Pat LaFontaine speaks during the NHL Declaration of Principles press conference
The NHL and NHLPA's newfound Declaration of Principles is well-intentioned, but the stakeholders need to go all-in in order to really grow the game at a grassroots level.
Over the Labor Day weekend, a minor hockey association in suburban Toronto tweeted a picture of a group of young boys and their coaches standing proudly in their off-ice, team-issued warm-up suits, arm-in-arm on a soccer field. The tweet talked about how the AAA minor atom team was, “preparing on the field and on the ice before the season starts.” It also pointed out that the team was made up of boys who were born in 2008 and that they were training at a high-end resort north of Toronto. So that’s how a bunch of 8- and 9-year-old kids spent the last weekend of the summer, the last weekend they had to just be kids before a busy school and hockey season.
We point that out amid the backdrop of Wednesday’s NHL/NHL Players’ Association spearheaded Declaration of Principles, a rather Orwellian-sounding but well-intentioned manifesto of eight core beliefs crafted by the NHL, the NHLPA and 17 of the world’s most influential hockey entities. It embodies and officially codifies all the things that make hockey the great game that it is – respect, humility, acceptance, teamwork, courage and perseverance.
All of which is admirable and good. No question about that. And kudos to the NHL and the players’ association for leading the charge on this. But if the end game is truly to get more kids involved and to enhance the hockey experience and not just an end-around to implement a 19-year-old draft, it’s going to take a lot more than a generally worded bunch of beliefs to stop some of the craziness that exists in minor hockey.
Hockey as a pursuit for any young boy or girl represents a great way to learn about life and pick up skills along the way. At its most grassroots level, hockey is more affordable than a lot of people think and far less time-consuming than the perception that exists. It is a wonderful game that, entered into with the proper perspective, can provide any young person with tools for life and provide a competitive environment that promotes all those things that are in the Declaration of Principles.
The problem with minor hockey occurs when children, and more often their parents, begin to see hockey as an investment that needs to have some kind of return. In a 2016 rant that went viral, University of Connecticut women’s coach Geno Auriemma talked about how difficult it is to recruit kids who have a true joy for the game and who have an appreciation for when their teammates do something well. “They’re always thinking about themselves,” Auriemma said. “Me, me, me, me…”
And that’s at the root of much of the issues that minor hockey faces. Instead of hockey being a pursuit that is part of a well-rounded experience, for many it has become a 12-month-a-year pursuit where well-intentioned parents are willing to spare no expense and make any life sacrifice because they fear their children will be left behind in a system that is set up to fail because it creates elite streams of players as young as eight years old and allows a system to exist where only those who can make those financial and family sacrifices have an opportunity to excel.
And as we said, no vaguely worded Declaration of Principles is going to stop that freight train. What I’d love these stakeholders to do is to actually put some weight behind these principles and take aim at those who are making participation in minor hockey a business. And there is no shortage of people and institutions doing just that. If the NHL, the NHLPA and the other 17 hockey stakeholders really want to see the game grow at the grassroots level, the Declaration of Principles is a wonderful place to start. But along with the eight that it currently has, I’d like to see a few more added that are a lot more direct. Such as:
* We believe that there should be no elite, rep hockey played by children younger than 13 years old.
* We believe that spring and summer hockey are more detrimental and harmful to young players than helpful and we strongly urge players to use their off-seasons playing other sports or pursuing other hobbies.
* We believe that ‘The 10,000-hour rule’ is a bunch of bunk that is almost impossible for any young hockey player to manage and should be ignored. Having a well-rounded, diverse athlete with multiple skills is far more valuable than a person who singularly devotes him or herself to one pursuit.
* We believe that any equipment manufacturer that enters into a licensing agreement with the NHL have a separate marketing campaign that focuses on mass participation and grassroots hockey and makes parents and players aware that there are a number of lower-priced options when it comes to equipment.
* We believe that all minor hockey teams and associations should strive to have a 2:1 ratio of practices over games.
* We believe that having young players participate in 80-100 games per year is harmful to their development. So is having them play seven games in a weekend tournament.
* We believe that participating in hockey and other sports is a health and welfare issue and we urge legislative bodies to devote more infrastructure money to building publicly subsidized indoor and outdoor rinks to keep the costs of ice time down for families.
Of course, that would require some of the very stakeholders who have backed the Declaration of Principles to radically change their way of thinking. But if the idea here is to do what’s best for everyone and make a strong statement about core values, it requires everybody involved in the conversation to put their interests aside and do the right thing.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.