Story by Tanner Ziprick:
With the new cross-Ice Initiation regulation being implemented by Hockey Manitoba this year, there are a lot of questions surrounding player development. Former CJOB radio personality and hockey analyst, Jim Toth, hosted a 2-on-1 discussion in Winnipeg on September 25th and 26th with experts on the topic, beginning with TSN’s Craig Button and The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell at Hockey Manitoba’s 3rd Annual Season Opener.
“Hockey is part of Canada’s fabric and we need to emphasize its roots,” says Button, a former General Manager of the Calgary Flames and Director of Scouting for TSN. “The NHL is a dream for a lot of kids, but we have to be realistic about that dream and I think as parents, coaches, and administrators, it’s our job to make sure that dream is still fun too.”
The Initiation Program was designed for beginners (5 and 6-year-olds) and it combines the motion of developing important skills and physical proficiency before directing the kids towards the competitive aspect of the game. It’s believed to be essential that players learn the basic athletic and teamwork requirements to play the game of hockey before being hurried beyond their maturation and skill set. To develop these ideas, Hockey Manitoba has stated that all games and practices at the “initiation level” will use modified ice surfaces consisting of cross-ice sections, splitting the full rink into three or four smaller playing areas. Reducing the size of the playing surface results in more opportunity for players to develop their skills and participate more in the play.
“The numbers don’t lie”, says Campbell. “It’s a fact that the kids will touch the puck more, they’ll shoot more, and they’ll pass more in the cross-ice system”. The senior writer for The Hockey News and co-author of Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and Their Kids are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession, says “Sweden has been using the cross-ice system for a while now and when you think about how good guys like Peter Forsberg and Henrik Zetterberg are at protecting the puck, you have to know that it’s in result of playing on a much smaller ice surface.”
Shrinking the ice surface for initiation level players is also meant to lead to the players having to make more decisions, speed up their reaction time, force them to find open space, help them read pressure and establish offensive and defensive body position.
“Hockey is one of the rare sports where we don’t shrink the playing surface to develop the skills of players – almost all of the other team sports are doing that already,” says Button. “There isn’t any question that kids want to win when they play, but I think we need to let these kids know that it’s the process and the skill development that needs to come first.”
Winnipeg Jets General Manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, was interviewed by Toth on the second day of the 3rd Annual Season Opener.
“When people think about hockey, they think about it at its purest form. Going up and down 200 feet of ice in a wide open game,” says Cheveldayoff. “But I think to improve, you need to get more touches and be able to dangle around in tight areas and just find more ways to be creative. Even at the NHL level, I know there are coaches out there that when they want to trick their players into working hard, they’ll break the ice up into sections and play mini games to get them moving more and working harder. The guys don’t really notice that it’s hard work because they’re having fun.”
Another topic that all three guests shared similar views on is the amount of time and money families are dedicating to hockey. Perhaps, they believe, a little too much.
“Even Wayne Gretzky, who in my opinion is the greatest hockey player of all-time, has sustained his belief over and over again: you don’t need to play hockey all year round to become a great hockey player. And I totally agree with him,” states Campbell. “Personally, I think spring and summer hockey is a complete bamboozle that does nothing but take money out of families’ wallets. I think this whole spring and summer hockey thing is a fabrication that is just giving those families a reason to try and keep up with Jones’.”
Button added to Campbell’s point; “And I think some people are beginning to realize that skating 12 months of the year isn’t the best thing for their kid and that there are other things outside of hockey. As parents you need to let them try other sports, encourage them to develop other skills outside of the game.”
“Rest is also something that’s very important for a player’s development,” says Cheveldayoff. “Whether it’s for a couple months or a couple days, sometimes players will just need some time off to recuperate because they’ve hit a plateau in their development. This can be mistaken as the player not working hard enough, but it’s actually because they’ve been working too hard and they need to rest their bodies. It’s about working smarter, not harder.”
Campbell agrees, and says that even doctors are seeing that the amount of hockey a lot of these kids are playing is taking a toll on their bodies.
“Doctors are seeing repetitive injuries on kids that they’re seeing on 30-year-olds, all because of the stress that is being put on these kids’ bodies from playing all year long.”
Toth closed the discussion on the first day of Season Opener with a crowd-pleasing question for local hockey fans: How will the Winnipeg Jets do in the upcoming hockey season?
“I like the way the Jets are built now and for the future,” says Button. “Where they have to improve in order to succeed though, is in the area of stick infraction penalties. They just take too many penalties on the wrong side of the puck. But I think Paul Maurice sees that and I think he’s going to change that this year.”
“Getting Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien signed to long-term contracts wouldn’t hurt either” adds Campbell.