In the past decade, we have seen fewer Canadians playing in the NHL. There’s been a drop of almost 8%, down from 51.8% in 2009 to 43.6% in 2019. But that drop might be much higher in the next ten years if you look at the significant drop in the % of Canadians being drafted by NHL teams.
Why is this happening?
Before we get to the whys, let’s look at NHL rosters in 2009 compared to 2019.
In the 2008/2009 season 804 players played in 10 or more NHL games. It broke down to 482 forwards, 256 defencemen and 66 goalies. There were 259 Canadian forwards (53.7%), 123 defenders (48%) and 35 goalies (53%) and they made up 51.8% of the NHL.
Fast forward to 2019 where the league has 31 teams and more players. There was 837 players who played 10+ NHL games. The Canadian breakdown was 217 forwards (43.4%), 119 defenders (44.4%) and 29 goalies (41.4%). They completed 43.6% of the rosters.
The biggest drop was in goal, down 11.6% , with a 10.3% drop in forwards and 3.6% dip among defenders.
Many believe it is simply the rest of the hockey world catching up. I suspect that is part of it, but I wonder if the emergence of more year-round hockey, combined with the elite hockey leagues which have popped up the past decade, is actually weakening the overall prospect pool of hockey players in Canada.
Kids as young as seven years old are playing spring hockey or joining “elite” programs. It is happening more and more, and with it means the best coaches are going to a smaller group of players. The prospect pool is shrinking because of this, and it happens at way too young of an age.
The reality is hockey is still considered a late developing sport. The top two or three kids on a team at seven and eight years of age are usually still the best at 14 and 15, and it has been that way for decades. However the kids who are the fourth to 15th best often see massive changes in how they develop over time. Some kids have a growth spurt later. Others are passive at a young age, but become more competitive later. Others aren’t as coordinated at a young age.
Are we decreasing the chance more players are playing competitive hockey by making what are essentially all-star teams at young ages?
The current model seems to put all the best kids on one team early, and lump the rest in lower tiers. Those lower tiers don’t get to face better players, which usually makes everyone else better, and they might not get the same level of coaching. And the top-tier kids are being asked to play more hockey at a younger age than ever before. That limits their overall athletic development, and potentially leads to burning out and losing their passion for the game.
The club teams are grabbing the best coaches and putting them on one staff. Now only the best kids are getting access to the really good coaches. How much is this impacting the overall development of Canada’s prospect pool? I’m not sure, but I think it is very narrow-minded to be placing all the best players on top teams right away. I realize there has always been “A”, “B” and “C” teams, but even the “A” teams had the best players spread out across more teams.
Another major concern about early sport specialization is the risk of injury. Many different studies have been done on this subject, and most conclude the risk of injury increases when you expose your child to sport specialization at a young age. “The musculoskeletal risks are predominantly overuse injuries, as up to 50% of all injuries seen in pediatric sports medicine are related to overuse,” wrote Seamus E. Dalton.
Sport specialization isn’t new. People were writing about in 2006, but it has become much more prevalent in Canada in the past 15 years.
Daryl Nelson has been the head strength and conditioning coach for USA Hockey’s National Team Development program since 2000. He wrote an article in 2017 about sport specialization and how it relates to hockey. He wrote much of it from a training and development mindset.
“For young athletes 12 years old and under, it is absolutely essential that a wide array of sports are played. These sports should be as varied as possible and include vastly different environments. For example, young kids should be doing activities in the water, on fields and courts, on snow and ice, and even some air-born sports. Learning in these environments for kids under ten years old builds a foundation on which they can learn more complex skills later on in their development.”
Despite studies and articles from experts, more and more parents are feeling pressured or encouraging their children into early sports specialization. They feel their son or daughter will fall behind if they don’t. It leads to more injuries, but I am also curious if it is a factor in weakening Canada’s prospect pool for hockey players.
SIGNIFICANT DECREASE AT THE DRAFT…
Here is the breakdown of how many players, by country, were drafted since the 2009.
**The other countries and number of drafted players are: Switzerland (24), Denmark (15), Latvia (12), Belarus (11), Norway (7), United Kingdom (6), Austria, Belgium, France and Ukraine (2) and Slovenia, Lithuania, Neatherlands, Australia, Uzbekistan, Jamaica, Thailand and China with one each.***
In 2009 we saw 102 Canadian players drafted, which was 48.8% of the 210 draft picks.
2019 produced 64 Canadian players drafted, for a total of 29.4% of the 217 draft picks.
That is a significant drop.
The United States, who had the second most players drafted during the same time span, remained virtually the same with 26.1% in 2009 and 26.7% in 2019.
Between 2009-2019 Canada has produced 43.8% of the drafted players (932 of 2,127), while the USA had produced 29.4% (629 of 2,127).
USA was slightly under their average the past two drafts, while Canada has seen a steady decline since 2016, going from 42.1% to 36% to 32% and down to 29.4% in 2019. Russia and Finland have seen a significant increase in drafted players the past three seasons, while Sweden is virtually the exact the same. Sweden was struggling in the early 2000s and made some changes to their Hockey Federation.
Maybe the decline is simply due to other countries producing more players and NHL scouting staffs scouting European players more. USA hockey has more kids playing hockey now, so they might be maintaining simply by having more good players enrolled in hockey. Sweden, however, might be an example to study for Hockey Canada and other associations. In the early 2000s their program was struggling. They realized they had to revamp everything. It didn’t happen overnight, as the changes began in 2002.
They convinced Tommy Boustedt, who was coaching Frolunda at the time, to become the director of youth development for the Swedish Ice Hockey Association. Boustedt explained what was ailing their federation and what changes they needed in an interview with Sunaya Sapurji of the Athletic in 2017.
A few things really stood out for me.
“The problems were at many levels. The recruitment wasn’t good enough. We weren’t retaining enough players to create good programs. We had a lack of development programs for players. Our coaching education wasn’t good enough and that’s because we weren’t producing enough good education materials,” Boustedt explained to Sapurji.
The other one was they had coaches and instructors visiting clubs during the season. Sweden is much smaller geographically than Canada, so it would be harder and very expensive to have Hockey Canada have people travel across the country. Earlier this week in a discussion on my radio show I talked about having someone monitor coaches practices. Would it be up to each association? Each province? Or Hockey Canada? I know it wouldn’t be easy, and there would be a cost, but if you improve coaching, then more players are getting better coaching and will become better players, and likely enjoy the game more.
Could Hockey Alberta set up a program where they hire a few people to go around the province talking to and overseeing coaches? Watch their practices, and see what they are doing right and what needs to improve so the kids are receiving better coaching and doing better drills and activities. Coaching is crucial at young ages, and if the these new elite clubs are taking the best coaches, then Hockey Canada and each provincial association needs to look at how they can retain or attract some of the best coaches.
The other factor is cost, and that is the most difficult one to manage. Hockey is very expensive, and the rising costs force many families out of the game.
During the 1960s through to the 1990s kids played various sports, and often the best athletes played hockey as well as other sports. Many gravitated towards hockey as they got older because of how passionate Canadians are about the game. Many of the best athletes were in hockey.
But today, the best athletes aren’t only playing hockey. Many are playing basketball, football, tennis and a variety of other sports and games. Many immigrants over the past few decades have become big hockey fans, but they aren’t necessarily playing the game. They, or their children, play other sports, and as we have seen in basketball recently, Canada is developing more and more top-end basketball players. And because of that, more kids will start playing and some might leave hockey because of it.
Canada still produces the most hockey players in the world. We are still the best hockey nation, but the numbers have slipped, and other countries are improving. However, while Canada’s numbers have dipped at the draft since 2009, the 2nd and 3rd highest teams, USA and Sweden, haven’t seen a dip in their drafted numbers. As Sweden proved in 2002, a few changes can quickly get things back on track.
I’m leery that specializing in hockey at such a young age is going to help Canada’s development long-term. Hockey is still a late developing sport. We should look at other ways to keep developing elite players, while not overlooking the 99% who won’t become elite, and find ways to have more kids playing hockey longer, with better coaching and better competition.