The Great One's message to parents: Let your kids have fun
It'simportant for children to play other sports, says Gretzky after a spateof young stars have lost their desire for hockey
Hedoesn't pretend to have all the answers about youth-hockey burnout, butWayne Gretzky knows what worked for him - and what works for his kids.
Mr.Gretzky reiterated yesterday a gospel that many Canadian parents haveignored - that too often, young hockey players can get burned out bythe pressure and the time commitment.
"Firstof all, I think every kid is different," said Mr. Gretzky, a Hall OfFame player and currently the coach of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes. "Somekids can play every day, all year long, like Gordie Howe - until theymade him take his skates off. But that's a rarity, I really believethat.
"In youth hockey, in mostcases, it's really important for kids to play other sports - whetherit's indoor lacrosse or soccer or baseball. I think what that does istwo things. One, each sport helps the other sport. And then I thinktaking time off in the off-season - that three- or four-month window -really rejuvenates kids so when they come back at the end of August,they're more excited. They think, 'All right, hockey's back, I'm readyto go.' "
Mr. Gretzky'scomments came after a handful of recent examples of young athletes who,for whatever reason, lost their desire for their sport.
StefanLegein, a Columbus Blue Jackets' draft choice and a member of Canada'sworld junior championship squad, notified the team last month that hewouldn't be attending training camp, reportedly because he'd lost hispassion for the game. Brandon Regier, a 16-year-old from Abbotsford,B.C., passed on a chance to play for the Brandon Wheat Kings of theWestern Hockey League this year (he was the team's first-round choicein the bantam draft) because he wasn't interested any more. ColoradoAvalanche prospect Victor Oreskovich, a second-round pick in 2004,retired last October and returned to school to complete a businessdegree.
Mr. Gretzky, the NHL'sall-time leading scorer, spent much of his youth as a multi-sportathlete and became good at both baseball and tennis as a youngster.
Winters,he'd spend hours skating on the backyard rink that his father, Walter,flooded every year in Brantford, Ont., once the weather got coldenough. But once hockey ended - and in that era, hockey usually endedin April - he was ready for something else.
Today,many young athletes, seeking to achieve an elite level in a singlesport, often devote all their energies toward that pursuit.
Summer hockey camps are so common that many parents fear their children will be left behind if they don't participate in them.
"It's a fine line," Mr. Gretzky said.
"Iknow, for myself, when the hockey season was over, I couldn't wait toplay baseball. I had no interest in playing ice hockey until September.Then you get a guy like Gordie Howe, he couldn't skate enough. I don'thave the answer, other than I think it's good for kids to participatein all sports."
Mr. Gretzky andhis wife, Janet Jones-Gretzky, have five children - and the threeoldest have chosen different paths athletically. His oldest daughter,Paulina, was mostly a dancer. Ty spent a year playing hockey forShattuck St. Mary's, a prep school in Minnesota, but is now devotingmore time to golf. Trevor is a two-sport athlete at Westlake VillageOaks Christian - high-school quarterback on the same team as TreySmith, son of Will Smith, and Nick Montana, son of Joe. Trevor is alsothe catcher on the school's baseball team.
Mr. Gretzky said he encouraged all his children to sample a variety of sports.
"I always tell them, at a young age, you should just go out and play, just enjoy it," he said.
"Asyou go along and you get better, then you can start thinking, 'Okay, Ican go to school' or 'I've got a chance to maybe get a scholarship.'But at a young age, 12 or 13, 14, 15 - just play and enjoy it. Learnwhat it's like to be around your teammates - the highs of winning andthe lows of losing. Just enjoy it - and my kids do that."
The year after he retired from the NHL, Mr. Gretzky coached his son Trevor's little-league team.
Overthe years, one of the most frequent questions he's been asked byparents seeking his advice was to assess the chances of their childrenplaying professionally.
Accordingto Mr. Gretzky, there is a neighbouring town close by his Los Angelesresidence that he described as "a baseball factory."
"But not one kid has ever made it to major-league baseball from there," Mr. Gretzky said.
"It'sa tremendous program; a lot of them get scholarships and play Division1, but to actually play major-league baseball, not one.
"Buteverybody asks the same thing, 'Do you think my son can make pro?' Theanswer is, he's 15, just enjoy it. Just let them have fun."