Junior hockey: Canada's problems are systemic

Taking Note

Gregg Drinnan / Kamloops Daily News
January 7, 2014 01:00 AM

Brent Sutter, head coach of the Canadian junior hockey team and the WHL's Red Deer Rebels, says there's too much focus on winning and losing hockey games at a young age.

The navel gazing began on Saturday, as Canada's national junior team was dropping a 5-1 - five-to-freaking-one! - semifinal decision to Finland at the world junior hockey championship in Malmo, Sweden.

It continued Sunday after a 2-1 loss to Russia in the game for third place.

Canada, then, finished fourth in the latest edition of this tournament and that's about where we belong.

There was a time, not that long ago, when this was Canada's tournament to lose. Don't look now but Canada hasn't won a medal in either of the last two tournaments and hasn't won the whole thing since 2009.

Keep in mind that the 2009 victory was the fifth straight year in which Canada won gold.
Yes, this once was our tournament, as sure as maple syrup and Mike Duffy are Canadian, too.

If you are a regular observer of this tournament, you should have recognized early on that this Canadian team was lacking in speed, skill and skating ability, all necessary to perform at a high level on the larger international ice surfaces.

As the tournament progressed, it also became abundantly clear that the national junior teams of Finland, the eventual winner, Sweden and Russia were better than Canada.

That isn't likely to change, either, not unless Hockey Canada makes some drastic changes to the way minor hockey operates in this country.

The tears weren't even dry on Sunday when Canadian head coach Brent Sutter was telling Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun:

"There's too much focus on winning and losing at such a young age, and not enough about the skill part of it. That's truly where it starts. At 16, 17 when they hit the Canadian Hockey League, there should already be a standard of skill in place.

"I think there are times there is too much focus on winning and losing hockey games and X's and O's at a young age and not enough on developing the skill sets."

Sutter, having had an up-close look at the other world junior teams, added:

"When you're in this, you see it first-hand. You see where the skill-sets are in some of these other countries, the speed of the game they play at.

"It's pretty astonishing how some of these teams have grown in that area."

Sutter is correct.

The problem is systemic in our minor hockey system - there is too much teaching of systems, which only serves to limit creativity. There are far too many games being played and not nearly enough practice sessions that focus entirely on skill development.

If you haven't noticed, the hockey that is being played in the WHL is a mere shadow of its former self. This is because of a shrinking talent pool that is due, at least in part, to declining registration in minor hockey, and far too many teams at the major junior, junior A, NCAA and other competitive levels, something that limits the number of skilled players who are able to play together and learn and develop creativity from each other.

Every WHL team has three or four (or more) players on its roster who shouldn't be in the league. They aren't good enough to compete at this level, but they are there because of a dearth of talent in the pool of available players.

(Sheesh! The Prince George Cougars on Saturday night dressed 16 skaters, two under the allowable limit. They had three players at the U17 World Hockey Challenge and seven others out with injuries. How is a team expected to replace 10 players when there just aren't good players available?)

While we're at it, let's call a halt to hockey as a year-round sport. Young players should be playing baseball, soccer, lacrosse . . . anything but spending 12 months of the year working at hockey. Perhaps that would help get rid of the burnout factor and put more fun and creativity back into the game.

Brent Sutter said one other thing after Sunday's game. "This," he said, "was the best we had."

That being the case, it has to be enough to make Hockey Canada take stock. Change can't come fast enough to impact next winter's tournament, which is to be split between Toronto and Montreal. In fact, considering the glacial pace at which change happens in organizations like Hockey Canada, any impact on the national junior program would be at least five years away.

But when someone like Sutter says "this was the best we had" after a fourth-place finish, well, if that doesn't spur change, nothing will.

Unless fourth place is good enough for Hockey Canada.

(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at gdrinnan@kamloopsnews.ca.)

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