Is Canadian hockey progressing for the better… or the worse?
If you’re a hockey fan like me, you can’t wait for the Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) under 20 world championships to begin on Boxing Day. Known as the “World Juniors” in Canada, the tournament is one of the most exciting and fun displays of hockey mastery there is.
Back in 2014, we published an article in which Brent Sutter, the coach of the Canadian squad that year, made the case for a “new normal” in Canadian hockey. Sutter suggested that Canada had to re-imagine its national game to make it more about skills, speed and fun, and that plea resonated deeply with many hockey parents and coaches.
Since that day, the World Juniors has become AfL’s opportunity to reflect on the state of hockey in Canada. So here’s a look at some of the ways the game has improved and our wish list for some components of hockey that could be improved to make the game even better.
Speed, skills, and fun are now the new normal
Watch any panel of analysts during a hockey game or one of the many sports shows on TV and you will keep hearing the same refrain from specialists: today’s professional hockey is played at greater speed and with more skills. As well, the data shows that in the National Hockey League (NHL) the number of fights is in decline.
These advances at the professional level are a blessing for grassroots hockey as young players as well as coaches and parents often emulate the pros. As the culture of the professional game shifts from using violence as a strategic weapon, and replacing it with speed and skills, the culture of minor hockey will follow.
The important shift to an emphasis on speed and skills shows itself as Canadian hockey catches up to other sports and now mandates smaller playing areas for younger players.
In Canada, it is now the policy that players at the “Initiation” level (5-6-year-olds) play games cross-ice, without goalies, using small nets and a lighter puck. When players advance to the “Novice” level (7-8-year-olds) the game goes to half-ice, which is a little larger surface, includes goalies, and the same size and weight pucks as adults.
Reducing the playing surface for the younger players has been controversial but the facts are undeniable: Kids who play on an ice surface that is adapted to their size and age acquire new skills quicker and more importantly, they have more fun playing the game.
Sutter suggested that Canada had to re-imagine its national game to make it more about skills, speed and fun, and that plea resonated deeply with many hockey parents and coaches.
Two ways hockey could improve some more
For the game to keep progressing, there are two elements that should be addressed as soon as possible.
Promote a multi-sport approach
It is important to ensure that kids don’t specialize too early in hockey. Unfortunately, there are still too many kids who play hockey 10 to 12 months a year too early in their development. By too early, we are talking about pre-teen children. To quote a campaign lead by Hockey Canada, Basketball Canada, Soccer Canada, and Baseball Canada, “When kids specialize early in one sport, they miss out on important skills and many get injured, burnt-out or quit”.
Keep Hockey affordable
The second cause for concern is the rising cost of hockey. Someone once told me “there might never be another Gordie Howe…” The statement did not surprise me. Also known as “Mr. Hockey”, Howe’s talent and accomplishments are legendary. But the statement was not about Howe’s extraordinary skills, it was about the fact that he came from a working-class family. Over the years the cost of hockey has increased so much that some say it is becoming a sport reserved for the wealthy. If costs keep rising, enrolment might go down.
Fortunately, hockey has evolved in many positive ways in recent years. Today’s game is about skills, speed, and fun more than ever before. If the hockey world can find ways to keep hockey affordable and promote age-appropriate participation, this positive evolution might continue for a long time.