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The Hockey-Industrial Complex Is Failing Canada's Young Players

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CANADA WORLD JUNIORS
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Canadian pride took a beating at the World Juniors.

National hand-wringing is part of our hockey tradition. We did it during the Summit Series in 1972. We did it after Nagano, when Gretzky was left on the bench and Hasek stonewalled our shooters.

Maybe you've seen Jeff Daniels as a disgruntled news anchor explode at a college audience: "America is not the greatest country in the world anymore -- that's my answer," he says, before launching into an Aaron Sorkin-penned tirade against the modern mediocrity of America.

Is Canada still the best hockey country in the world?

If we are, we are barely clinging to the moniker. From a simple statistics view, we should be the best, hands down. Canada isn't a big country. Yet, Hockey Canada reports 721,504 players. That's almost 10 times the Finnish Hockey Association's 75,871 players, with Russia and Sweden reporting similar numbers (99,172 and 60,089, respectively). There are over 2,631 indoor rinks in Canada. In Finland, there are 260 rinks. In Russia, there are only 450, and in Sweden, 358.

Yet, Canada's boys came fifth, losing to the host Fins and missing out on a medal for the third time in the past four years. We've won just one championship over the last six years. How could we lose, when every statistic shows natural supremacy?

Part of the problem is probably best illustrated by my own experience with my own boys.

I often drive my kid 30 minutes to get to the game. Players are asked to arrive 60 minutes before the game. He plays every third shift, for a grand total of 20 minutes of exercise. It takes him at least 20 minutes to undress, depending on whether he's celebrating a win or sulking over a loss. Then we have the drive home.

On average, we spend 200 minutes for just 20 minutes of play. That's crazy. How's any kid going to get in his 10,000 hours this way, the figure cited as the practice threshold for excellence?

Practices are much better. The kids are on the ice the whole time. But, in my opinion, how we practice is as much a problem. The average practice? It's a series of drills, designed to be executed the same way, over and over again, like a musician practicing scales.

"Maybe we've lost sight of the forest for the trees, letting hockey become an industry. We should remember it's a game, and let kids play and learn through play."

Some coaches have lots of complex drills up their sleeves, others rely on old standards. But the end result is the same: the kids are all trained to play essentially the same way. When is there time for improvisation? When a kid messes up a drill because he's trying to do something different, the whistle is blown. Epithets are yelled. And the drill is started again.

It's no secret. The kids who get really good play outdoors on lakes and ponds from dawn to dusk. They learn how to skate over crags and crevices, how to handle the puck and how to saucer pass tape-to-tape -- because if you miss a pass, the puck sails across the pond or gets buried in the snow. They experiment, honing their skills continuously for hours.

Have we made hockey too much a chore, rather than a game to be enjoyed? Do we need more unstructured play? Put another way, have we created a hockey-industrial complex and need to remember that it is, after all, a game?

We have the resources for hockey supremacy -- the rinks and the sheer number of players. But we still lose.

A young guy I work with confessed to me today that he actually cheered for Finland in the quarterfinal match against Canada: "Our players were so linear -- it looked like they were table hockey players fastened to their lanes."

For me, this brought back memories of 1972. I was only nine at the time, but I secretly rooted for the Russians. It wasn't because I had socialist leanings (that would come in university). It was because I had never seen anything like the Soviets.

The term "puck possession" seems to have just dawned on our hockey commentators, but it was second nature to the Soviets. They moved in every direction, including back to their own zone if it meant keeping the puck. Their passes were often one-touch. They never dumped the puck. They even passed back to Tretiak, their goalie.

It was like watching soccer on ice. Pure magic. No wonder Canada had to break the ankle of the Soviet's best player to win.

Maybe we've lost sight of the forest for the trees, letting hockey become an industry. We should remember it's a game, and let kids play and learn through play.

Bringing back some freedom into minor hockey, returning a sense of play to the game, will help develop creative skills and, in turn, help us win. The hockey purist in me asks, "Who the hell cares what colour jersey wins? I just want to watch good hockey." But let's face it, it's more fun when our boys (and girls) win.

We need more shinny. 

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