By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Played in Quebec City in front of as many as 13,000 screaming French Canadians, the International Pee Wee Hockey World Championship is one of the sport's biggest tournaments. Top-notch teams fly in from Russia, Finland, the Czech Republic, and other hockey powerhouses. Over the years, many of the National Hockey League's all-time greats -- Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, to name a few -- have played there. This year, 106 teams, including 25 from the United States, are expected to draw more than 200,000 spectators to the weeklong event, which produces some electrifying, highly skilled play.
Astonishing, considering that the players are 12 years old.
In the U.S. hockey belt, which includes a lot of states beginning with the letter "M" -- Minnesota, Michigan, Maine, and Massachusetts -- youth hockey is every bit as competitive as Texas high school football.
In other words, along with the traditional values of sport -- the teamwork, the value-of-hard-work lessons, the simple joy of the game -- comes a big dose of downside. Youth hockey is overemphasized, hyped beyond reason by newspapers and TV, and attended by adults who scream at 9-year-olds, swear at coaches, and generally make life hell for the kids. In his 1990 autobiography, Gretzky recalled how, as a 4-foot-4, 78-pound 10-year-old, parents from his own team would monitor his playing time with stopwatches. Parents from the opposition would "sit in the stands and do nothing but scream at me," telling him he'd be washed up by 11. Not for being bad, but for being very, very good.
As youth hockey has exploded in Dallas during the '90s, adults have been acting in much the same way in the area's burgeoning club leagues, where the Dallas Stars are a large and growing force, and where mothers and fathers pay as much as $7,000 a year so their sons -- and a few daughters -- can travel the nation in search of quality competition.
Take, for starters, the story of who would be invited from Dallas this year to play in the prestigious Quebec City tournament.
For the past three years, a team fielded by the parent-run Dallas Metro Hockey Association has made the mid-winter trip, playing respectably enough to finish in the middle third of the pee wee pack. The winners are often the top European squads, or teams such as those from Detroit with hefty corporate sponsorships from Little Caesar's Pizza (headquarters, not the corner stand) or Compuware.
Joe Sparks, a coach of this year's Dallas Metro pee wee team and president of the league, says he was talking over the summer to Kent Holmes, director of the Dallas Stars' youth hockey programs, about the Quebec tournament and suggested their teams hold a citywide tryout. The Junior Stars -- about 600 kids skating at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Irving -- compete in a so-called "house league," which does not travel, and fields teams in a regional league that includes most of the major cities in Texas and Oklahoma.
Sparks' offer was a generous one, as the two programs operate at entirely different levels of competition. In every age group, the Junior Stars compete at a less advanced level than the DMHA teams, which are picked each year after extensive tryouts and practice three days a week on full rinks. The DMHA teams are elite units. The Junior Stars are not. To get competitive games, 12-year-old DMHA teams will compete with 14-year-olds in the Junior Stars program.
Sparks recalls that Holmes was receptive to his idea of tryouts for the big tournament.
But in the early fall, he came up with a stunning change of heart. "He said, 'Joe, I have bad news for you. We're taking the Quebec invite,'" recalls Sparks, who was completely blindsided by Holmes' power grab.
The problem is, the invitation was not theirs to take. When the Dallas Stars first came to town in 1993, the professional team played some role in helping pick which organization would send the pee wee team, several DMHA parents and coaches recall. More recently, though, DMHA has developed its own relationship with the Quebec tournament. So Sparks got to work calling the tournament's director, Patrick Dom, a sharp-tongued French Canadian hockey veteran. "Patrick told me they've held their tournament for 41 years, and this isn't the first time some NHL team tried telling them what to do."
Dom, reached in Quebec, says he heard from Holmes and another man, Larry Stuart, who would seem to be a little too far up the corporate ladder to be concerned with a hockey contest for preteens. A wealthy corporate lawyer, Stuart is a partner in the investment firm Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst and a part-owner of the Stars.
"I wondered why the Dallas Stars wanted to bring their own team after they've been supporting DMHA all these years," says Dom, a Quebecois who speaks in heavily accented English. "I received a letter from Larry Stuart saying they want to start their own program, and they want us to begin inviting the Dallas Junior Stars. Then I find out that Larry Stuart's son plays on that team. The fact that they want to start their own program I can understand. But I should invite them because Larry Stuart's son is on that team? I hate that." Those last three words -- pronounced indignantly in a clipped Gallic accent -- come across as "I het dat."