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Rethinking youth sports: Businessman David Baird tries a different kind of hockey camp

Emphasizing fun and leadership in his youth hockey camps, David Baird said, “It just comes down to: What can we do beyond making our kids fast skaters?”

The Difference campers huddle up during a training session at The Lumberyard Hockey and Sports Center.
Courtesy of The Difference

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In this series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership,” MinnPost has profiled such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from a leadership expert. This is the last profile in the series, which was made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation. You can read all the previous articles here.

In the summer of 1986, David Baird was on break from school at Taylor University, a small Christian college in rural Indiana, when he joined a roving evangelical basketball team called Sports Ambassadors.

That summer, Baird and his teammates traveled across Latin America, playing games against squads in Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and elsewhere. A year later, after he had graduated from college, he was invited to join Sports Ambassadors for another summer tour (mainly for his Spanish speaking skills, he says, not his jump shot).

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It was an era of turmoil in that part of the world, Baird remembered. The clandestine American operation to arm anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, which came to be known as the Iran-Contra affair, had become public and was under investigation.

Baird and his teammates spent their afternoons in hardscrabble neighborhoods, putting on basketball clinics and playing local teams on outdoor courts. They signed autographs, often scrawling their names along with a favorite Bible verse, and helped at local churches. At night, they played national teams in large arenas, often in front of thousands of spirited fans; in one arena in Managua, Nicaragua, Baird remembered, the court was surrounded by a tall chain-link fence.

For Baird, it was a heady combination of life experiences – seeing new cultures, meeting new people and playing ball, all with an evangelical flair. It was memorable. “That is where I saw sports mixing with ministry,” he said.

After his second season with Sports Ambassadors, Baird hung up his high tops, moved to Minnesota – where his wife, Lisa, had grown up – and entered the business world. But 25 years later, he drew on that experience in developing a youth hockey camp that emphasizes fun and leadership as much as athletic achievement.

Putting the joy back

The inaugural session of the camp, which Baird calls The Difference, was held last summer at an ice arena in Stillwater. Nineteen boys from the Twin Cities took part, including Baird’s son, Colin. Another camper was Ryan Nickel, whose father, Troy, was tapped by Baird to be the camp’s head coach.

Not sure where to begin, Baird and Nickel sent camp invitations to families they had met through youth hockey circles. They got an enthusiastic response.

david baird
Courtesy of The Difference
David Baird speaks to campers at The Lumberyard

“We didn’t really know what else to do, but we sure didn’t expect 98 percent of them to say they were in,” Baird said with a laugh. “They started sending money before I had everything planned!”

The seventh- and eighth-grade boys met each Wednesday afternoon, for three months, at The Lumberyard Hockey and Sports Center, a training complex that includes an ice sheet built for three-on-three hockey (which is designed to develop a player’s quickness and reaction time). Each session consisted of two parts: a 90-minute workshop on leadership and character development, which included the study of characters from the Bible, and a 90-minute skating and hockey session. On two occasions, Baird invited guest speakers; one of them was Matt Birk, the former Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens center.

Baird administered the camp while Nickel, a teacher at Centennial Elementary School who played baseball at Bethel University, helped with the leadership sessions and the hockey. Both managed a bench for scrimmages, when the players in their black and white jerseys – The Difference scrawled across the front in neon green – divided up into teams of three. A trainer with the hockey center helped with the skating sessions.

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It was a decidedly non-hockey approach for a hockey camp. “One goal was I didn’t want many hockey people there,” Baird said. “And we did it during the day when most of the parents were working. No dads standing there with their faces pressed up against the plexiglass.”

He continued: “We didn’t need whistles or lots of instruction. We thought, let’s put the joy back in their faces rather than saying” – mimicking the voice of a gruff coach – “‘OK, we’re going to bag skate for a while and then do some lines!’  These kids: They just need to play. They’ve had plenty of instruction. No more lines for a while.”

For the leadership sessions, Baird, who is active at Grace Church Roseville, drew on biblical characters who he thought would provide examples of strength, steadfastness and leadership – characters like Moses, who, according to tradition, led the oppressed Israelites out of Egypt. A friend of Baird’s who works as a freelance writer and has experience in Christian publishing helped to put together lesson guides.

Baird wasn’t sure what the boys would think about the lessons; he and Nickel hadn’t targeted families based on their faith. But the stories and lessons seemed to catch on. “Two or three kids, these natural leaders in the group, started raising their hands and, you know, pretty soon it became cool for the others to start interacting,” he said. “That made all of the difference.” Each camper received a booklet.

The camp ran for 12 weeks and cost $175 per player; it will cost about the same this year but will be scaled back to 10 sessions, Baird said. The camp has also been expanded this year to include ninth-graders. A Pee-Wee level camp has been added for next summer and Baird hopes to eventually add a camp for high school girls.

A ‘more sane’ approach

Dale Kaasa, a Shoreview parent whose son, Max, took part in The Difference last year, said he liked the idea of a hockey camp that mixed fun with Christian teachings. He said Max, who will complete the eighth grade at Chippewa Middle School in North Oaks this spring, enjoyed the camp and hopes to take part again this summer.

The elder Kaasa had gotten to know David Baird through youth hockey circles. When Baird told him about his idea for a new kind of camp, Kaasa said it “seemed well thought-out and appropriate.”

“This state sometimes gets a little hockey nuts, and the reality is that probably none of the kids (who his son plays with) are going to go pro,” he added. “You never know, someone might, but the odds are that it’s not likely. So if you aren’t headed for that level, the intensity and the continual work in that sport kind of consumes you. Dave has a more sane approach than some people.”

Asked about what aspect of camp had most influenced his son, Kaasa thought for a moment but didn’t mention hockey. Rather, he said: “He enjoyed the speakers. Max is a big football fan, and a Patriots fan. He gave Birk a hard time and he got a hard time from him in return.”

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Hockey on the radar

David and Lisa Baird, who have four children, were living in suburban Lino Lakes when Centennial High School won the state boys hockey championship in 2004. It was a moment of recognition, Baird recalls, as Minnesota’s intense hockey culture came into sharp relief. “Suddenly, kids were on every pond skating,” he said. “Hockey was on the radar.”

It didn’t take long for him to realize that he would soon confront – as his children grew more and more interested in organized sports – the conventional trappings of youth sports today: expensive camps, traveling teams and specialization. He went along but remained skeptical.

Indeed, Baird said he is grateful for all of the parents and volunteers who make youth sports go, calling their investment in kids “wonderful.”  But, he added: “What I was hearing was a lot of talk about character. Coaches would get up and say, ‘I’m all for developing character,’ and then it seemed like eight days into the season it was win-at-all-costs. We forgot about some of those meetings.”

He added: “There’s a time and place for (winning), but not at age eight. We just kind of forgot things we were going to teach our kids. We get perspective as we get older. It seems like early on, if your kids do a few good things you are on the fast track to the big time. No, you’re not. There are a million kids out there just like yours.”

Colin Baird had gone to a hockey clinic in Minneapolis put on by Joe Dzeidzic, the Edison High School great who played hockey for the University of Minnesota and also in the NHL. Dzeidzic’s approach appealed to David Baird.

“He just let the kids play and be creative and didn’t worry about skating around cones, and I bought into it,” Baird said. “I saw my son develop in that creative environment.”

Baird isn’t the first parent to question the direction of youth sports, of course. A simple Web search reveals a cottage industry of blogs and community groups extolling the virtues of a simpler approach. A Minnesota organization called AKASPORT, for instance, advocates a balanced diet of athletic activities for youth – not specialization.

lavoi photo
Nicole LaVoi

Nicole LaVoi, the associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, blamed the phenomenon on the “professionalization” of youth sports, which has led to hyper-scheduled traveling teams, paid youth coaches and early specialization driven by elite, niche camps. “There is very little autonomy for the young athlete,” she said.

She also noted that youth sports programs can be very expensive, adding: “The problem with all of this is that when families don’t want to buy into this model there is nowhere for their kids to play. So what do you do?”

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LaVoi, who writes about sports and society on a blog called One Sport Voice, said she often half-jokingly tells her students that if they want to make money, they should come up with alternative youth sports programs – ones that primarily emphasize fun and creativity. “They don’t exist and families want them,” she said.

Beyond fast skaters

In developing The Difference, Baird reached out to former Gophers great Bill Butters and others involved in Hockey Ministries International, an organization devoted to developing Christian hockey camps. But, essentially, the camp was organized around Baird’s and Nickel’s whims.

To land Birk, Baird reached out to a friend from church who knew Birk from their prep days at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul. Birk agreed to visit the camp, talking with the boys about his football career, some of the losses he experienced – such as the Vikings’ infamous loss in the NFC championship in 1999 and the Ravens’ loss in the NFC championship in 2012 – and the value of dealing with failure. (This past February, of course, Birk earned a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens and then retired.)

Mounds View coach Aaron Moberg also appeared as a guest speaker, talking about sports and its role in building healthy self-esteem.

Baird, who was born near Toronto and grew up in Wheaton, Ill., a Chicago suburb, is the vice president of marketing for MagnetStreet, a Blaine company that provides magnets for schools, commercial printers, real estate agents and others. The company began as an offshoot of his father’s Chicago-based marketing business but has grown to a company with 100 employees. Baird is a businessman, not a coach or minister. So when it came to developing the camp, he approached it as an enthusiastic organizer, hoping that his interactions with parents would help to get the idea off the ground.

In other words, it was an initiative built on personal relationships rather than any specific insight or knowledge about hockey. (Baird joked that he would probably shoot some hoops at the camp if the arena had a basket). “Hopefully, I have interacted with other people in a humble spirit and in the sense that we are all in this together,” he said when asked how he went about promoting the camp to parents. “It just comes down to: What can we do beyond making our kids fast skaters?”

That was the idea all those years ago when Baird was a 6-4, 185-pound wing, shooting jumpers in gyms across Latin America – for the fun and for the fellowship.

“I guess that’s part of where the passion for this comes from,” he said, “from way back when.”