A debate in hockey today that is like a pesky mosquito focuses on the claim that Canada, as hockey’s best development factory, is starting to deteriorate. Personally, I believe more credit should be given to other nations who have made major developmental strides in hockey, but I do agree Canada could be doing more to stay on top. Where I do feel Canadian hockey is lagging, is in developmental efficiency, and I feel this is directly linked to developmental focus—specifically, practice-to-game ratio.
One of the main complaints I hear from parents and coaches is that there isn’t enough time or resources to practice the way they know they should be. Coaches say: “That theory is nice, but I only get 1-2 practices a week with these kids and we have to get ready for 2 to 3 games on the weekends. I need to focus on systems and get these systems down with these kids or else we’re going to get waxed.” In this one sentence, this coach has acknowledged that they don’t have enough time to focus on development and that priority is given to winning.
Here are 4 key issues that directly link to practice-to-game ratio in the current youth hockey system in Canada and how they directly affect development:
The cost to put a kid through a season of AAA hockey in Canada now runs a family upwards of $11,000 to $15,000 a year. This figure alone, automatically drastically reduces the overall number of kids who can participate at this level of hockey, ultimately making hockey solely a rich kid’s sport. Based on these economic figures, I would never have been able to play AAA hockey as a kid. On a grand scale, this likely would have eliminated some of the game’s brightest stars from ever being able to play hockey.
The rising costs are linked to several key factors (ie. ice costs, rising gas prices, etc.), but one of the most prominent is the amount of games and tournaments kids are participating in today. Kids today play upwards of 100 games in a calendar year (Including winter hockey, spring/summer hockey and tournaments). 15 years ago, the number was closer to 35 to 50 games. The simple fact is that games and tournaments are linked to higher direct and indirect costs than practices, and the funny thing is, you actually develop more in practice.
With so many games speckled throughout the week and on weekends, kids are experiencing jam-packed, pro-style schedules. Add in school commitments and the day-to-day activities of just being a kid, and we’re seeing a specific demographic of our youth at a significant risk of burning out. It’s important to understand that “less” is sometimes “more”, especially when dealing with kids.
3) Early Specialization
Building off the last point, there is now a major push towards focusing on one sport and centering your entire existence around it. In Canada, in reference to hockey, we are seeing a massive push into a 24/7 and 365-day-per-year mentality. It’s hockey, hockey, hockey all the time and it’s counterproductive and potentially damaging. The ultimate fear is: “What are 99.9 % of these kids going to do when they don’t realize the dream of playing in the NHL?” How are they going to cope with having the only real thing they’ve ever focused on taken away?
4) Development Misconception
There are several reasons as to why kids play so many games per year now. Chief among them is the misconception that kids develop more in games than they do in practice. I can’t understand the logic behind this view, considering the fact that you’re on the ice less in a game than in practice, are handling pucks less, shooting less and are limited in what you are able to do to expand your skill set.
I think of learning and developing in hockey in the same way a student learns and develops in school. Everyday school setting, hands on work allows kids to expand their minds, make mistakes and build confidence in a controlled setting. This is the equivalent to a hockey practice. If everyday class work is practice, that would make a test a game. If games are better for the development of a hockey player, should we adjust our schooling system to have more tests and less class-work? No. Everyday teaching and classwork prepares students for tests, which provide checkpoints in the overall development process by measuring results. This ultimately determines the efficiency of the preparation process. Hockey is no different. If a player is improperly prepared to compete, their performance in games will suffer. If everyone is unprepared to compete, the overall result is a weaker product.
How to Fix the System:
If it were up to me, kids would play less games and would practice more. In 2011-12, Connor McDavid played 88 games during his minor midget season with the Toronto Marlboros AAA team, not including spring or summer tournaments. 88 games! That’s more than NHL players play in a regular season and more than he ended up playing the next season with the OHL’s Erie Otters.
Connor McDavid’s Split (Midget AAA to the OHL):
Team League GP G A PTS
2011-12 Toronto Marlboros AAA Min. Midget 88 79 130 209
2012-13 Erie Otters OHL 63 25 41 66
There is no reason why a 12, 13 or 14-year-old kid should be playing 88 hockey games in a season. My recommendation would be to scale back the number of games to about 40, reduce the amount of tournaments entered, and increase the number of practices. While increasing the practice numbers, I would spend more time on specialization and teaching the finer aspects of the game that are going to help kids become more efficient and complete players. In turn, this would reduce the amount of money spent on renting buses, meals on the road, hotels, paying officials, and the administrative costs of scheduling and booking ice for games and tournaments.
A reduction in overall games and tournaments fosters a better learning environment, creates less pressure on time management, creating a better balance, and reduces the overall cost to participate—expanding the overall talent pool to select from. You never know if the next Gretzky is going to come from a family at the top of the socio-economic scale or the bottom. Pricing the majority of the populace out of the sport drastically reduces the overall talent pool.