Over the last two days, I’ve watched two very different minor hockey games. The first was fast and fluid; the other was not. One was dominated by a half-dozen excellent skaters on each team; in the other you saw hardly any. And one brought all of us watching to our feet with slick passing and great shots on goal – while at the other, people stared at their phones during the oh-so-frequent lulls in the, uhh, action.
One game was just a middle-school v middle school league game; the other was a do-or-die single-game playoff in the GTHL, Canada’s biggest and highest-profile minor hockey league. Guess which was the better game?
If you chose the GTHL tilt you’d be wrong.
My 12-year-old son is currently in both leagues, playing on a GTHL single-A team and his school team as well. Lots of the kids on his single-A team are lousy skaters who have never played higher than that level, whereas on the school team, there are plenty of triple-AAA and double-AA kids, a bunch of single-A players and even one “Select” kid fleshing out the team.
What are the differences between these two situations – besides the huge talent gaps described above, and in how the games looked from the stands? Here’s the biggest one: no deliberate bodychecking is allowed in the school league. There’s plenty of “contact”: kids are fighting hard for the puck, moving fast, slamming into each other sometimes, especially in the corners or behind the net. But nobody’s lining up anyone else for the big hit, the one that snaps a kid’s head back and puts him on the ice and maybe out of the game.
What does this do to the game? Simple – it speeds up the play. Kids can concentrate on moving the puck up the ice, making passes, deking, and cutting hard to the net for shots. They’re not worried about looking down for a split-second or about turning their heads to pick up a pass behind them. They might even try to take the D outside, squeezing between the checker and the boards.
In the GTHL game I saw last night (and I’ve seen a thousand of them over the last few years – always the same), some of the kids – typically the crappiest skaters on both teams – spent a lot of their limited time on the ice trying to take out a fast puck carrier on the other team, catching him with a bodycheck when he wasn’t looking. Mostly the hits missed, but the hitting affected the play anyway. Kids carrying the puck, fearing the hit, often chipped it into the zone from outside the blue line, then tried to outrace the D and catch up to it again in the corner.
Funny – this b.s. looks a lot like the way the crap teams in the NHL play, and a lot like the standard M.O. of every team’s “energy line” – those 3rd– or 4th-line forwards who maybe get 6 minutes of ice time each game, when Datsyuk or the Sedins or Gaborik or Malkin are resting for a few seconds.
So what are we doing here in the GTHL? What’s the lesson supposed to be? Teach the kids to beware the hit, so that instead of skating the puck into the zone, or passing it or trying to stickhandle around a guy, they dump it in? Teach them to play like they’re slaving away for Brent Sutter, the most unimaginative coach in the world, a man who has transformed his Calgary Flames into pro sports’ most unwatchable team?
Why is minor hockey dancing to the tune of the NHL, anyway? Everyone knows the odds against any kid making it to pro, despite the sweet dreams of half the country’s young players. Given those odds, why not shape a game for kids that encourages speed, skill, skating, passing, shooting, stickhandling – all the beautiful things that fans of the pro game like best anyway, and the things that every rec player, adult or kid, wants to do on the ice? Jesus, even in Calgary, the only two jerseys you can buy in the airport are Iginla’s and Kiprusoff’s. No Cory Sarich shirts anywhere.
Who’s in charge of all this? Who runs this stuff? Ahh… Hockey Canada. Naturally an organization that purports to be “the governing body for hockey in Canada” will have some wisdom to lead us out of the wilderness on this one.
But…wait: this is Hockey Canada’s incredibly lame and out-of-date page on concussions: http://www.hockeycanada.ca/index.php/ci_id/66201/la_id/1/. It looks like it was written in 1976. And yet Hockey Canada’s mandate is to “Lead, Develop, and Promote Positive Hockey Experiences” (caps theirs) in “a safe, sportsmanlike environment.”
Huh? “Positive”? “Safe?” Who’s kidding who, here? Nothing about kids’ head injuries and whiplash is either positive or safe. And what’s the point, anyway? Why, just because in the NHL, looking down for the puck is a sin, does it have to be so everywhere else? Why does a hit have to be a legal play? Why do minor hockey coaches anywhere below the truly elite level have to waste precious practice time teaching kids “how to take and receive a hit”? Again – in bold, once more – why do minor hockey’s rules & orientation have to mirror the NHL’s?
Well, they don’t, apparently. Leagues have sprung up to provide a home for kids who don’t want to play hockey with deliberate bodychecking. Lots of times, these are kids who have had one or two concussions already, and they and their families decide they can’t risk a third. In Toronto, the subtly named “Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League” (TNCHL) is the best known of the bunch: it suggests on its website that the league offers “competitive” non-contact hockey, and a lot of their people tell you that the level is somewhere between GTHL single-A and double-AA.
Trouble is that it’s nowhere near this good. It may be in a couple of years – but for now, the TNCHL is a place where average single-A kids are stars, and kids who can’t skate or stickhandle or shoot that well can still make the team. Which is great – unless you’re a legit talented young player looking for a team in a league that’s actually fast and creative and challenging, and where you won’t get your head taken off by a goon in the making coached by some frustrated angry dad with a ball cap, a whistle in his mouth and a trunk full of orange cones… then you want a league a lot like the one my son’s school team plays in. For a lot of talented young hockey players here in The Centre of the Universe, the perfect situation would be one a lot like the city’s public-school hockey system. It’s super competitive, it’s fast, it develops skills, and it’s more fun and exciting to play in than the GTHL single-A or double-AA divisions (the kids will tell you that, too).
So here’s our call to Hockey Canada’s President Bob Nicholson: take all bodychecking out of minor hockey, except at the triple-AAA level (and its equivalent across the country anywhere outside of the almighty GTHL).
Impossible? Not really. U.S. Hockey, the sport’s governing body in the world’s most violent developed nation, took bodychecking out of the kids’ game. They introduce it at the Bantam level (age 14) – same as in Quebec. Last we checked, both the U.S. and Quebec are producing some pretty good hockey players.
Here’s what the U.S. Hockey page has to say about their bodychecking rule: “A goal of the Program is to enhance skill development and to help reduce potential risks in the sport.”
Hmm…skills development; reducing risks. Sounds pretty good. And what are the hockey gods in Canada trying to do? Churn out young men who haven’t even a ghost of a chance at being a future Calgary Flames 4th-line guy?
Come on Bob. Step up. Spot the elephant in the room and call him by his name. Recognize that hockey at its best doesn’t have to include bodychecking, just because the NHL’s version does. (Remember, the NHL’s version also includes fighting, and not many other leagues serve this up, either.) The NHL is not hockey’s be-all and end-all.
Ban bodychecking in kids’ hockey across the country. We guarantee you’ll see a reversal of those troublesome dwindling minor-hockey enrollment numbers. Guarantee you’ll also see fewer kids laid out on their backs on the ice, fewer trainers carrying kids off and motioning to whitefaced parents in the stands, fewer kids missing school with dizziness & nausea, fewer kids slipping away from this great sport and heading off to soccer or squash or god help us the PS3. Most of all, you’ll see more fun on the ice and on the benches of every rink in Canada.
Give it a shot, Bob.