A year-end look at the state of hockey in Canada

Author’s note: This article was originally published in 2014. It has been updated and re-contextualized.

Every year, in the days following Christmas, Canadian families will gather in front of the television and watch the World Junior Hockey Championships, hosted this year by the city of Buffalo, New York. At AfL, we take this time to look at the state of hockey in Canada. To do so this year, we bring back one of the most popular hockey articles we ever published.

Back in 2014, Canada finished fourth at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Malmo, Sweden. This was a setback in our hockey-crazy country. After this disappointing performance, AfL congratulated head coach Brent Sutter for having the courage to take the road less travelled.

In an attempt to make sense of Canada’s disappointing performance, Sutter stayed away from the usual excuses. Instead, in a Globe & Mail article by Roy MacGregor, Sutter made it clear what Canada had to do in order to develop better youth players and remain a top hockey nation:

  • Cut down on games
  • De-emphasize wins and losses
  • Get off the tournament carousel
  • Make better use of ice space
  • Work on skills and speed
  • Make it fun

Sutter’s statements showed courage because they were contradictory to what the majority of Canadian grass-roots coaches and parents believed at that time.

Canada has always dominated the world game by pushing kids to learn to compete, to be intense and physical. There’s nothing wrong with these attributes, but they are not enough anymore. The old norms have become obsolete.

At events like the World Juniors, we are witnessing a new standard in the game. A “new normal” displayed by countries like 2014 champion’s Finland that plays a smart physical game with great intensity, but also with ample skills.

Hockey Canada is aware and ahead of this “new normal.” The organization drives towards this goal with its long-term player development approach. The next battle is to convince hockey’s grassroots – parents and coaches at the youth level – that we must change our perspective on the game.

At the pro level, hockey has become faster and more skill-based while still displaying grit. As well, the number of fights is steadily dropping and there is more attention to preventing brain injuries.

Over the last few years Sutter’s message is slowly making its way to the grassroots. There is a greater emphasis on skills and speed at all level of minor hockey. New approaches, like playing on smaller ice surfaces so the youngest players can have a better experience and develop their skills, are gaining traction with more hockey associations, coaches, and parents. The education of our coaches is improving, and more emphasis is paid to different aspects such as developing confidence in kids.

My wish for the new year to all hockey fans is that we continue in this progression, but more importantly that we keep reminding ourselves that hockey is a beautiful, skills-based game, and an opportunity for kids to grow as people. Let’s make sure that our kids keep their love of the game and remain “hockey players for life”.

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