Fan Fuel: Why kids are dropping out of hockey


On the heels of the disappointing outcome at this year’s World Junior Hockey Championship, many are wondering what this result says about the state of the game in Canada. Are we a nation of perennial contenders for the medals who have just run into bad luck? Or is this three year gold-less streak foreshadowing some tough times ahead?

The fact that this conversation is happening across the country as a result of a failure to win points to how we measure success in this country. While this is fine for adults or even young adults, it is absolutely ridiculous to use winning as a measure of youth development.

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Sadly, that is sometimes the only factor considered by parents, coaches and associations.

Success at all levels of minor hockey is increasingly and sometimes exclusively defined by winning. Parents tend to feel that if their child is winning trophies, they must be learning.

Rep and Select teams begin as early as 5 in some associations. Standings and player statistics are published online from Rep to House League. Parents have even created online forums to rate players, teams and coaches. House league teams, as young as tyke, will be in the midst of playoffs in but a few weeks.

Think about that. Players, barely able to skate, will be in playoffs to decide a champion.

Is this about the kids or the parents and the associations?

While Hockey Canada and its Provincial Associations have done a good job in ensuring that its’ coaches are certified and there is an emphasis on skill development, the system in minor hockey is set up to encourage the exact opposite.

A coach that finds his/her team’s results published in a standings format will quickly begin to feel pressure. Be it an internal desire to win, pressure from parents, sponsors, association “evaluators” who might assess his/her ability to progress through the coaching ranks, or a combination of all, the emphasis quickly turns from skill development to that of results.

It’s not that these coaches are inherently evil. It’s simply that the system is set up to conspire against their best intentions.

To get results, a few things happen.

The first is that the concept of development goes out the window. Creativity is sacrificed for instructions to “play it up the boards” and “go to the net.” Kids don’t think for themselves, they are simply drilled to follow a simple game plan which increases the chances of winning.

The second thing that happens is that young players find themselves playing set positions with specific roles. Even worse, players trying out for more competitive teams are slotted into positions and evaluated based on their skill in that role, not on their overall hockey skill. There is obviously a time and place for positional play but that time and place probably isn’t six years old.

Where is this reality getting us?

While the parents might be happy about little Johnny’s tournament win, little Johnny is getting bored and wants to turn off the pressure. The stats back that up.

The truth of the matter is that while hockey is still a popular sport, participation amongst boys aged 5 -14 is declining in this country. Hockey participation amongst boys in that age group declined from 36% to 33.8% from 1998 to 2005, losing its place as the most popular sport amongst youth.

As a comparison, Stats Canada highlights that soccer participation amongst boys was 44.1% in 2005. That’s up from 31.2% in the previous census (1998).

Don’t you have to expose kids to competition if you want them to develop?

Well, imagine a system where nations compete globally and results are scrutinized at the adult level to no end, just like hockey. But now imagine an elite youth training program that emphasizes skill development over results, so much so that standings aren’t kept or published until players reach 14-16 years old?

One where the minimum ratio of training to games is 3:1. And one in which over-enthusiastic parents are asked to leave the facility and the program.

One that has a philosophy that says I will teach you the skills necessary to play this game and allow your creativity to flourish. Once you have them, I will teach you how to win.

That is the reality in many European countries through their “Football (Soccer) Academy” programs and is a growing, albeit small reality here in Canada. Countries that are no more passionate about their game as we are hockey. Countries that have no shortage of trophies. Countries with equal expectations from parents, sponsors, and local clubs.

Perhaps more importantly, these systems exist in countries that have their youth embracing the game vs. turning away from it.

Last night’s result was disappointing to say the least. The fact that we are turning kids away from this game as a result of putting adult pressures and expectations upon their little shoulders is nothing short of being “un-Canadian.”

If we want to keep winning trophies in the decades ahead, we’d be wise to look beyond next year’s coach/players for the World Junior Championships. Instead, we need to focus on what is going on in our local rinks on the weekend and listen to what our kids are saying about the structure we’ve created for them.

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