Tourney Time – 11 Essential Bits of Advice

It’s just about that time of the year when hockey families and basketball families and other sports families pack up their gear and head to points South, North and West to Casco Bay or Mid-Coast or Marlboro or Manchester for a tournament or two.

For some this will be a weekend adventure to be treasured for a long time while for others it will present a logistical, psychological and physical nightmare comparable only to sharing a two person tent with the in-laws and their twelve grandkids.

I’ve gathered a few bit of advice to pass on to the novices among us and some reminders for the grizzled veterans.

First, why go? Life is difficult enough without having to slog two-three-four-ten hours away for two-nights and three-days of little sleep and buildings not much warmer than the cold blasts of ice and wind outside. There’s a lot more to pack than one would think as well as pet care to plan and money to be saved for hotels, food, souvenirs and that crucial piece of equipment you left in the basement.

But ask most parents and nearly all the kids and they’ll tell you, tourney time is the best time of the year.

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Elite and professional level players will often say that nothing brings a team together like a road trip. Free from families and home related obligations it gives teammates a chance to bond off the ice which strengthens their sense of team on the ice (or court). The same principals apply for youth players although Mom and/or Dad and/or several siblings are often on the road as well.

Most teams not based in a particular school or town rec program involve players that don’t see each other beyond the confined and very busy practice hours and often don’t recognize each other without a helmet on. Going to a tourney at some point in the year gives them a chance to get to know each other better, to strengthen bonds that will last beyond the season and share memories of pizza parties and pool time rather than just pucks and bballs while for parents, it’s a chance to socialize outside of a freezing arena or sweaty gym.
Mostly though, it’s about FUN so here’s some advice to keep it that way.

1. Do your prep-work. Find out where the hotel and rinks are before hand. You might also want to research large-group accommodating restaurants and make arrangements for a specific time. You might also want to research smaller venues to get away from the crowds with just your family and/or one or two others. Don’t worry about alternative entertainments. There won’t be time. That’s what the pool is for.

2. Winning trophies is great but those trophies will get put in a box up in an attic someday and if the highlight of your child’s youth sport participation is a Mighty-Mite championship we’ve got some work to do. Some coaches will go all out to win, imposing curfews and putting a ban on pool time. Resist these draconian measures! As Coach Steve Van Dolman said, “I don’t remember how many wins or losses we had back in the 70’s but I remember the hotels and the pools.”

3. Make sure your hotel has a functioning, heated but not overly-heated pool. This is an absolute key element. A good pool means a good trip. Our favorite so far is the indoor/outdoor pool at the Merry Manor in South Portland. I can also attest to the fine pool facilities at the Hilton Garden Inn and the Fireside Suites both in Portland. I would caution you about the Hilton Garden Inn in Freeport. While the hotel is lovely and the staff awesome and it’s a personal favorite among several families due to it’s proximity to L.L. Bean and Gritty’s Brew House the pool was a bit over-heated a few years ago and with two dozen young hockey players and their siblings hopping in and out and doing who-knows-what in there it became a bacterial incubator resulting in several long hours spent in the bathroom for more than one parent…or maybe it was the sausage plate at Gritty’s?

4. Check with your hotel on their various policies regarding large groups of excitable children and semi-responsible caretakers. Most hotels have experience with traveling teams and have made accommodations for them. Often an empty banquet room will be reserved for knee-hockey games or social gatherings. Sometimes not. Try to negotiate this prior to a 10 pm confrontation in the hallway.

5. Remember that the hotel is counting on your business and you’ve got some leverage. January, February, and March are not exactly the most sought after dates for tourists coming to visit Vacationland so a good dose of tourney teams helps their bottom line. Knowing this, hotel managers are usually willing to make reasonable accommodations to keep teams coming back.

6. Be understanding that it is their slow season and they may not be fully staffed. At a recent holiday tourney we over-ran the lounge and kitchen resulting in long waits for chicken fingers and margaritas but they only had one cook, one bartender and an assistant manager to handle about fifty of us. They did their best and everyone got what they wanted eventually. Try to be patient.

7. Bring your own food. Most hotels provide mini-fridges or will put one in your room at your request so stock it up with healthy snacks, non-soda based beverages and a good salad or two. You might want a separate cooler for you adult beverages and a supply of red cups…it always seems to be red cups. On that note…

8. Don’t get smashed. A cold brew after a long day of travel, cheering, food scrounging and equipment maintenance is a fine thing but this ain’t a business junket, a weekend in Vegas or Spring Break ’94. Maintain some dignity, keep your clothes on and keep the hallway clear. Fire lanes are a big thing with hotel managers and while anyone with legs (or alternative means of motion) should never be considered an obstruction it’s a useful tool for them to keep parents and kids from sprawling all over the place causing chaos.

9. Remember you and your players are representing more than just themselves but their teams, their organizations, their towns, cities, and states as well. We should all try to be respectful of that duty and not act like a bunch of rock stars on their North American tour. Don’t let you kids run through the hall knocking on random doors or go streaking through the lobby. Stay classy.

10. Stay safe. While this is the slow season, we do not know who else is staying there or what they’re up to. Make sure someone is keeping an eye on the little ones.

11. Have fun! I know I said that already but it’s important to come back to. Don’t concentrate on the games. The home teams have an advantage already in that their kids are getting proper rest and nutrition while your kid just spent three hours in the pool between two games and a large pizza. And then there’s the team comprised of the best players from their organization that’s about twice as big and three times as fast as everyone else. Don’t worry about them, they might be winning but they’re all in bed by 8 and were told to leave their swimsuits at home.

Good luck and drive safe!

Travis Baker

About Travis Baker

Travis Baker grew up playing baseball, basketball, football and soccer. There was a brief stint with karate and a briefer one with fencing but he would not return to the glory days of youth sport until he moved to Maine and had a couple of boys, Zane (11) and August (7), of his own. Inspired by his lads, he learned to play hockey at the age of 35 and now plays every Monday night in Brewer. Thanks to a number of former students, he’s learned a wee bit about lacrosse, field hockey and track and field. When not helping out in his kid’s activities, is the award-winning playwright of One Blue Tarp and Hair Frenzy, both of which premiered at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor. Travis is the author of Night and the Texas Sky, and numerous short stories and essays. He is married to the founder of Maine Yoga Adventures, Holly Twining. Currently, he coaches hockey, baseball and serves on the board of the Maine Junior Black Bears as the PR Director.