Stephen Hume: The trouble with Canadian hockey starts with the minor leagues
Youth hockey needs to stop worrying about preparing the 0.1% that will make the NHL and focus on the 50% that quit hockey when bodychecking is added
Another world junior hockey championship, another dismantling of Canada’s self-aggrandizing mythology about the natural superiority of how we coach and approach the game here.
This is the fourth time in a row that our junior hockey teams have stood below the top tier of a podium they once owned. This is now the 11th time in 16 tournaments that our emerging hockey elites have failed to win the world title, something we’ve not achieved in 25 of 39 championships.
Well, as Bill Barrable, CEO at the Rick Hansen Institute and a keen observer of minor hockey puts it: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Maybe it’s time for a major re-think of how the game is evolving elsewhere while we paddle in the back eddy of the obsolete attitudes epitomized by Don Cherry.
Our game is still overly dominated by those who insist that minor hockey is there to feed the professional leagues and their violent values. And it’s too subservient to the vicarious obsessions of parents who have lost sight of the value of the game for the game’s sake and instead are mesmerized by the fool’s gold of that fat pro contract which will elude 99.9 per cent of players.
Surely the hockey establishment can glean a message from the fact that fully half the young men enrolled in hockey are now turning their back on their beloved game between the ages of 12 and 17 – precisely when the bodychecking that purportedly readies them for high level play is introduced.
Taken by itself, that hemorrhage of talent out of hockey should be cause for alarm about the future of the game. But there’s another statistic that’s equally enlightening. It’s the number of men who return to play recreational no-contact hockey in their 30s.
It’s not the game of hockey that’s being abandoned by most young male players, it’s that hockey has chosen to abandon them at a crucial moment.
Most kids like hockey. Most would love to play until they are too old to skate. But most don’t want to fight as a price for that pleasure.
They don’t want injuries that will impair their future fitness. They don’t want their brains scrambled by somebody urged to compensate for lack of skill with thundering bodychecks.
So we need to think, not about how to change young players’ attitudes but about how to reconfigure our approach. Minor hockey should meet the needs of youth rather than the desires of professional sports entertainment.
It’s not just a matter of social values. It’s also a question of self-preservation for hockey. As international performance declines and recruitment in minor ranks erodes, the viability of the current model becomes increasingly suspect.
What to do?
Hockey programs should stop thinking about preparing the 0.1 per cent for their NHL careers and think instead about retaining the 50 per cent who abandon the game in their teens. How about eliminating body checking for all but elite players starting in midget? Why not base lower leagues on one-year increments that address age-based developmental differences?
Just ban fighting in all leagues under Hockey Canada jurisdiction. If we’re opposed to bullying, oppose it.
Health and fitness administrators in government, please consider your ethical responsibilities toward programs that result in unacceptably high rates of brain and other serious injuries among participating minors. What’s government doing tolerating public programs that encourage teenagers to resolve their differences by fighting at a time when youth violence is a broader concern?
Most important, parents who want their kids to experience a rich physical life into adulthood need to step up and take control of minor hockey – after all, they are paying for it and it doesn’t seem to be serving them or their kids very well.
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