As Canada’s official winter sport, hockey is tightly woven into the fabric of Canadian identity. Canada has more registered hockey players and more Olympic and World Championship gold medals in hockey than any other country in the world.
But recent trends suggest that hockey’s place in Canadian identity may be at a crossroads. After peaking at 639,510 members during the 2014-2015 season, Hockey Canada’s registration numbers have since declined. Meanwhile, Canada’s national hockey teams are lacking their once-typical dominance. And in 2019, the number of Canadian players drafted into the NHL hit a 10-year low.
To entice new players, Hockey Canada’s website makes a heartfelt pitch to parents: playing hockey will help their child make new friends, get in shape and build character, among other important skills.
However, our research suggests that the structure and culture of minor hockey in Canada — a professional sports model that focuses on competition and performance from early childhood — is limiting the potential benefits for young players.
As a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Kinesiology and Health Science at York University, I was part of a research team that included associate professor Jessica Fraser-Thomas and graduated PhD student, Cassidy Preston, who is now a full-time sport psychology consultant. Our research was concerned with how to optimize the physical, social and emotional development of children and youth in sport, and we recently published the second of three studies examining if (and how) minor hockey coaches facilitate positive youth development among their players.
Positive youth development involves fostering personal assets, such as competence, confidence and character, through organized activities like sport. These assets are critical for long-term sport participation, and for some, elite-level sport performance.
Limits to positive development
Specifically, our research revolved around the experiences of team lead, Cassidy Preston - a former Ontario Hockey League and university athlete who honed his skills in the Ontario minor hockey system. After critically reflecting on his own experiences as the head coach of a boys’ AAA minor hockey team, he joined the coaching staff of four other boys’ AAA teams in a large urban Ontario centre. The players ranging in age from nine to 15 years old, and played at the highest competitive level of minor hockey in Canada (AAA).
As an insider — that is, an accepted member of the group under study — Preston observed and interviewed the head coach of each team over the course of an eight-month season. The four coaches were identified as model coaches by the organization’s president. And indeed, our research showed that these coaches were capable of and motivated to foster athletes’ personal assets in addition to their hockey-specific skills.
Despite their best efforts, the competition-focused structure of the sport — the pressure to win — limited opportunities for coaches to nurture the long-term development of their athletes. For example, teams spent the same amount of time in practices as they did in games and a key objective of the regular season was to make the playoffs. Consequently, practices were largely focused on short-term strategies for winning the next game, as opposed to developing the individual skills of each player.
Return on investment
Notably, for players between the ages of seven and 13, Hockey Canada recommends a ratio of two (or more) practices for every game played — claiming that one efficient practice will provide a player with more opportunities for skill development that 11 games combined. However, minor hockey associations are not required to follow these guidelines.
Players’ parents also played a key role in driving the pressure to win. As parents invested time and money into their child’s hockey participation — from ice time and equipment to travel and coaching fees — the coaches in our study felt pressured to achieve results. For example, after a loss, one coach recounted a situation in which a player’s parent told him that “[he] should be embarrassed” and that “it was [his] job” to make sure the team wins games.
For parents of aspiring athletes, college scholarships and professional contracts are carrots dangled in front of their noses. And while soaring costs and year-round training schedules are barriers to sport participation for many families (particularly those from low-income households), the desire to set up their kids for success means that parents often buy into a culture that normalizes a win-at-all-costs mentality.
Costs of winning
Ironically, the competition-oriented structure and win-at-all-costs culture limits opportunities for players to develop not only hockey-specific skills, but also personal assets such as making friends and building character. The way that coaches allocate playing time — if and how much a player is on the ice during a game — is a prime example of this dilemma.
In our research, for instance, athletes were often required to earn playing time through their performance in practices and games. Playing time could also be cut if an athlete failed to meet coaches’ performance-related expectations. The way the coaches managed playing time could be viewed as a strategy to instill work ethic or resilience, but the best players were often rewarded with playing time regardless of whether they worked hard or not. In fact, for the majority of players, the coaches were cutting opportunities for learning and growth at a critical time in development.
This work raises questions about whether the minor hockey system is promoting the long-term participation and development of young Canadians. In contrast, the efforts of organizations such as USA Hockey and Canada Soccer serve as models of success when it comes to nation-wide participation and performance on the international stage.
Tackling the win-at-all-costs culture head-on, Canada Soccer does not allow league standings and programs are built around small-sided games (fewer players on a smaller field) for players up to the age of 12.
Taking a similar approach, USA Hockey encourages a 3:1 practice-to-game ratio featuring station-based practices and small-area (or cross-ice, when games are played across the width of the rink rather than the length) games “to deliver more repetitions, more puck touches and more skill development per hour of ice time.”
Although Hockey Canada has introduced similar guidelines for player development, pushback — largely from parents — has slowed progress. Most recently, Hockey Canada mandated cross-ice games for players up to nine years old. Despite controversy, the policy comes into effect for the 2019-2020 season.
Profound systemic changes are needed for hockey to preserve its place as one of Canada’s most popular and successful sports. But are Canadians ready to embrace those changes?