COVER

THE PROVING GROUNDS

D’ARCY JENISH May 18 1998
COVER

THE PROVING GROUNDS

D’ARCY JENISH May 18 1998

THE PROVING GROUNDS

D’ARCY JENISH

Bobby Orr is sipping tomato juice and telling stories. The former Boston Bruins great is seated in the lounge of a Thunder Bay hotel, surrounded by a small group of hockey fathers from the southern Ontario city of Peterborough. They listen intently to his story about a certain superstar with a fat contract who, Orr

says, works hard only three nights out of 10. And another about 35-year-old St. Louis Blues goalie Grant Fuhr, a fiery competitor

eager to start every game, Orr notes, despite having eight operations during a career that began in 1981. Then, Orr abruptly changes direction—one of his favorite tactics when he was the most dazzling defenceman in the world—and offers his thoughts on how to improve minor hockey. “At every level,” he says,

“your boys are going to see more size and speed. But we need more small guys in the game. We’ve got to let the kids be creative.

Let them play like they were out on a pond.”

Orr may be thinking small and creative, but he’s putting his money on size and speed. Now a player agent and partner in Boston-based Woolf Associates, one of North America’s largest sports management companies, Orr visited Thunder Bay for three days in early April to watch the Ontario bantam hockey championships—a showcase for 128 of the province’s best 15and 16-year-olds. He and three other agents all had their eyes on sixfoot, two-inch, 190-lb. Colt King, a local forward regarded as one of the country’s top young prospects. Representatives of seven Ontario Hockey League clubs, the province’s top junior A circuit, also scouted the tournament and were searching for players of similar stature. As Mark Hunter, head coach of the OHL’s Sarnia Sting and a 12-year NHL veteran, put it: ‘We’re all looking for a finished product, the kid who’s six-foot-two and can really move.”

The fixation on size and speed, which started in the pros, now drives minor hockey—the system for developing talent in this country. And to hear many longtime observers tell it, that fixation is stripping the game of its flair and finesse. They say coaches—

even of the earliest age groups—often opt for big, tough players over smaller, skilled ones. They also contend that the structure of elite-level minor hockey, with its heavy emphasis on games, dumpand-chase offences, and highly regimented practices dominated by skating and passing drills, works against the development of offensively talented players. Then there are parents, whose win-at-allcosts mentality leads many coaches to employ conservative, defensive strategies. “It’s a lot harder to learn the creative part of the game,” says Jamie McDonald, general manager of the OHL Kitchener Rangers and former director of development for the Calgary-based Canadian Hockey Association. “But we need to work nationally on our skill levels.”

Minor hockey has major pains

Bobby Orr and most of the other agents and scouts have left Thunder Bay before the Peterborough Petes and Mississauga Reps line up to start the gold medal game of the Ontario bantam hockey championships. The Petes and the Reps have reached the final by compiling

better records than five other teams from across the province during the week-long tournament. And from the opening faceoff, the players treat the fans, who fill about one-third of the 3,660 seats in the Fort William Gardens, to a high-speed, free-flowing contest that features great goaltending, hard hits, crisp passing and slick displays of puck handling.

But with the Reps ahead 2-0 midway through the second, the flow of the game changes. It becomes a contest between competing approaches to hockey. Mississauga head coach Todd Celotto, 32, begins using a popular defensive system—the neutral zone trap—to stifle Peterborough’s offence. Rep forwards dump the puck into the opposing end at every opportunity, then line up across the Petes’ blue-line, with their defencemen further back, and wait to break up the attack. Peterborough coaches Paul Crowley and Doug Gibson stick to the freewheeling, offensive game they had taught their players all season. On this occasion, creativity prevails over caution. With less than two minutes remaining, and the score tied 3-3, a tall, slender Peterborough forward named Ryan Courtney picks up the puck at his own blue-line, dashes down the ice and fires a bullet of a shot over the left shoulder of Mississauga goalie Jim Buccino. Afterward, as his players celebrate with all the noise and exuberance of Stanley Cup champions, a reflective Crowley says: "Ifs a really nice feeling to know that our belief in skill development came through in the end.”

In fact, Crowley, 42, and Gibson, 44, both of whom played junior hockey and went on to professional careers, produced a winner by avoiding systems like the neutral zone trap and special units for power plays and penalty killing.

Instead, they taught all three forward lines and defence pairings to play with a man advantage or a man short. They gave their players, with the exception of the goalies, an opportunity to play every position in order to develop a rounded view of the game. They taught individual puck-handling skills, primarily by splitting the team in two at the start of each practice and playing old-fashioned shinny for 15 to 20 minutes, which, Gibson says, allows players to try new moves without any fear of making mistakes. “A lot of teams today play very defensive hockey because they’re playing not to lose,” says Gibson, whose pro career included one season with the Boston Bruins in the mid1970s. “We want our kids to be creative.”

But many minor-hockey coaches insist that teaching the offensive skills required to play creatively takes time. And most parents want results—namely wins—from the opening game of the season, which for competitive teams is usually early September. Coaches often respond by teaching defensive systems and the dump-and-chase offence to cut down on goals against, as well as mistakes.

Otherwise, they risk a parents’ revolt and a short career behind the bench. Celotto, the Mississauga coach, says coaches in the highly competitive Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League face extraordinary pressure to win because parents are free to move their children from team to team. “If you’re not successful,

people don’t stay with you, and they won't come to your tryouts,” he says. ‘Two years ago, I took over this team after they missed the playoffs and I had two returning players.”

Others maintain that children today play too many games—60 to 80 per season is the norm at all levels of competitive hockey—and spend too little time practising to develop offensive skills. McDonald says the CHA tried in 1995 to address the problem by recommending a 2:1 ratio of games to practices. He says few, if any, of the 2,500 local minor-hockey associations across the country have adopted the policy. Furthermore, McDonald says, many coaches should rethink their approach to practices. “They have to start allowing free time rather than simply running drill after drill,” he says, “because outdoor rinks have almost vanished in many parts of the country. And that’s where kids traditionally learned to handle the puck.”

Michael Craigen and his Peterborough Petes teammates have a free afternoon during the Thunder Bay tournament, and they head for a bowling alley near their hotel. It is a welcome break in

a long season filled with dozens of games and twice-weekly practices. But Craigen, the team’s gregarious captain, loves the game enough to spend many additional hours on an outdoor rink near his home in Lakefield, Ont., 10 miles north of Peterborough. He works on his skating, shooting and stickhandling, and he dreams of making it to “the big show,” as he calls the National Hockey League. But Craigen knows that ability alone won't get him there. He needs the size, and at five feet, seven inches, he doesn’t have it. “I’m a skill player,” he says. “I’m fast. I see the ice well. But realistically, my size is a barrier. I’m the smallest guy on the team.”

Brad Boyes, on the other hand, has the height necessary to keep his hockey dreams alive.

The talented Mississauga Reps centre is six feet tall, but weighs only 175. Over the summer, he plans to add 10 lb. of muscle, through a combination of diet and weight training, which should give him the heft to play Tier II junior next season. And he considers himself lucky. “I have a couple of friends who score a goal or two every game, and they won’t get drafted by a junior team be cause they’re under six feet,” says Boyes. “Then you see big guys who are less skilled getting drafted. It’s really frustrating.”

Officially, of course, there are no height and weight requirements for advancing to junior or making that final step to the NHL. “There’s still a place in this game for anybody,” says Hunter during a break from his scouting activities at the Thunder Bay tournament. “But the bigger kid is going to get the break. He’s going to get the extra look.” And as Orr tells the Peterborough fathers between sips of his tomato juice: “If you’re small, you’ve got to be special to make it.” In the age of size and speed, it seems, talent alone is not enough. □