, we try to give them every opportunity to grow mentally, physically and socially. So, we enrol them in activities that will allow them opportunities to experience life and learn how to handle situations when they are adults. My wife and I felt putting our children in sports was an ideal way for them to learn how to handle the realities and challenges that would come along in their adult lives while having fun and staying fit. Naturally hockey seemed like a sound choice.

We were not naïve. We understood that there are risks in every activity. But when we enrolled our four-year-old son in hockey we were not really concerned. What could really happen at that age? And we were right. It was fun and hockey was perfect. It was building our son’s character: he was learning many lessons while having a great time — how to win and lose, how to be a team player, what it means to have a work ethic, the value of commitment, how to tackle challenges and face disappointment, and so on. It really was ideal, or so we thought.

While he was growing, we as parents didn’t. We actually became mesmerized by our son who was excelling at the sport, and we were proud of his accomplishments on and off the ice. He was becoming a ”real” man. He was developing not only his hockey skills, but his social skills. The problem was, we were so thrilled by his hockey that we forgot about our number one priority as parents — to ensure our child’s safety and well-being.

We pushed him to be the best he could be in every aspect of his life and hockey was no different. Every game our son would go out and make us proud. We encouraged him to always put in his best effort and that included every facet of the game. But as he grew older, the game changed and it became rougher and required that our son adapt to the more physical play or risk not having the opportunity to play at the highest level. So we did nothing to stop the physical play — in fact, we encouraged it! And we wanted our son to impress his coach and in doing so, we knew he would get played more often and have more chances at being the star and more chances to hear the crowd cheer him on.

Somewhere along this journey of hockey, we became obsessed with our son being the star of his team — of bringing home the trophy, scoring the winning goal, being the leading scorer and even being the strongest on the ice. Somehow over 15 years, we, as his parents, evolved from being satisfied with our son going out and having fun to needing our son to be the “best” and ignoring the possibility he might get hurt or hurt someone to meet our expectations and the spectators’ expectations.

I could sit here and rationalize to myself that I had no idea of the risks of my son playing hockey. I knew when he was playing at four years old that there was always a risk, but at that time, it was very minimal and you can’t keep children in a bubble. But I can’t honestly tell you that as the kids got bigger and the game faster and tougher that I didn’t realize the risks to my son were increasing.

So the question remains, if as parents, our priority is to ensure our children grow up safe and healthy with the tools to survive in this world, why would we put their health, and especially their brains, at risk?

One answer is simple: that we put our desire of being able to brag about our children’s accomplishments ahead of their welfare. The children just want to please us and they see the response they get from getting a goal, or laying on the best ”hit” of the game. So we reinforce this aggressive behaviour and over time it becomes natural for our kids to go out and nail the opponent in order to get the applause and praise from us, the coaches, and spectators (and they get more ice-time as a reward, which is like a drug — they have to have it).

Because of this misaligned thinking, our son is now no longer able to play the sport he grew up with and loves. And we have to live with the fact that we pushed him to be aggressive and to hit and be hit so that we could feel proud and have others tell us how great he was. We had the choice and we made the wrong decision. We loved our time at the rink and our time with him, but we now question whether we could have enjoyed the time with our son without putting him in danger.

As we discovered two years ago, our son at age 19 was not and is not able to play hockey any more as he has had multiple concussions and cannot risk another one. He still suffers post-concussion symptoms, including headaches. We have no idea what long-term affects these concussions will have. We take some solace from the doctors saying he will heal over time.

I realize medical professionals like Dr. Echlin and Dr. Johnston are learning more and more every day and doing the best they can to understand the complexities of concussions and how to prevent them. As parents, our primary responsibility is to ensure our children’s welfare. We shouldn’t require any more information than the fact that the hits in sports are dangerous to their health and put at risk their ability to lead a normal, long, healthy life. This is all we should need to make the decision about whether to allow and even encourage our children to participate in something this harmful.

The decision is yours. And it is simple. I made the wrong decision — learn from me. If I could do it all again, I wouldn’t permit my son to play the style of hockey he was ”told” to play by all of us adults. Hockey would have remained a great sport without the element of unnecessary aggression.

Larry Coté