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Monday, March 8, 2010

Hockegeddon

This just might be it. It could be the time. The cataclysmic event, the violent upheaval that finally results in significant change in the youth hockey world in Michigan. Just maybe.

But why? And why now? What is so different about this year from previous years? The answer is uncertainty. And this year there appears to be much, much more of it than there has ever been before.

The signs have been there for several years now. Each year we have spun a little more out of control, careening wildly down a slippery slope. But somehow, someway, things always seem to find a way to come together. We manage to stay in control and get through yet another season.
This year we might have reached the tipping point. Where that will take us I have no idea. But it could prove to be an interesting ride.

The 1990’s was a fantastic decade for hockey, and for that matter many other facets of life in Michigan. The economy was humming along with the auto industry locked on cruise control in the fast lane.
Team USA’s miracle on ice gold medal winning performance at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid had sparked unprecedented interest in a generation of new hockey families.

After fifteen years of mediocrity, the Red Wings embarked on what would become a twenty plus year run of excellence as the model franchise in the National Hockey League. New ice arenas opened all over the state, many in areas that had never had hockey before. Older facilities added a second sheet or upgraded to handle the increased demand. Hockey participation experienced remarkable growth at every level of the game. Hockey life was good.

Adapting and changing
All good things eventually come to an end, don’t they? Eventually. Some more quickly than others. It depends on the ability to adapt and change with the times. The Red Wings have been a great example of longevity, having changed general managers, gone through several coaches and re-tooled their roster a number of times to stay ahead of the game and maintain their level of success. But it’s not easy to do.

Even before the economy went south, the youth hockey world in Michigan started its decline as the new millennium began. Fewer players were getting into the game at the younger ages, which was the first sign that trouble was brewing somewhere down the road. But those signs were not really that easy to see. There were still plenty of players and plenty of teams. There was incredible demand for prime time ice time. Smooth sailing. Right?

That’s what they thought on the Titanic too until they took their eye off of the horizon and failed to notice the iceberg in the way.

Lots of players, lots of teams and lots of demand for prime ice times. But the players have to come from somewhere don’t they? For many arenas, associations or independent teams attracting players was no problem. How? Create the demand. What’s the demand? Tryout-based hockey teams.
That’s the easy part. Let the market decide. There are a number of reasons why players, and more often their parents on their behalf, choose tryout based hockey teams. For some it is the desire to play at the highest level - in some cases reality, in others in perception or in name only. Most Tier I or AAA teams never have and never will have trouble getting players. There are always enough people looking to be upwardly mobile. The better Tier I or AAA teams are oftentimes constantly re-stocked with the better players from the weaker teams that they beat up on year after year. Why be the best player on a weak team? If you can’t beat ‘em, join em.

More stratification
Other tryout-based teams at the A and AA level utilize the same model to attract players to their teams. Now there are even very clear stratifications between the upper level A/AA teams and the lower level teams in the same age group. The better teams have no problem finding players, the weaker teams take what they can get to fill their roster.

The desire to play at a higher level is not the only reason that the majority of players migrate to tryout-based teams. For some they just want to play with friends, something that they can’t necessarily do in B level leagues where teams are formed by drafts. Others want to get away from the sometimes perceived, sometimes very real, politics and personal agendas that can be a part of some associations. Some seek out the best coaching. Some coaches don’t want to play by any rules except their own, they want to do things their way and answer to no one.

Some parents want to get their players away from the "weaker players", to a level that "challenges" their player to develop. While there is some merit to that, in many cases it can ironically have the exact opposite result. Some parents need the status of a higher level. No way their child should be playing at the lowest level.

Icebergs ahead
The list goes on and one. The result is that there are way more tryout-based or travel teams than there were ten years ago. And this comes at a time when there are less players entering the game. While we have all been strutting around like peacocks in an effort to attract someone else’s players to our team to form the best team or in some cases to just have enough players to even have a team, nobody has been watching the horizon. There are plenty of icebergs ahead.

Who is feeding this monster? Does anybody know? Does anybody care? We’re about to find out. The biggest bubble of players born in the 90’s has almost moved its way through. Very few arenas or associations have been putting the time and effort into getting more new players into the game. Why should they when it is so easy just to attract them from somewhere else? More tryout-based teams. Less players in the player pool. Less house league and entry level hockey opportunities available for players to get started playing. Something has got to give. And it will. Soon.

This year there are even more tryout-based teams. In a weirdly ironic twist, in an effort to move toward "compliance" with USA Hockey’s American Development Model, which was created with the intent of getting more players into the game and giving more players the opportunity to develop into better hockey players, many organizations are adding even more tryout-based teams to their programs. New players? No. Players from somewhere else? Hopefully.

It’s the modus operandi of hockey in Michigan. We want freedom to play anywhere we want to. We want freedom to form our teams from players from anywhere we want. And there is nothing wrong with that. We should have that right. But with freedom and rights also comes responsibility.

Nobody seems to want that though. Nobody has been watching the door. Not enough new players have been coming through it. And now the-you-know what is going to hit the fan. There are not enough players for all of these teams. Many will fold. Already struggling rinks will be hit even harder and some will shut their doors for good. More opportunities will be lost for players to get into the game.

Freedom of choice and a market-driven approach can sometimes be good. But sometimes the competitive pressures of the marketplace can lead us in a direction that is best not to go.

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