NHL Legend Mark Messier on Youth Coaching, Leadership in Sports

January 26, 2011  • Institute Contributor

Hockey legend Mark Messier called on sports organizations and youth coaches to look out more for the “99.9 percent of other kids” who do not have a future in professional sports, in an hour-long Aspen Institute conversation at the Roosevelt House in New York. A six-time Stanley Cup champion, Messier, now retired and a youth coach himself, issued his critique of elite-leaning youth programs Jan. 26 at a Tisch Leadership Series event, Athletes, Leadership, and the Transformative Power of Sports.

“Organizations need to set out what (their) objective is,” said Messier, whose NHL career ended in 2004 after stints with the Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks. “If your objective is to win the state title at all costs, it’s probably not a good place to be playing. Nothing good is going to come of it. Because … how many kids did you hurt along the way? And all the other carnage that’s left around there. And you’re left with what, a trophy?”

The conversation, moderated by Aspen Institute Sports & Society director Tom Farrey, covered leadership topics for first 17 minutes. Then, Messier addressed issues related to youth sports, and hockey in particular, with its culture of expensive traveling teams that attempt to identify and aggregate elite talent at ever-earlier ages.

Among Messier’s observations:

 –On the effectiveness of trying to fast-track kids into athletic success: “It’s not going to matter one bit if these kids are (on that track) at 7, 8, 9 years old, in helping them turn into an NHL player. I’ve seen it a hundred times. But the people who control the ice, and the people selling this propaganda that ‘this is what the kids need to do in order to become a professional hockey player,’ are in it for the money. It’s a business for them, and they’ve managed to sell the Kool-Aid to the parents. It’s horrifying to see.”

 –On what he tries to achieve as coach of his 7-year-old son’s hockey team: “The success of coaching 7-year-olds can be summed up very easily, and that is if we have every kid on team this year enroll next year. Because that means they’re having fun and want to come back. I do the same thing with (my son’s) baseball and soccer teams.”

  –On the transferable lessons that playing sports can offer children: “I played 26 years (in the NHL) and retired, and I’ve been in board rooms for the past 7 years and it is amazing to see the similarities between the sporting world and the business world. And I’ve been into great companies and companies that are not so great. It just hits you like that going into the meetings. It’s exactly the same — the same reasons why people are successful in sports are the same reasons they’re successful in business.”


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