To be or not to be? Newest Hockey Unlimited episode lets young players answer the question

There’s a world of difference between illusions and ideals. While we should be ready and perfectly willing to ditch illusions whenever we realize we’re only dreaming in Technicolor, we should be defending our ideals to the last breath.

Thus the accepted wisdom.

Here’s the issue: how do we distinguish the former from the latter?

Youth hockey is not only an expensive proposition. Not only is the equipment beyond the reach of many families, the cost of renting rinks for practices and games can add amounts that make the sport virtually impossible to join. And yet, if future players ever learn what it takes to find success, it’s precisely in the ranks of youth hockey. But the questions do not stop with costs. Eventually, players, parents and (to a degree) coaches face tough moments that see youth hockey’s participants at a crossroads. Many questions, and only one of the several potentially possible answers is correct.

This is the challenge many (or, to be more precise, most) midget league hockey players, their parents and their coaches face. Is the kid a bona fide future NHL superstar? Is the kid a bona fide future honest worker at whatever profession his education takes him?

That’s one of the main topics the fourth episode of the new documentary, Hockey Unlimited, has set to explore. Aired on Sportsnet Monday (with a number of repeat broadcasts to come, check your local listings or below), the Aquila Productions’ show digs deep into the issue and brings in people who have both the knowledge and the experience.

Ken Campbell of The Hockey News has done a lot of research on the topic, and his insights have been of great value to the show, but what took the cake were the honestly shared personal experiences of both the parents and the players.

It’s one thing to enroll your kid into youth hockey, in hopes he would learn a thing or two that might come useful in life, and it’s a completely another matter once the kid is accepted. You become a part of a system, and the system puts some pretty tough demands on both its players and their families. And one only realizes whether these demands and requirements are reasonable after a few seasons had gone by and the players and their families have to figure out whether it is at all worth their while to continue.

Interestingly enough, it was the players themselves who were the most realistic people of all present when it got to assessing their capabilities and future endeavours. It takes a lot of courage for a player to look straight into a television camera, knowing his words are being recorded, and say, I know that I’m not going to make it as a professional athlete. Now’s the time to become serious about my education because there’s life after hockey, too. And they weren’t bitter about it, either. They told Hockey Unlimited’s cameras that they had formed friendships some of which they bet would become life-long, and they learned a lot about sportsmanship, and they got into pretty awesome physical shape, to boot.

It would have been beyond the scope of Hockey Unlimited to answer the next question: is there anything wrong with the system? And if there is, can we fix it? And if we can fix it, how do we go about it?

Why beyond the scope? Because Hockey Unlimited is a documentary. A frightfully good documentary, to be sure, but it’s not the role of such works to answer questions. It’s within their mandate to ask them. That’s all. Asking tough questions is a tough job as it is. Hockey Unlimited does that.

Hockey goes multicultural

It’s one thing to see that there’s regular broadcast of Hockey Night in Canada in the Punjabi language; it’s an altogether different thing to see kids of Punjabi origin learning not only to skate, but to play hockey, too.

This is what’s happening, and Hockey Unlimited takes us right into the heart of things. As the various community leaders say, this is all part of their people becoming Canadian. That includes not only learning and accepting traditional Canadian values, but also taking part in traditional Canadian sports activities.

And is there a more Canadian sports activity than hockey?

From a practical standpoint, how many opportunities does the usual Canadian climate offer for people to indulge in, say, cricket, rugby or soccer?

A rhetorical question if there ever was one.

Just as many watched in awe when players of, say, Korean or Lebanese origin made it all the way to the NHL, it’s obvious the day a player whose parents had come to Canada from India makes it all the way up is not that far away, too.

One question begs an answer: will there be, say, East Indian community-based hockey teams first, or will the kids have enough courage to take on all comers in teams that reflect the wonderful mosaic that is Canada?

Judging by the pictures Hockey Unlimited has shown us, the latter option is correct. A wonderful development that shows how the sport of hockey can bring the nation together at active grassroots levels, perhaps even more than just staring at television screens, watching hockey in the Olympic Games.

A thinking girl’s game

What do the girls who keep making their country proud at sundry Olympic hockey tournaments and world championship events do when there’s no such event happening?

Why, most of them play hockey.

Except: most of them do not return to hockey as their profession. They go back to various schools, colleges and universities, in order to pursue their education and play the game they love in their spare time. Only a tiny minority have decided to turn professional and found employment with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Founded in 2007, this league consists of five teams: two are based in Ontario, one in Quebec, one in Alberta and one in Boston, of all places.

There have also been other leagues catering to women’s hockey, but the Canadian Women’s Hockey league has had the most clout amongst all of them.

There are a few issues, and Hockey Unlimited lists the most important challenges the women’s league faces. For example, it is a bit of a stretch to call the players professional. The original plan had the league responsible for all travel, ice rental and uniform costs, plus some equipment, but player salaries weren’t included in the plan. This means that the players, mostly college or university graduates, have found jobs in companies that let them start their weekends early Friday so they can travel to their games. They play a number of games over the weekend, only to return home late Sunday (or early Monday) and be in the office by the time their work schedule kicks in.

Living like that shows real commitment.

The league has been trying to find sponsors who would provide enough support for the female players to become really professional athletes.

It is, obviously, a tough job: sponsors have to be convinced women’s hockey attracts a sufficient number of eyeballs to make it worth their while, but to reach that status, women’s hockey needs a strong enough financial backing to promote the game amongst the uninitiated. While it looks like the proverbial vicious circle from the outside looking in, it seems they are making steps in the right direction. They even got such a well-known hockey personality as Brian Burke on board, to help promote their game.

Of course, a philosopher might ask the most provocative question: why is it that we eye professional athletes with love and adoration that should be reserved for other professions? Teachers or nurses come to mind as worthy candidates. Still, if we resign ourselves to just acknowledging that this is how it is, the next question would be: where’s the fairness in all this?

Except: professional sports are (and should be) market-driven entities. No government fiat can help the professional female hockey players. But less shortsightedness and more imagination by potential sponsors would go a long way.

Useful features

As has become usual with Hockey Unlimited, hockey coach Steve Serdachny and fitness guru Simon Bennett teach viewers wonderful tricks, both on the ice and in the gym.

Remember when there’s a television commercial showing, for example, a driver negotiating sharp curves along a high-mountain-level off-road path, and the commercial says the guy we’re watching is a professional driver and he’s doing it on a closed circuit? Or some other attractive activity happening right before our astonished eyes, with a mysterious voice telling us not to try it at home?

Both Serdachny and Bennett are asking us to try what they’re showing us. At home or on the community rink ice. And they make sure to show their tricks in sufficient detail so as to keep us safe.

Hockey Unlimited itself is one of the most useful pieces of programming. It takes its viewers back stage of professional hockey, it shows us the sport in all of its beauty and excitement, and it challenges its viewers to get off their couches, shed their potato skins, and get healthier by becoming more active.

As has been Aquila Productions’ trademark, Hockey Unlimited tells its stories well, to the point, with great camera work, letting the pictures speak for themselves, and letting their heroes tell their stories.



Feb. 16

12:30 AM ET SN West, SN East, SN Ontario

Feb. 18

8 PM ET SN One

Feb. 21

4:30 PM ET SN Pacific, SN West, SN East, SN Ontario

Feb. 22

1 PM ET SN One
2 PM ET SN Pacific, SN West, SN East, SN Ontario

Feb. 23

7:30 PM ET SN One

Feb. 26

12:30 PM ET SN One

Feb. 27

Midnight ET SN Pacific, SN West, SN East, SN Ontario

Mar. 1

Midnight ET SN One


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