Saturday, 3 September 2011

Less Violence = More Players

It felt like a little deja vu when I was reading Hockey Canada's latest idea on how to keep kids involved in the game past the ages when bodychecking is introduced. This isn't just an idea for boys' hockey, though, as it is meant to encourage more players to remain playing the game past the ages when physical hockey becomes front-and-center for some parents and coaches. As I was reading this "new" idea, I felt like I had seen this somewhere before very recently. And it turns out that I had as one of the most prolific hockey broadcasters had suggested this very idea over a decade ago in his book.

We've seen a vast amount of players have their careers ended by injuries, and there is one current superstar who has yet to say whether or not he'll be in his team's opening night lineup because of a concussion. Whether or not we want to hear it, injuries and the fear of being injured turn a lot of kids off of hockey. I know first-hand what it feels like, and I can tell you that it killed off my passion for the game for a while.

"If there is a fear of injury, if there is a fear of intimidation, then we need to create an environment where those youngsters feel that they can make a choice to play the game," Paul Carson, Hockey Canada's vice-president of hockey development, told The Canadian Press on August 26.

"You want youngsters to start playing the game feeling that it is a safe environment. But you also have the responsibility to show due diligence over time, so players stay in the game... and the only way you can to that is by constantly improving the environment."

And that last statement brought me back to Howie Meeker and the words contained within his book Stop It There, Back It Up!. Howie Meeker spent a good portion at the start of the book trumpeting the very idea of non-contact hockey for kids, and how non-contact hockey would promote players to stay in the game if the idea of a junior hockey or pro hockey career is out of their reaches.

Mr. Meeker writes,

"My philosophy about hockey, and minor hockey in particular, is very simple. Every teenage girl or boy should have the opportunity to play the game of hockey, at their skill level, and in a non-violent atmosphere, at least twice a week. And on the way to becoming a teenager, they should be provided the opportunity to learn the physical and mental aspects of the game.

"But it ain't happening. Not even close. And Canadian hockey is dying because of it."
Mr. Meeker goes on to explain why he feels how he does about minor hockey in Canada, writing,
"Quite simply, we have to change our approach to minor hockey throughout the country by making it fun for all those participating. Fun can't exist when 85 percent of the players still in the game drop out between age 12 and 16. Minor hockey should be fun for everyone, and also has to be a skill-teaching experience. It's the duty of the adult instructors to create an on-ice atmosphere where boys and girls can improve their skills, without fear of being constantly under attack, physically or mentally.
All of that was published in 1999, twelve years ago. It was pointed out quite succinctly in 1998 by William Houston in his Globe & Mail investigative articles titled "A Game in Crisis" that were published shortly after the Canadian hockey teams failed to bring home gold medals at the Nagano Olympic Games. Houston writes,
"While children in Europe learn fundamentals from hours of practice and are taught by trained coaches, Canadian kids are thrown into games, as many as 140 in a season, and rarely practice. They are coached by volunteers, many of whom are inexperienced or incompetent.

"For parents who dream of their sons becoming NHL stars, winning and playing games are more important than children learning skills and having fun. Instead of scoring goals, children are instructed to play defensively and to intimidate. At the age of 13, the dropout rate skyrockets.

"'They're robots,' said Marty Williamson, who coaches a Tier 2 junior team in Milton, Ont. 'The creativity isn't in the game and maybe the fun isn't there, either.'"
And it wasn't just Houston that called out the Canadian system after the Nagano losses. Team Canada GM Bobby Clarke went on record with this quotation after the teams returned without a gold medal.
"We are the grinders, clutchers, bangers, no-name role players, the men with heart enough to make up for our shoddy skills. Yes this is what Canadian hockey is all about. Here in the Church of Don Cherry, blessed are the toothless muckers, for they shall inherit a National Hockey League contract.... The quality of Canadian hockey is not merely declining, it is in free fall.... They say the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Welcome to Canadian hockey.

"The first step in treating the illness must be acknowledging that we have one. SO here goes: Canadian hockey is sick. Now on to figuring out what the problem is and how to cure it.... This is our game. If we want it back, we are going to have to fight for it - with our hearts, but above all with our heads."
So it's clear that Canadian hockey players have the deck stacked against them. Of course, we're not talking about the professional game here. We're more concerned with the grassroots level - keeping kids in the game past the bodychecking level when injuries and dropouts go up in a dramatic rise.

I'll tell you this: I lost my passion for the game after a few knee injuries from being hit as I went into the endboards during races for icings, and I was done playing competitively at the age of 13. Teaching players to bodycheck at the age of 11 in most Canadian provinces changes the way the game is played, and there are some trends to back up this claim.

Here are the leading scorers in the QMJHL for the last 30 years. This starts at the 1980-81 season, and progresses through to today:
  • '80-81 - Dale Hawerchuk with 81 goals and 102 assists.
  • '81-82 - Claude Verret with 54 goals and 108 assists.
  • '82-83 - Pat LaFontaine with 104 goals and 130 assists.
  • '83-84 - Mario Lemieux with 133 goals and 149 assists.
  • '84-85 - Guy Rouleau with 76 goals and 87 assists.
  • '85-86 - Luc Robitaille with 68 goals and 123 points.
  • '86-87 - Marc Fortier with 66 goals and 135 assists.
  • '87-88 - Patrice Lefebvre with 64 goals and 136 assists.
  • '88-89 - Stephane Morin with 77 goals and 109 assists.
  • '89-90 - Stephane Lebeau with 66 goals and 106 assists.
Averages for the decade? 78.9 goals and 118.5 assists.
  • '90-91 - Yanic Perreault with 87 goals and 98 assists.
  • '91-92 - Patrick Poulin with 52 goals and 86 assists.
  • '92-93 - Rene Corbet with 79 goals and 69 assists.
  • '93-94 - Yanick DubĂ© with 66 goals and 75 assists.
  • '94-95 - Patrick Carignan with 37 goals and 100 assists.
  • '95-96 - Daniel Briere with 67 goals and 96 assists.
  • '96-97 - Pavel Rosa with 63 goals and 89 assists.
  • '97-98 - Ramzi Abid with 50 goals and 85 assists.
  • '98-99 - Mike Ribiero with 67 goals and 100 assists.
  • '99-00 - Brad Richards with 71 goals and 115 assists.
Averages for the decade? 63.9 goals and 91.3 assists. That's a drop of 15 goals and 27.2 assists for the leading scorers on average. A 42-point swing is a huge drop in points when defensive play really ramped up in the QMJHL. Let's keep going, though.
  • '00-01 - Simon Gamache with 74 goals and 110 assists.
  • '01-02 - Pierre-Marc Bouchard with 46 goals and 94 assists.
  • '02-03 - Joel Perrault with 51 goals and 65 assists.
  • '03-04 - Sidney Crosby with 54 goals and 81 assists.
  • '04-05 - Sidney Crosby with 66 goals and 102 assists.
  • '05-06 - Alexander Radulov with 61 goals and 91 assists.
  • '06-07 - Francois Bouchard with 45 goals and 80 assists.
  • '07-08 - Mathieu Perreault with 34 goals and 80 assists.
  • '08-09 - Yannick Riendeau with 58 goals and 68 assists.
  • '09-10 - Sean Couturier with 41 goals and 55 assists.
Averages for the decade? 53.0 goals and 82.6 assists. That's a drop of 10.9 goals from the 1990s and a drop of 28.9 goals from the wide-open 1980s. We also saw a drop of 8.7 assists from the 1990s and 35.9 helpers from the mark set in the 1980s. Overall, that's a 19.6 drop in points from the 1990s and almost-unfathomable 64.8 points less than what was scored on average in the 1980s.

Part of this can be explained by the fact that goaltenders and defensive systems have steadily gotten better over the years, but a 65-point difference over 20 years is simply ridiculous. That's one entire average player's scoring on a roster that has been eliminated over two decades. I believe Howie Meeker, William Houston, and Bobby Clarke have a point when they say that hockey in Canada is suffering from a clear and obvious lack of creativity and fun. How did it get this way?

Now, a lot of you are going to point to the World Junior Championships where Canada has been the favorite for the gold medal every year since the late-1980s. You'll say, "Teebz, you and Meeker are full of crap" while you count the number of times Canada has returned to Canadian soil with a gold medal.

If that's your argument, there's not much history on your side. Since 1977, Canada has boasted the top forward at the tournament a mere 10 times. That's right - in 33 years, Canada has had the top forward only ten times. Twelve times has Canada had the best goaltender and seven times has Canada had the best defenceman, yet we've won the tournament fifteen times.

Russia? Eleven times they have had the best forward. Sweden? Five times they have had the best forward. We're not so great when it comes to scoring and showing offensive flair. Until 2005 when the tournament introduced a legitimate MVP award, Canada simply was not producing the best and most highly-skilled forwards annually. Arguably, they still don't.

Howie Meeker writes,
"Time after time, when it's all over, it's the other kids who make the all-star teams, the other kids who get drafted ahead of ours and who go on to star in the NHL. But it's our goaltender who's the MVP and we've simply out-pummelled the opponents."
That statement could be used to describe any of the last dozen Canadian World Junior teams if you ask me.

But we're looking at the wrong group again. The players on the World Junior teams are the best of the best, and I can't deny that. We focus so largely on these elite players because of our national pride and our love of defending "our game" that we forget about the 99% of the players who aren't going to earn his NHL stripes.

These are the kids and teens who, through a coordinated non-contact program, would learn the skills necessary to teach the game to the next generation of kids. It would also bolster the adult hockey leagues across the nation as thousands of players would be able to "graduate" to an adult hockey league where they can show off those valuable skills they have learned.

I estimate that it will take five to seven years for the work put into this program to start bearing fruit. Good players will start being developed as skillful players who aren't interested in the violent aspects of the game will begin to teach other kids how to play the game smarter and faster and with more skill.

For everyone who thinks I'm speaking some sort of hockey sacrilege right now, you're missing the big picture here. If 95 to 99% of hockey players aren't playing in the NHL, the best of the best will still make it to the bright lights. The kids like me - the ones who aren't being pushed to make it to the NHL - are the players who will benefit from this program, and I wholeheartedly endorse Hockey Canada for looking at a non-violent alternative where kids can have fun and improve their games without always fearing the next big hit.

More players in an environment where skills are valued over toughness, and the quality of those teaching the game is higher than ever before. If it improves the game at all, isn't that better than doing nothing?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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