The debate about whether being born in the first few months of the calendar year poses a significant advantage for a hockey player over being born in the latter months of the year isn’t new. The argument that a player born in January of a particular calendar year will have a distinct developmental advantage over a player born in December of the same year isn’t even really something that can be debated; at least not in the “on average” sense, and especially not in the early years of physical development. The fact is kids born in January are typically bigger, stronger and more advanced than kids born in December of the same birth year, during the early years of development.
The most polarizing, in-depth research into this trend is found in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book: “Outliers: The Story of Success”. In his book, Gladwell argues “extraordinary success requires hard work, talent, ambition – and being born at the right time.” He states that there is “an iron law of Canadian hockey: in any elite group of hockey players – the very best of the best – 40 per cent of the players will have been born between January and March.” His findings are consistent with some of hockey’s greatest heros:
Wayne Gretzky – Jan 26, 1961
Bobby Orr – March 20, 1948
Gordie Howe – March 31, 1928
Counter-arguments that aim to dispel Gladwell’s claim state that these findings are subjective and not indicative of the greater success story. Gladwell’s “40%” findings represent statistics gleaned from Canadian major junior hockey players. In an article titled: “Gladwell’s Big Kid Bias?” by Benjamin G. Gibbs, Mikaela Dufur, Shawn Meiners and David Jeter, the authors examine the birth dates of the 1,177 Canadian-born players who competed in the NHL between 2000 and 2010. Their findings show that twenty-nine per cent were born in the first quarter of the year—certainly not an overwhelming percentage.
Further to these findings, several of the games current bright stars were born in the latter months of the year:
Sidney Crosby – Aug. 7, 1987
Phil Kessel – Oct. 2, 1987
John Tavares – Sept. 20, 1990
Patrick Kane – Nov. 19, 1988
In order to gather the data required to give this debate the thoroughness that it deserves – breaking down variables at different stages of development while factoring in demographics, development streams (major junior vs. NCAA) and major city centres versus rural communities, etc., etc., etc., I’d have to quit my job, lose my house and marriage and bury myself in data. For the sake of sanity and efficiency, let’s examine some key elements of development and their connection to age variation.
To play any sport at elite levels, you need to possess some athleticism. Not everyone possesses this and not everyone can develop it. The fact is, through genetics and other factors, some people are simply more gifted and naturally talented. That being said, athleticism is the first indicator that determines how high a ceiling will be for a hockey player. Since genetics doesn’t discriminate kids born in December versus January, we continue to see Sidney Crosby’s and John Tavares’ emerge—talented freaks of athletic lore.
When you love something, I mean truly, truly love something with all of your soul, there isn’t much that can deter you from doing it. For some it’s music, art or science. For others it might be a sport, like hockey. In hockey, the players who have an almost unhealthy desire to play—an obsession, as it is—are at a much greater advantage than players who just simply like hockey. While desire begins as something pure, it can be degraded through experience (more on that as we continue).
3. Size and Physical Development
It is true that all kids vary in their stages of development. Some have early growth spurts while others are late bloomers. However, on average, especially at younger ages (4 – 9), kids tend to develop pretty steadily. Simply put, kids born in January of any given year are going to be a bit bigger and stronger than kids born in December of the same year.
The thing that makes these young ages so important is that this is the stage when kids first begin to develop their interest level in hockey. Aside from several important factors such as whether their daddy played hockey or their friends play hockey, a kid’s level of desire for hockey will greatly be influenced by what is perceived as fun and some level of accomplishment. Simply put, if it’s too hard and frustrating, young kids won’t want to carry on in it. It’s the main reason 5-year-olds don’t want to spend their days solving quadratic equations.
Most of the kids who try hockey at young ages and don’t experience at least small doses of success, usually end of trying different activities and quitting hockey altogether. If a kid is 11-months younger and smaller than everyone else and never gets to touch the puck, they are at an increased risk of losing interest in the game of hockey.
Building off of the last point, kids who experience success, usually experience peaks in desire, which leads to peaks in confidence—it presents a snowball effect. In hockey, like all sports, confidence is one of the single biggest drivers of success.
5. Mental Toughness
There is something to be said about perseverance, especially in sports. The saying “Whatever doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger”, does hold some merit in the sports world. Experiencing adversity at young ages can help a player develop their mental toughness skill-set. With hockey being a mainly negative outcome sport (every change in possession comes off the back of a mistake and scoring on 20% of your shots is amazing), facing tough situations and finding ways to remain focused on your goals is of great value to a hockey player. Learning how to do this at an early age while playing against older, stronger players is a great benefit.
6. The Extra Year
This is where the tables really begin to turn for the late birthday hockey players. There is a cut-off rule in place that decides what year a player will be eligible for the NHL draft. Simply put, if a player is born between January 1st and September 16th, they will be eligible for the draft in one year, while players born in the same year after September 16th won’t be eligible for the draft until the following year. This is a big advantage to a player born after September 16th because it gives them an additional year to develop before becoming eligible to be drafted. Some have argued that NHL teams tend to lean towards drafting the “younger” players in a draft year as opposed to players held over from the year before due to later birth dates but this is simply an unfounded myth.
Being a late-bloomer, born in the December, who reached high levels of hockey, I can tell you first-hand that having a late birthday comes with many overwhelming challenges. I had a high-degree of athleticism, an insanely strong desire to play hockey, and always found a way to fight through the tough times. Despite this, I was always the runt of my age group, size-wise, and I experienced a lot of years during my minor hockey days where I acted as the “Grocery Stick” (The player who sits in the middle of the bench right between the forwards and the defencemen—rotting).
During the early years, these were tough times for me. The majority of the kids I played with on my AAA teams were born in the first quarter of the year. Being 11 months younger, there was often a significant size and strength discrepancy. As a result, my confidence was low and I spent a lot of time doubting myself. Things didn’t really begin to level out for me until I turned 16 or 17. By then, I had done most of my catching up and this is when my confidence began to spike, helping to level out the playing field and allowing my athleticism and desire propel my career.
Touching back on the debate and the research of both Malcolm Gladwell and Benjamin G. Gibbs, et al, both are correct. There is direct correlation between first quarter birthdate hockey players and succession through minor hockey up to the major junior level in Canada. It is also true that once players reach the NHL, whether they were born early in the year or late doesn’t really matter. By this time, we’re just getting the best athlete (mind, body and soul). Even if the pool in junior is largely skewed to first quarter birth athletes, the best overall athletes will emerge and sometimes this is aided by the draft system (The Extra Year) and the development of mental toughness in players born in the last quarter of the year.
The area where birth month effects hockey the most in the first few years of playing the game—where kids dip their toe in the pool to find out if they want to dive in. This is where the largest number of kids are weeded out. This is why the largest percentage of kids playing AAA are born in the early part of the year. It is even tougher for kids in rural communities that often combine minor and major levels (ie. Minor peewee and major peewee). In these scenarios, some kids are as much as 23 months younger than their counterparts.
Once these kids hit the junior ranks and physical development levels out, athleticism, talent, mental toughness and confidence begin to take over. Since the majority of these attributes aren’t directly linked to what month a player is born, we see a much more balanced spread in the NHL and minor pro levels.