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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.

3 comments:

  1. All these facts are true. My son, 11 is a july birthday and late bloomer, this year he got passed over, on his travel team, for bigger kids. Not nessesarily faster and not smater. It is really hard to break into a different team because they don't know the best advantages of a player at try outs, it is uassulally the bigger faster kids that get picked. We are now in House, playing less frequent. ( the up side is less cost less milage on the car) the question is where to go from here?

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  2. My kid is born in December 2000. He is small, but has the speed and skill to easily compete in travel. I sort of agree with the argument, but many of the best kids, ala Mike Modano, are playing up in age anyway, making this argument less relavent. BTW, I saw Modano play Squirt AAA major as a Mite aged kid and dominate the ice regularly.

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