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Rand Simon's Blog: Hockey ageism hurting kids' chances for success

Alex Pietrangelo, drafted in the first round by the St. Louis Blues in 2008, is one of 15 players on Team Canada's WJC roster born in the first half of the year. (Photo by Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Alex Pietrangelo, drafted in the first round by the St. Louis Blues in 2008, is one of 15 players on Team Canada's WJC roster born in the first half of the year. (Photo by Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)

When Saskatoon Blades left winger Curtis Hamilton was a young boy growing up in Kelowna, B.C. his parents, Bruce and Laureen decided not to register him for kindergarten with the other kids born in 1991.

Bruce, now the GM-owner of the Kelowna Rockets, and Laureen felt Curtis, who was born on Dec. 4, was not quite ready to begin school and so decided to wait a year before registering him.

Unfortunately, parents across Canada don’t have the same option of delaying registration for their children into minor hockey programs, as kids have to be registered with others from their birth year. The result is those born late in the year have much less of a chance succeeding in hockey when compared to the kids born early in the year. In fact, the numbers are downright shocking.

The concept a person’s birthdate can influence his chance for success in hockey is the subject of a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, The Story of Success.

In the book, Gladwell wrote (with only a slight degree of hyperbole), “Those born in the last quarter of the year might as well give up hockey,” if they have any dreams of having a successful career in the sport.

Following up on a study done in the mid-1980s, Gladwell looked at the rosters of elite level hockey teams and discovered, “Canadians start with a false definition of who the best nine- and ten-year-old hockey players are. They’re just picking the oldest every year.”

At an even younger age, it is those early birth date players (who are generally bigger, stronger and more mature than the kids born late in the year) who make up the majority of select teams, giving those players more ice time and better coaching.

Eventually, these are the players who move up through the triple-A system so that, as Gladwell wrote, “by the age of 13 or 14, with the benefit of better coaching and all that extra practice under his belt, he really is better, so he’s the one more likely to make it to the major Jr. A league and from there into the big leagues.”

And that brings us back to Curtis Hamilton, who has made it to the Western League despite being born on Dec. 4, 1991. But Hamilton is the exception that proves the rule. On the Saskatoon Blades, he is the only player born after Sept. 26. Of the 23 players on the team, 16 are born in the first half of the year.

The Blades are not unique in this regard. In looking at the rosters for the top three teams in the WHL (the Blades, Calgary Hitmen and Vancouver Giants), we see 50 of the 69 players are born in the first half of the year. While there are 26 players born between Jan. 1 and March 31, there are only five born in the last three months of the year. Hamilton is the only player born after Nov. 10.

A similar situation exists in the other major junior leagues. In the Ontario League, the top three teams have 51 players born in the first half of the year and only 17 born in the second half. The Quebec League's top three teams have 49 players born in the first half of the year compared to just 24 in the second half. In total, across the nine major junior teams, 150 of the 210 players are born in the first half of the year.

Furthermore, while there are 80 players born between Jan. 1 and March 31, there are only 31 born in the last three months of the year. (And, in case you were wondering, there are actually more births in Canada in the last three months of the year than there are in the first three months. In fact, there are generally fewer births in January and February than in any other month, with August and September tending to be the months with the most births).

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“We have a problem,” Bruce Hamilton said. “The players don’t all have the same chance of making it. Young players are asking, ‘Why am I not being given the same chance as the other guys.’ The numbers tell the story, or rather, the birth dates tell the story.”

And does Hamilton think the powers that be will be open to having the system changed in order to give all players the same odds of making it in hockey no matter when they are born?

“If the mentality is that it can’t change, then we are still in the dark ages,” Hamilton said. “The most important thing is the development of the kids and they have a far better chance of succeeding and developing if they are bracketed with kids their own age.”

Gladwell offered a solution in Outliers: “If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year,” he wrote, “it would today have twice as many hockey stars.”

Hamilton isn’t sure if it would be workable for minor hockey associations to have two leagues for each birth year, but points out extra leagues have been created in the past when age groups have changed or expanded.

The reality is the current situation is blatantly unfair to kids born late in the year and nowhere is it more evident than when looking at the rosters of the elite Canadian teams that will be playing in international tournaments this holiday season.

Of the 22 players on the Canadian national junior team, 15 are born in the first half of the year, including seven of the eight defensemen. Only one of the team’s 20 skaters – University of Wisconsin Badger defenseman Cody Goloubef – was born in November or December.

On Team Ontario, which is one of five Canadian teams competing at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Port Alberni, B.C., there are 19 players born in the first half of the year and only three born July 1 or later, including one of the goalies. There are no players on the team born after Oct. 16.

The situation on Team Pacific is, perhaps, even more dramatic. Eighteen of the 22 players are born in the first half of the year and the team does not have a single player born after Aug. 19.

In total, among the five Canadian teams at the tournament, 81 of the 110 players are born in the first half of the year.
So does Bruce Hamilton ever wish Curtis had been born just a few weeks later, therefore giving him a better shot at success in hockey?

“Oh yeah, and his coaches said the same thing,” Hamilton said. “If he had been born a few weeks later he would have been playing peewee for another year and been a dominant player.

“Being an older guy in his class at school gave him more responsibility from his teachers, but then in hockey he was always the youngest guy. He has always been a better player after Christmas when he had a chance to catch up to the older players.

“He’s lucky he had coaches who believed in him and put him on teams even though he was the youngest.”

Curtis Hamilton is lucky. Most other players born late in the year don't get that opportunity. Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. Discriminating against someone based on the time of year he is born is nonsensical.

The current system is unfair and is keeping Canada from producing more elite hockey players. It is a situation that needs to change and the sooner, the better.

Rand Simon is an NHLPA certified agent. He has spent the past 15 years with Newport Sports Management Inc. You can read his other THN.com Insider Blogs HERE.

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