The message could not have been clearer … or timelier
Preparing to write this column this week, an article appeared on the front page of the sports section of my local newspaper trumpeting the accomplishments of this season’s Michigan State hockey team.
The Spartan hockey team, which won the national championship in 2007, isn’t having a banner year. In fact, MSU is in the midst of its worst regular season showing in more than 30 years and is battling to stay out of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association cellar.
Instead, the article detailed the variety of community projects in which the team is involved – at least seven by my count. This kind of commitment to the community isn’t the exception in the world of college hockey. Each of the country’s 58 Division I teams takes part in at least one effort of this nature, be it visiting hospitals, reaching out to local school children, raising money to fight diseases, and other various endeavors.
This type of community involvement is something that college hockey players don’t view as an obligation. Rather, it’s seen as an opportunity, a way to show gratitude and appreciation for having the chance to play hockey and getting an education at the same time. The dynamic may not be unique to hockey, but one that is certainly ingrained in the fabric of the sport.
Trying to get to the root of the existence of this dynamic in college hockey requires going back to the very beginning of a player’s career. At a very young age, hockey players witness firsthand the sacrifices of their parents. Whether it’s squiring their children to 6 a.m. practices, volunteering to work the concession stands or penalty boxes for youth games, using vacation time from work to shepherd their kids to out-of-town tournaments, or perhaps wearing that old coat for another winter in order to buy your son or daughter new skates, seeing your mom and dad giving up things on your behalf is commonplace in this sport. Indeed, the financial sacrifice required to play hockey is a frequent theme.
The benevolence doesn’t end at home, however. Many hockey players are products of small, close-knit communities. You’d be hard pressed to find places such as Simcoe, Ontario or Warroad, Minn., or Billerica, Mass., on a map, but they’re familiar locales for college hockey fans, having turned out a number of Division I players over the years. When it comes to hockey, these towns have a deep-rooted passion for the sport, and stepping forward to help the town’s traveling pee wee or bantam team – maybe it’s a business sponsoring a team, residents attending a pancake breakfast, or buying pizza from the kid next door – goes beyond charity. It’s a statement of civic pride.
Sacrifice isn’t a one-way street, however. At some point in during their teenage years, most players leave home for the junior hockey ranks to play against better competition and, if they’re good enough, maybe catch the eye of a college coach.
The lure is obvious, but often times it involves saying goodbye to the familiar comforts of home – leaving mom and dad for a host family in a strange city, leaving old friends behind, enrolling in a new school, juggling academics and a hockey experience that includes a greater commitment to the sport, what with an intense game schedule, an extended season that can start in September and run through May, and a grueling travel itinerary.
This dual experience – benefiting from the sacrifice of others, and making sacrifices in order to achieve an ultimate reward – produces a student-athlete of the highest order. College hockey players, as a whole, are genuinely appreciative of the opportunities they’ve been given, regard the educational experience they’re afforded as important as the chance to play the game they love at a high level, and understand the need to give of themselves to others.
It’s not a front-page story everywhere. But it should be.