What Direction Is Canadian Hockey Heading In?

By Brad Coccimiglio

Over the past few seasons there have been a lot of people
questioning what direction Canadian hocky was heading in. With an eighth
place finish at the 1998 World Junior Championships, and fourth at the
Nagano Olympics, many people in hockey crazed Canada were left with reasons
for concern.

That’s when Canadian hockey decided that something needed to be done to get back on track, so to speak. Canada is still the number one player producer for the NHL as 60%-70% of NHL players call the “Great White North” their home. The problem lays in that
European players are becoming more dominant, and Canada is not producing talented players at a rate comparable to smaller countries like Sweden and the Czech Republic.

To try and figure out how to get back on
top, Canadian Hockey held the Open Ice Summit, the first of its kind, from
August 25-27. Some of the best hockey minds in the country like Toronto Maple Leafs president Ken Dryden, Canadian Hockey Association president Bob Nicholson and Canadian Hockey League president David Branch were in attendance.

The major thing that was realized in the Summit was the Canadian minor hockey players spend more time playing games than they do practicing. That holds back development. A game is used to showcase the skills that you learn while practicing. The practice-to-game ratio in Canada is as low as 1-to-3 in some places, while in Europe the ratio is an opposite 3-to-1.

The discussions that were held always seemed to come back to three things: that Canadian players play more games and practice too little which hinders skill development; that over the past two decades, Canadian Hockey has undergone a philosophical change, emphasizing size over skill; and today’s coaches are not prepared enough to be adequate teachers. When you think about it, it’s true.

Former Canadian National Team coach, and current Montreal Canadiens chief European scout, Dave King described the Summit by saying, “We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel. We’re just looking for small minor improvements to help make the game better.”

After seeing what went on at the Summit everyone was pleased with the 11 recommendations that were made. “I’m trying to hold back just how happy I am,” says CHA president Bob Nicholson. “Because I know we’ve only set the stage. If these recommendations make it into the rinks around the country, than we’ll have done something special.”

Here is a summary of the 11 recommendations:

1. Create a system of mentor/master coach for every minor hockey association–one for every 20 teams. Move towards a mentor/master coach being a paid professional

2. The practice-to-game ratio should be such that the number of games does not exceed the number of practices. The ratio is as low as 1-to-3 in Canada.

3. The date of age determination should be examined. The cut-off date is currently Dec. 31, but some thought has been given to rotating it throughout the calendar year. The objective is for players to not always be the youngest or oldest in a given division.

4. Raise awareness of the importance of skill development and establish a system to measure and celebrate skill.

5. Expand implementation and marketing of the initiation program, including the use of the public school system. The initiation program is designed to introduce children to hockey, with an emphasis on fun and skill development.

6. As part of the ongoing rewrite of the coaching program, include a “software skills” module and a mentor program. “Software skills” are the mental skills that help players make the best decision at the best time.

7. Examine the raising of draft ages. Currently, draft ages are 18 for the NHL, 14 for the Western League, 15 for the Ontario League and 16 for the Quebec League.

8. Initiate a public awareness campaign on the positive values of hockey and having respect for participants, rules and the game itself.

9. All stakeholders in Canadian hockey should be educated on Open Ice recommendations.

10. Promote co-operative efforts between school boards, local hockey associations and sponsors to better utilize ice times and move towards development of sport schools. Arenas in Canada sit unused most weekdays until 4 p.m.

11. Expand communication between all partners in hockey with respect to program developments.

The first two recommendations are the most important, at least
that’s what Ken Dryden says. “If we can make headway on the first two, the rest will easily fall in line,” says Dryden. “If we don’t get the first two, the next 50 recommendations won’t matter.”

Bob Nicholson has said that he will try to solicit funds for the recommendations from 4 main groups–the NHL, the NHLPA, the federal government and schools. Schools were included due to the fact that two of the recommendations include the school systems.

It will take time to determine whether the Open Ice Summit was a success or a failure. By the looks of things it could be a success.

Note: The quotations used for this article were taken from an article in the Sept. 10, 1999 issue of The Hockey News.