Sports Special Report

No Quick Fix

Canadians say their hockey system has problems. Can the Open Ice summit provide answers?

James Deacon August 30 1999
Sports Special Report

No Quick Fix

Canadians say their hockey system has problems. Can the Open Ice summit provide answers?

James Deacon August 30 1999

No Quick Fix

Sports Special Report

Canadians say their hockey system has problems. Can the Open Ice summit provide answers?

James Deacon

Ken Dryden is an optimist. He won six Stanley Cups as a player with the Montreal Canadiens, yet as an administrator accepted a job in 1997 that, to some observers, was professional suicide—trying to rebuild the institutionally inept Toronto Maple Leafs. Dryden said back then he saw opportunity in all that trouble, and he proved his point by helping steer a remarkable turnaround: last spring the team reached the Stanley Cup semifinals. Now, the Leafs president has seized an even more daunting challenge. He is spearheading the Open Ice conference in Toronto from Aug. 25 to 27, at which he and other Canadian hockey leaders will try to agree on ways to fix the country’s maligned player develop-

ment system. “It is easy to be cynical about conferences,” he says. “But the reason you do these things is that it is worth trying.”

Can one conference redirect the course of Canadian hockey? The Open Ice advisory board, which includes Canadian Hockey Association president Bob Nicholson and major-junior boss Dave Branch, faces staggering odds. There are so many jurisdictions administering the game at the minor level that it would be impossible for any one organization to unilaterally impose changes in rules or training methods. As well, many coaches, parents and players are resistant to changing the hard-hitting, dump-and-chase style of play despite recent losses at the international

level. But a recent poll conducted by Northstar Research Partners for Molson Breweries, the sponsor of Open Ice, found strong public support for reform. In all, a whopping 85 per cent of respondents agreed the national pastime is in need of an overhaul. “There’s too much emphasis on size and hitting, and not enough on finesse and skill,” says Kurt Goodjohn, 17, a 12th-grade student in Calgary who took part in the poll.

Driving that concern is the realization that Canada no longer dominates its favourite game. While 60 per cent of National Hockey League players are Canadian, Europeans have won four of the last six most-valuable-player awards in the National Hockey League, including the last three in a row. Canada has also recorded disappointing results at recent international competitions, notably the 1996 World Cup loss to the United States and the fourth-place finish at the 1998 Winter Olympics. James Arnett, Molson’s chief executive, says his company chose to underwrite most of the cost of the three-day summit to support efforts to rejuvenate the Canadian system. That, he said, helps protect the company’s investment in hockey, both through ownership of the Montreal Canadiens and through the marketing of its beer. “We see ourselves as part of the fabric of the game,” Arnett says, adding: “It is vitally important to us that hockey in Canada remain healthy.”

Longtime observers say the warning signs were apparent P»' I even in 1972, when only Paul Henderson’s last-minute goal ty* in Moscow saved Canada from having to admit another country’s system was its equal. Compared with the Soviet

methods, minor hockey in Canada was too focused on playing games rather than practising, and on building strength rather than improving agility and fitness. That approach still produces players who are suited to the grinding NHL style. But critics say the failure to address the Canadian system’s weaknesses over the last quarter century has not only resulted in declining fortunes internationally, but has deprived kids of skills development and creativity, and even driven players out of the game. “Years ago, kids started dropping out at 16 or 17,” says Nicholson. “Now, it is 13 or 14.”

Northstar s poll of 2,313 people, which conference delegates will use in their discussions this week, reveals regional differences in attitudes. For instance, 67 per cent of respondents said hockey was important to the country. Yet only 59 per cent of Quebecers agreed with that claim—perhaps because nationalists view it as important to Quebec rather than to Canada. As well, the poll found that Canadians were more concerned about the cost of putting kids through minor hockey than they were about violence in the sport.

Although hockey insiders widely support Open Ice, some criticize organizers for stacking panels with too many administrators and not enough players with recent on-ice experience, or European coaches, whose programs have produced so many NHL stars. Moreover, the agenda largely ignores two components of player development—better off-ice training and nutrition. “Working on skills is only one way to improve things,” says T. R. Goodman, a Los Angeles-based trainer who works with dozens of NHL stars. “But you have to do it in a well-rounded approach, to get kids physically prepared to compete.”

Organizers say the criticism is overblown, saying the summit

Canadians on their game Northstar Research Partners interviewed 2,3/3 Canadians to gauge attitudes on the pleasures, problems and importance of hockey. The poll is accurate plus or minus 2.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

What fans of professional hockey like most about their sport

Competitiveness Entertainment Speed Love of the game Skills Supporting their team Action It’s part of Canadian culture

What fans of professional hockey dislike about their sport

Total Male Female ÜÉLïïVWÈ

Perceived need among fans for change in the Canadian player development system

Organization fans think should be most responsible for making changes

would get too unwieldy if it tried to address every aspect of player development. As it is, they must confront issues ranging from fighting and bodychecking to government funding and the age at which kids can be drafted into major-junior hockey. As well, organizers cite the presence at the conference of current and former players such as Trevor Linden and Steve Larmer, and of coaches such as Detroit’s Scotty Bowman and the Dallas Stars’ Ken Hitchcock. “The most successful coaches,” Dryden says, “know what makes their players tick, and what makes them play their best.” Minor hockey officials who participated in the poll say grassroots training is already changing. “It’s better on a skill-development basis,” says Gordon Milne, 45, a chartered accountant from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who has coached both girls and boys. Still, Milne worries that kids are not having as much fun as they once did, and adds: “We’re starting them too young and putting them in competitive play too early.” Nicholson, whose organization presides over minor hockey as well as Canada’s national teams, says he doesn’t want change for change’s sake. “There are a lot of things we do right, don’t forget,” he says. Still, he says Open Ice has a

Canada doesn’t dominate its game anymore

chance to bring meaningful reform because it is so widely supported. “You can’t change key components in the game with only one organization,” he says. “You need all levels of the game involved, and we have that.”

Dryden hopes the conference will become an annual convention at which the hockey world will debate the issues of the day. From the inaugural event, though, he doesn’t expect miracles. “What I’d like to see happen,” he says cautiously, “is that we put a focus on what really needs to be done.” If that is achieved, Dryden will have advanced the cause of Canadian hockey, and perhaps brought optimism back in style.

Rima Kar

John Intini

Michael MacLean

Problems with player development*

The cost of playing hockey is keeping kids from getting involved in the sport Hockey gets too serious at too early an age Minor hockey is too political There is too much emphasis on winning in minor hockey it would be better if parents did not coach their own kids Inappropriate parent behaviour is a real problem in minor hockey There is too much emphasis on the physical aspect of the game in minor hockey Players from around the world want to come to Canada to develop and train Coaches in minor hockey lack sufficient training Canadian players are not taught technical skills to the same degree as players from other countries Violence in Canadian hockey is preventing kids from getting involved Players in minor hockey are moved up to H higher levels too quickly y¿j

Possible solutions*

Ensure coaches have some level of hockey-playing experience Rotate players into various positions until they are at least 10 years old Incorporate more fun activities (such as tag, soccer, etc.) into practices for younger players Improve minor hockey officiating Conduct more practices off-ice (e.g. road hockey, in-line hockey) Increase the number of practices relative to games De-emphasize the importance of winning in minor hockey Have younger players use equipment such as pucks, nets and ice surfaces scaled down to their size Play four on four instead of five on five WÊ during games for younger players ■ Teach body contact at an early age -14

(Figures represent net positive effect; i.e. positive responses minus negative responses)