When "The Cornered Coach" last left you, it was early April and I'd just finished coaching my 10-year-old lad's Atom squad to a championship in their local Toronto house league. My eight-year-old, meanwhile, had a nice run with his Novice Select team before they eventually bowed out in a tough semifinal series. Theo, the eight-year-old, is a goaltender and even before he faced his last shot of the postseason, he shared a little secret with me.
"Dad, I'm getting tired of hockey. It's time for baseball season."
In the March 26, 2016 edition of HockeyNow,I wrote a cover story entitled Beating Hockey Burnout. The article quoted a number of experts who stressed the importance of young athletes taking a break from hockey by trying their hand at other sports such as lacrosse, tennis and, yes, baseball. Theo plays a lot of first base when he's on the diamond; a position that definitely develops his glove hand when he's back at the rink and facing talented little shooters who love to go "top shelf.” However, there's another sport featuring a ball that has even more of a direct correlation to ice hockey.
Welcome to the wonderful world of ball hockey.
Toronto is home to the Withrow Park Ball Hockey League, a well-established organization that recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. The WPBHL plays its games in a picturesque park that contains a beautiful view of the CN Tower. Before I became a parent, I used to jog through Withrow Park and sadly shake my head at all the people going absolutely bonkers over ball hockey.
Kids in full uniform… Referees… A scoreboard… and a full contingent of parents up on the hill overlooking the rink and screaming "Hustle! Run! Shoot!"
"Geez," I'd grumble to myself as I ran by all the commotion, "Does ball hockey even have to be an organized activity?"
Most adults, of course, have much different ball hockey memories. We played most of our games on the street, shouting "Car!" and policing ourselves. Mom and Dad were nowhere to be found and if there was a disputed goal or a high stick that inflicted some physical damage, we instituted our own form of damage control.
"Hey! Billy's not bleeding, so how about you get a penalty shot and we'll call it square?"
The modern world, unfortunately, isn't so simple. In a huge metropolis such as Toronto, for instance, even if you were crazy enough to play ball hockey on the street you'd be screaming "Car!" every five seconds. Withrow Park is a much safer environment to chase those famous orange hockey balls and, truth be told, modern kids love all the modern trappings such as the pre-game rock and roll pumped through the park loudspeakers and the parent prepared postgame snacks that are a huge part of the WPBHL ritual.
And that grumpy old jogger who used to grumble about organized ball hockey?
He's become a veteran WPBHL coach. My team isn't doing a whole lot of winning this year, as we have a woeful record of 2-8. But the kids are having a ton of fun keeping up with their love of hockey by running after an orange ball instead of skating after a black puck. It might be a subtle difference, but sharpening your hockey skills in an outdoor environment is definitely a nice break before it's time to head back inside the rink in a few months. This week, in fact, my eight-year-old received his ice hockey practice schedule for the upcoming season, with the first skate scheduled for September 6th.
By then, of course, he'll be pumped about heading back on the ice.
But until then, here's to another sunny afternoon of ball hockey fun at Withrow Park.
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