The glory days: why kids eat, drink and sleep hockey

The Montreal Hochelaga Hurons is one of Canada’s top hockey teams for 12 and 13 year old adolescents. The team plays two games each week before crowds of up to 12,000 spectators. The advantages of participation in peewee league hockey are discussed.

To any seasoned hockey fan in Montreal, the elements of the scene were immediately familiar. Inside the dressing room last week, the players exchanged jokes in two languages as they strapped on their equipment and prepared to wear the familiar bleublancrouge sweaters of the Montreal Canadiens. In the hallway outside, their six coaches discussed strategy and reviewed charts in preparation for a critical weekend game. Further down the hall, TV and newspaper reporters interviewed selected players, who provided the usual pat answers. Defenceman Intema Ndungidi, who is already five feet, eight inches tall and 155 13 told reporters:

We cannot waste time thinking about the pressure on us. If we stick to our game, we will win.

That careful response is far from the only characteristic that players on the Montreal Hochelaga Hurons peewee AA team share with their National Hockey League counterparts. Like their older peers, Hurons players drawn from a region that includes more than one-third of the population of the city of Montreal for the most part reflect the talent and relaxed self-confidence of elite athletes. And they put their abilities and their mistakes on display before crowds ranging from hundreds to as many as 12,000. For 12 and 13 year old adolescents, that is a demanding proposition. But, said the team’s head coach, 24 year old Pierre Barbeau:

“We just keep telling the kids that as long as they play their hardest and work with each other, nothing else matters.”

The Hochelaga Hurons known as the “double H” are a dedicated bunch. Over a season that stretches nearly eight months, their average week includes two weekend games, two weekday practices and a separate workout session at a gymnasium. Most players attend Edouard Montpetit School, which is publicly run and free of charge but accepts only gifted athletes who receive extra athletic training. With two tournament wins and a regular season record of 19 wins, seven losses and three ties, the double H are ranked as one of Canada’s top teams in their age group. And if they win their opening game against the Detroit Red Wings, their potential competitors in the Quebec City Peewee Tournament include teams from Sweden and republics of the former Soviet Union. But, insisted the team’s captain, 13-year-old centre Patrick Heroux,

The greater the demands on us, the more we like it.

Those demands are clearly not for everyone. Robert Demers, a Montreal police constable who is the general manager of the Hochelaga Hurons organization, concedes that some players good enough to play in the AA class either never try out or eventually drop out of the program. As well, some parents and educators argue that highly competitive team sports place undue emphasis on winning and that hockey in particular promotes violence during impressionable adolescence. Partly because of that, many Canadian hockey groups including the Quebec Minor Hockey Association now ban body checking from younger categories, including peewee. At the same time, advocates of the system say that team sports promote a sense of discipline and shared responsibility that carry over into adult years.

One of the reasons I became involved in minor hockey is because of my experience as a policeman,” said Demers. “I’ve seen lots of kids with too much time on their hands and not enough to do–that is never a problem with these kids.

Advantages: Coaches and players cite other advantages, as well. For one, the 16 Hochelaga Hurons players reflect the increasingly cosmopolitan face of Montreal. Many are first-generation Canadians including Ngundigi, whose family came to Canada 11 years ago from Zaire, and the team’s leading scorer, Michael Ribeiro, from Portugal. One of the team’s three anglophones is Gary Engler, a strapping left wing whose family arrived in Montreal from Vancouver just before the start of the season.

“At first, the different language and environment were really weird,” said Engler, who attended French-immersion school in Vancouver.

“But around here, if you want to play hockey and you’re good enough, that’s all that really matters to the other guys.”

At the onset of their teens, the players are near unanimous in describing hockey as their major form of recreation. “Who would want to do anything else if we could be playing hockey?” asked goaltender Benoit Heroux, the 12 year-old brother of team captain Patrick. But adolescence can produce sharp changes in a short time: the players’ graduation next year to the bantam category, for 14 ¬†and 15 year-olds, may also bring a steep shift in priorities. “In peewee, kids eat, drink and sleep hockey,” said Pierre Bernier, the coach of the bantam team. But, he added with a sigh:

“Then I get them up in bantam, and all of a sudden they’ve discovered parties and girlfriends, and they’re packing after-shave lotion and hair dryers in with their gear.” And for the Hochelaga Hurons, like many other boys their age, life after that is never quite the same again.