The holidays are a time for family and traditions. In my household, my son and I have a tradition of watching the opening game of the World Junior Championships of ice hockey on Boxing Day. The quality of the hockey is exceptional, and the level of excitement is second to none. For hockey fans, it’s pure joy.
Another tradition is that I write an article about the World Junior Championships each year. I do so because the World Juniors showcases the next generation of hockey’s superstars. It is a snapshot of how well different countries develop hockey players.
The quality of hockey is improving
Over the last few years some countries have emerged as powerhouses in the under-20 Junior age group. In the table below, I have assembled the results of the last five championships for the five top countries. I have also compiled the average ranking for each country. Canada ranks third, not bad in such a competitive tournament.
Where it gets interesting is when you look at the number of registered hockey players in each country. From that perspective, Finland, Sweden, and Russia seem to be doing an excellent job at developing highly skilled and competitive teams, while having access to fewer players.
The ranking at the World Juniors can be misleading. Countries like Finland and Sweden have a smaller pool of players that allows them to target elite players and assemble them as national teams at a younger age. These teams train and play together for a longer period of time resulting in better team performances at the World Juniors.
Beyond the tournament, there are other signs that indicate which countries are on the rise when it comes to developing young hockey players. One example is the nationality of players in the National Hockey League (NHL). After decades of being dominated by Canadians, 2016 is the first year that the NHL has had more international players than Canadians.
Another example is the annual NHL entry draft. The draft represents what the best minds in professional hockey consider the most talented and valuable young players in the world. In the 2016 NHL entry draft five of the top 10 players drafted were from the smaller hockey countries. Three of the top five players were from Finland. Not bad for a country with only 75,000 registered players.
Staying number one
Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to hockey, Canada is the current world leader. Our women and men’s national teams are the current Olympic champions. Our men’s team is the current world and world cup champions, and our women’s team took silver at the last world championships.
But as the cliché goes, it is often more difficult to stay at the top than to get there. As we witness the rise of smaller hockey countries at the junior and professional levels, we may need to revisit how we can continue to improve the development of our young players.
Learning from best practices elsewhere
I have asked hockey experts to share some of the wise practices that we could emulate in Canada. Corey McNabb, the director of development programs for Hockey Canada, shared some insights around youth development specifically related to goalkeeping.
“Sweden and Finland invest in developing goalies,” says McNabb. “Every minor hockey club or association has at least one certified goaltending coach. Then they go one step further and focus on goaltending instruction on specific days.”
According to McNabb, these countries also put strong emphasis on developing athleticism and overall abilities in kid. “For example, in peewee and younger age divisions, the backup goalies don’t sit on the bench during games,” adds McNabb. “They are playing forward or defense.”
These countries also structure their hockey season to promote development of athletic abilities and to prioritize appropriate rest and recovery time for kids. This is reflected by breaks in the season (usually one week in the first half and one week in the second half of the season) when no games are scheduled, just practices, skill camps, and coaching education.
Yves Archambault, the technical director at Hockey Québec and author of a book about hockey in Finland, shared what he sees as best practices of the Finnish development system:
“Continuous education and development is important in Finland,” says Archambault. “Each region of Finland has full-time skills coaches working with goalies and players. But it goes deeper. They also spend a lot of energy to the on-going development of coaches and administrators.”
Finland’s strength in hockey development is a question of perspective and value. “Finland is focused on staying ahead of the curve and they try hard to understand and assimilate the best practices around the world,” says Archambault.
Why should we care?
As I mentioned, Canada is the leading hockey nation in the world, but other countries are catching up. Hockey Canada and the provincial branches offer great development tools, resources, and opportunities, but those are implemented at the local level. Some Canadian minor hockey organizations are already applying some of these best practices highlighted above, but it is hit-and-miss. However, the Long Term Player Development model provides Canada with the blue print to provide quality development to all of our young players.
This fact was reinforced when I attended the Hockey Sense Summit put on by the NHL and its player association during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. I talked to representatives from Finland, Sweden, and the USA and asked each of them about the development systems in their respective countries. All agreed that Hockey Canada’s LTPD is a key reference, if not a model for other countries.
The best practice of all might just be to ensure that the LTPD model is delivered in each and every minor hockey association across the country. And hockey parents and coaches have a lot to say in this.
After all, it’s about insuring that all our young players develop skills and grow their love of the game. It is also about ensuring that kids who choose to compete at the higher levels of hockey are ready to compete with the best in the world.