Hockey Canada has recently announced a new mandate, nationwide, which will enforce cross-ice play as opposed to the traditional full-ice play for all registered Canadian hockey players aged five and six years-old.
Starting in the upcoming 2017-18 season, all five and six year old players from coast to coast will no longer be playing full-
ice games. Instead, ice surfaces will be divided up into three zones, where players will only use the width of the ice for their games.
Hockey Canada says the change will help promote skill development for players newly introduced to the sport. The aim is to better engage players, especially those of an average or lower skill level. Hockey Canada’s Vice-President of membership development, Paul Carson, thinks the cross-ice platform will do just that.
“We know statistically when you’re in a smaller playing area it increases the number of puck touches, it increases the number of battles for loose pucks, it increases the number of shots on goal, it increases the number of passes and pass receptions,” explained Carson.
The flow of play Carson describes would be a sharp contrast to what is often found in five and six year old hockey games: one or two above average players controlling the puck and scoring the goals, leaving many of the other players simply following along, not touching the puck.
The statistics are there to back up Carson’s, and Hockey Canada’s, argument for cross-ice play at the initiation level. Among a bevy of other benefits, statistics do show that more shots on goal and puck possession is generated on a smaller, cross-ice playing surface. Even more convincingly, you can look beyond the stats at what other hockey nations have been doing at the same age level.
In the United States, all registered hockey players aged eight and under, regardless of their skill level, play cross-ice games – and it has officially been that way since 2013. Several European countries like Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic have been playing cross-ice hockey games since the 1990’s, with some areas enforcing the smaller playing surface for players as old as ten. As for whether the argued benefits really do make an impact in the long term development of a player, look no further than the most recent NHL entry draft.
In the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, only two of the top ten picks were Canadian players (coming in at no. 3 and no. 10 overall, respectively). The other eight were those same countries that have been implementing cross-ice games for years – the United States, Finland, and Sweden.
However, despite the recent evidence pointing in the direction of cross-ice games being a net-benefit for young hockey players, the results are not conclusive. Team Canada has continued to dominate in national competition, especially at the highest tier – the Olympic stage. With teams composed of Canadian players who did not grow up playing on smaller ice surfaces, the Canadian men’s and women’s national teams have not missed a beat in international competition. The primary fear, for many officials in Hockey Canada, is how quickly other countries are catching up.
Although, the stark reality is that the vast majority of Canadian hockey players – and hockey players around the world – do not make it pro, let alone one day play in the NHL. They spend their time playing in local communities, traveling on competitive rep teams, and honing their skills until they reach adult leagues; and it is those players who will feel the impact of Hockey Canada’s new cross-ice mandate.
While the argued benefits of cross-ice hockey are persuasive, not everyone is convinced. Hockey parents like Jamie Handy, who’s son will be affected by the new mandate next season, worry that the new cross-ice play might more of a detriment than a benefit. “To me, it sounds like you’re running the risk of losing the game itself. For five and six year old hockey players, the focus shouldn’t be all about the games, it should be about the practices and skill development,” explains Handy.
“With the full-ice, even if players aren’t touching the puck as much, it gives them the opportunity to work on their skating. At their age, it should be skating as the most important thing, not how many shots they get per game.”
Handy, like many other hockey parents, is concerned about the jump young players will have to take. Going from playing cross-ice games with less than five players at once, without any positions, no lining up for face-offs, and no off-sides will be a unique challenge for many players. The worry is that the jump might be too difficult for some players, setting them back as they grow older.
The newly-implemented cross-ice mandate comes in the wake of declining hockey registration numbers across Canada. While the Canadian population has risen steadily in the last decade, hockey registrations have not.
In 2012, Canada had around 615,000 registered hockey players, including males, females, seniors and youth. Hockey Canada saw a boost in 2014, with about 712,000 registered players in the country; however, as the nation’s population swelled past 35 million in 2016, the number of Canadians playing hockey sharply decreased to just under 640,000, with the numbers continuing to trend downward. The most problematic part of the sharp decrease, was that boys hockey under the age of twenty saw the largest loss.
Coinciding with Hockey Canada’s 2014 registration peak was a study released which took a look at Canada’s most popular youth sports. Hockey, Canada’s sport, was not the most popular activity for Canadians under the age of 17. Hockey fell to fourth place in terms of the most played sports in Canada, with only one team sport ranking higher – soccer.
Among new Canadians, which compose a large chunk of Canada’s population, soccer was the most popular sport, followed by basketball, with hockey checking in at only the third most popular. The study found that sports like soccer and basketball were perceived as being more about “fun”, while many perceived hockey as “highly competitive”, yet also “risky and dangerous”. As well, the ever-rising costs associated with youth hockey have played a role in the stagnation – and decline – of youth hockey registration numbers.
The new cross-ice mandate has been crafted to also assist in mitigating these difficulties, hoping to make the introduction to hockey far easier, safer, and more fun for new, young players and families. The new changes will come into effect, Canada-wide, for the upcoming 2017-18 season, impacting players born in 2011 and 2012.