Search This Blog

Friday, December 17, 2010

Born to Play

Happy Birthday to all of the youth hockey players born in December!
While the festive season really is a wonderful time of the year, it is not necessarily a great time to be celebrating your birthday. Not only do you get bamboozled out of an extravagant birthday celebration and gifts that kids born in other months of the year might get, you also have the privilege of starting out the hockey career race with the equivalent of having both skates untied, your helmet on backwards and a broken stick.

In other words, you have a few more challenges to overcome than kids born in other months of the year.

It is sort of the youth hockey version of drawing the Jail Card in Monopoly. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Go to the end of the line behind all of the bigger, more mature kids born in the July, August or September. You can find them behind the bigger, more mature kids born in March, April or May. And of course they will be directly behind the most fortunate souls, who were born in January, February or March. A January 1st birth date is like winning the hockey lottery. December 31st, not so much.

Obviously there has to be a cut-off, a start date and an end date and ultimately there has to be an oldest and youngest player in each age group. There is no way around that. To me it makes sense to have that cut-off right around the time that the season starts, sort of like they do with school, as opposed to in the middle. But either way you are still going to have a one year gap in age. By using a two-year age group instead of a single birth year, at least the youngest players have the chance very second year to be in the middle of the age group as opposed to always being the youngest.

Why it matters
Right about now you might be asking why it matters? What difference does it make? It does have significance in a couple of different areas.

First of all is opportunity. Clearly, all players are not provided with the same opportunity. And that opportunity, or lack of it, extends across all levels and age groups. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell devoted a whole chapter of his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, to the disparity in birth dates in junior hockey in Canada. As would be expected, junior hockey team rosters are more heavily weighted with players born in the first quarter of the year, followed by players born March through June. There are typically fewer and fewer kids represented in each month as the year progresses.

Not that I think it is all that important that we structure our youth hockey programs with the primary goal of being player factories for the National Hockey League. While that might be a nice by-product of a well structured program, it certainly should not be the main objective. That being said, the fact that a miniscule percentage of youth hockey players do realize their dreams of playing professionally at the highest level makes me think that we should provide that same opportunity to all players, instead of creating a system that unfairly benefits so few who just happen to be born in the right months. And wouldn’t there be potentially significantly more players capable of fulfilling those dreams of playing at a higher level if players in all months were given that same opportunity?

Check the numbers
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the breakdown of players this year on the rosters of the five Detroit area teams in the Minor Midget Division of the Tier One Elite Hockey League: Victory Honda, Honeybaked, Little Caesars, Belle Tire and Compuware.

It should be noted that this age group is for 15 and 16 year olds, 1994 and 1995 birth years, and that it is the first age group comprised of two birth years. All younger age groups are made up of players from one birth year.

Of the 97 players on the rosters of the five teams, 21 players (22%) were born in January, 15 (15%) in February, 19 (20%) in March, 14 (14%) in April, 5 (5%) in both May and June, 4 (4%) in July, 7 (7%) in August, 3 (3%) in September, 2 (2%) in both October and November and exactly zero were born in December. Breaking that down by quarters, 57% of the players were born in the first quarter, 25% in the second, 14% in the third and 4% in the fourth. Doesn’t appear to be much of a chance for the October, November and December kids, does there?

Obviously not every age group of every competitive level will have this distribution. But there is a good chance it will be close in most leagues where the players are chosen by tryouts.

The advantages
It starts at the youngest age groups. In Mite A and AA hockey, for 7 and 8 year olds, the coaches will usually select the biggest, strongest, fastest players on the ice at the tryout. Typically those players are also the oldest players, the ones born earlier in the year. One to three months can make a huge difference in the physical and mental maturity of 7 and 8 year olds. So those kids get an advantage right from the get-go.

To compound the issue, those selected teams often get more ice time than the rest of the teams at their age group. For example a Mite A or AA team typically has three one-hour skates (games or practices) a week while a Mite B (house or drafted) team might only get two one-hour skates per week. And to add to it even further, the A/AA teams usually get the more experienced coaches while the house leaguers often get the dads who might be great guys and do a wonderful job with the kids, but might not have a lot of experience at playing or coaching the game.

So who do you think will be most prepared to make the A or AA team the following year at tryouts? Would you be surprised to find out that it is again the older, bigger, more mature players, many of whom also benefitted from more ice time and more experienced coaching than their peers?

The cycle repeats itself year after year after year all of the way up to Midgets and then on to Junior and above. Obviously there are other factors that influence the outcome, such as how hard a player competes, athleticism, intelligence and this thing called puberty.

But more often than not the herd is pretty much the same herd from year to year. A herd that was thinned far too soon, way before there is any reason to thin it out. And the unfortunate by-product of that thinning is that kids born later in the year are saddled with obstacles that are incredibly difficult for them to overcome.

Don’t they all deserve the same chance? Not just to advance to the higher levels of hockey, but to be in a position to be one of the better players in their age group at some point? How fun can it be to always be starting the race in the back row?
Timing plays a huge role in the game of hockey. The players that are in the right place at the right time have the best chance to impact the game. Those who were born at the right time have the best chance.

Monday, December 6, 2010

How Far Do We Need to Go?

The concept of travel hockey is a very interesting topic, one with a number of different dynamics and several different roads leading in many different directions.

In its most simplistic form, the idea of travel hockey makes good sense. But as often is the case, in our haste to get to the finish line first we push the boundaries of rationality, the train leaves the tracks and we forget why we even got on board in the first place.

In Canada, travel hockey is also referred to as Rep hockey. Tryouts are held for the players within an association and the team selected represents that particular organization at that age and competitive level of hockey. Players not making the cut for that particular team would tryout for the next competitive level down and at some point the remaining players would filter into the recreational or house level of play.

In Michigan it is somewhat similar but at the same time very different. Teams are formed by tryouts but if a player doesn’t make the association team it is pretty easy to travel to a different arena, association or club to find a team that the player can make. It’s not anything close to Rep hockey, because in many cases the players that form the travel teams never ever played in the organization previously. The only connection in terms of representation is that those players get to wear that organization’s colors and use their team name. At least until next season when they could very well be representing a different organization.

But the basic tenet of travel hockey is fundamentally sound. There is a need for different levels of play within the same age group, because of the simple fact that there are some players who, for any number of reasons, are better than many of the other players. It could be because they have played longer, they are bigger and stronger, they are more athletic, they are more competitive or they are more serious. They play a somewhat different version of the game. That is not to say that the rest of the players can’t and shouldn’t play hockey. They absolutely should, and for them, eliminating the more dominant players from the group could very well make the game more enjoyable.

The hard part
That all typically makes sense to groups on both sides. But that is the easy part. The difficult part is determining the line, that cut-off point between B or house hockey and A/AA or Tier II travel hockey. And then a step further to the line between A/AA Tier II hockey and AAA or Tier I hockey? Where exactly is that line? Who determines that line? What does a B or “house player” look and play like? What defines the travel or A/AA player? What exactly is the AAA player? I hear these terms used all of the time to describe the different levels of play, but honestly I really can’t tell the difference in many of the players.

The reality is that there are plenty of house or B players who can play travel or A/AA hockey. There are plenty of A/AA players who can play AAA hockey. They are plenty of players currently playing AAA hockey who would probably have a much better experience if they were playing A/AA hockey. And there plenty of A/AA players who would probably enjoy the game more if they played at the B level.

Actually there are no lines. No black and white. It is all just one big mass of gray. Players can play at the level they choose to. And in some cases the level that a player participates at has more to do with affordability than it does with any playing ability that the player might or might not have. There are plenty of kids playing house hockey who are good enough to play travel but their parents can’t, or choose not to, afford it. There are also plenty of A/AA players whose families can’t commit to the time and money to play AAA hockey. Conversely there are many players playing a higher level of hockey than they probably should be because of the fact that their parents can afford it and are willing to spend that time and money.

Nothing about any of this is necessarily wrong. But it might not be all that right either.

In theory, there should be a clear delineation between players and teams at each of the different levels. But there isn’t. For example some of the better Pee Wee AA teams in the LCAHL are very competitive with some of the weaker Pee Wee Major AAA teams. Can they compete with the top level AAA teams? Probably not. But they also probably would have more competitive games with the lower level AAA teams than they would with the lower level AA teams in their own league. There are also some stronger B teams that would beat some of the weaker AA teams.

No matter how you slice it at any level of youth hockey, there will always be really strong teams and really weak teams at each level. Some would say that the stronger teams should be playing at a higher level and the weaker teams at a lower level. But who are they to say? Who decides where that line is?

Searching for competition
The problem becomes the travel. Our never-ending search for competition always, and I mean always, seems to result in more travel. The stronger teams want better competition so they seek out teams from other areas. The weaker teams get tired of getting beaten upon and look for more competitive games with teams from other areas. Heaven forbid that a Pee Wee AAA team play a local AA team or that a girls Tier I team played a Tier II team. Could you imagine what would happen if the lower level team won? It would be the equivalent of crossing the streams of the Proton Packs used to weaken and capture the ghostly spirits in the movie Ghostbusters. The universe as we know it would end.

So when we choose travel, we get plenty of exactly that. Long distances. Granted there are some places that are forced to travel to play because there are not enough players or teams in their area to be able to play locally. But when there is an area that has plenty of players and teams, does it really make sense to have to leave that area to find competition? And what is the guarantee that traveling longer distances to play will result in more competitive games and better hockey?

Michigan has plenty of players and plenty of teams. At every level. If, and that is a huge if, our priorities were aligned with the best interests of the majority of the players and their families, we would find a way to create realistic, affordable, competitive hockey with a reasonable amount of travel. It could be done.

Believe it or not the Midget Major and Midget Minor age groups in the Tier One Elite Hockey League include teams from Los Angeles to Boston, Dallas to Detroit and everywhere in between. Sure they are broken up into geographical divisions but there is still plenty of travel involved. We are talking about players as young as 15 and 16 here. Is a league this widespread really all that necessary? Are the games that much more competitive, the level of play that much better?

Really you could ask those questions about any level of travel hockey. How far do we need to travel before realize that we have gone too far?