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10-28-2013, 08:48 AM
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Basic issue since the seventies and before is that the various governing bodies under the C.A.H.A. or Hockey Canada, is that they are not pro-active, rather very slow to re-act. The relationship with school hockey is weaker than it was in the fifties when some of the original elite organizations were formed.

That pretty much nails it. The last thing I want to do is over-simplify the current situation, where just 1-in-10 Canadian boys are registered in HC-sanctioned programs.

But the easiest way to increase this number is through the creation of vibrant, school-based youth hockey programming. For context, consider that a typical 10 year old boy in a class of 20 (10 boys, 10 girls) is likely the ONLY boy playing minor hockey. He’s an anomaly, and that’s both absurd and unnecessary.

I’m convinced that school-based hockey programming would change this in a hurry, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for this to occur. Frankly, Hockey Canada is an extraordinary unique governing body for youth sport in that it is structurally and philosophically hostile to educational institutions – even “Hockey Canada Skills Academies,” which are based out of elementary and high schools, are structured in ways that almost guarantee meager participation rates. Just ask if you want to know more.

Most troubling is the inability to integrate diversity. Alliance Hockey, a parallel option and off-season AAA hockey being two immediate examples.

What I expect to see over the next 5-10 years is the emergence of a youth hockey stream similar to what has already occurred in US youth basketball, where children as young as 7 are recruited into shoe company/AAU-sponsored “elite programs” operating completely outside of traditional American roundball development systems. I’ve looked into the American youth basketball situation in some depth and will simply offer the following in relation to the near-term future of youth hockey in Canada: a) never underestimate the unbelievable reach of the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union), which only recently moved back into sanctioning youth hockey on both sides of the border after a near 60 year hiatus; b) don’t discount the coast-to-coast phenomenon called “Spring Hockey” across North America, which happily thrives outside of Hockey Canada’s auspices and is an unstoppable juggernaut ; and c) expect Hockey Canada to (eventually) react strongly to the evolving youth hockey landscape, but not in ways that actually increase the organization’s registration numbers. The organization is not good at building partnerships – “integrating diversity,” as you term it, C58 – and tends to operate on a war footing whenever a real or imagined threat is identified. The national “Outlaw League” HC regulation, which would never fly under US Sherman Anti-Trust law, is but one example of HC’s sometimes inexplicable approach to stewardship.

That said, there has been a great deal of progress during the last 10 seasons especially at the elite levels and eliminating the violence. More of a Dave Branch initiative than anything.

True enough, C58. Personally, I have grown to admire the 21st century Dave Branch much more than the 1987 version, which is the one who defended the Piestany fiasco with, in retrospect, such embarrassing fervor. The man has evolved, no question, and his handling of the Michael Liambis situation (a 20 year old nearly killing a 16 year old) was close to exemplary. Further, I’ve actually met him and shared a coffee alone with him at a local Timmies a few years ago, when he was in my town as a minor hockey coach for a Whitby AAA team. He is very hard not to like, and I do find him engaging.

But Branch is also symbolic of a larger issue which is rarely talked about. The following is NOT some sort of conspiracy theory – as I said, Branch is SYMBOLIC of an issue, not “the” issue. Let me explain.

Branch was an executive vice-president in the CAHA until 1979, when he became the Commissioner of the OHL. That same year, 1979, Murray Costello assumed the reins of the CAHA. Branch became President of the CMJHL (forerunner of the CHL), the integrated QMJHL/WHL/ OHL major junior hockey body, in 1996, just two years after the merger between Hockey Canada, the CAHA, and the CMJHL. Prior to this tripartite merger, Canada’s major junior hockey leagues operated completely outside of CAHA jurisdiction.

The obvious question is “why the change of heart by the three major junior entities?”

The answer is buried in the Hockey Canada fine print: the merger of the three entitites (HC, CAHA, CMJHL) in 1994 gave the CJHL “full member partner” status within the new Hockey Canada. Everybody else is simply a Hockey Canada “affiliate.” And ever since, the CHL (as it is now named) has exerted a level of control over Hockey Canada and youth hockey that is, to my mind, frightening. This control also goes a long way to explain the “anti-education” stance of Hockey Canada over the last two decades.

A few simple examples: when the province of Ontario completely eliminated grade 13 in 2002 (the year the last cohort of students passed through a 5-year high school experience), two other interesting minor hockey developments took place, beginning with the 2002-03 season: 1), the birth years for each minor hockey series (eg, Novice, Atom, etc.) were changed so that kids were one year younger when they began the cycle; 2) the OHL draft would now be a MINOR midget draft instead of a MAJOR midget draft.

Net impact? The “lock them up early” approach, in concert with the elimination of grade 13, was a strong deterrent to Ontario youths pursuing NCAA hockey instead of major junior hockey. Today, kids are drafted into the OHL when they are finishing grade 10, and would need to finish two more years of high school before being in a position to pursue NCAA hockey. Most won’t wait that long. The Bantam draft of 14 year olds in the WHL is an even more extreme reaction to the perceived threat of NCAA (eg, school-based) hockey.

There is an almost diabolical agenda here: let’s be honest, the overwhelming majority of 16 year olds coming out of minor hockey in Ontario (or 14 year olds out west) have virtually no chance of earning spots on major junior hockey clubs. These leagues are predominantly for 18-20 year olds. But the NCAA eligibility rules are clear: spend more than 48 hours in a CHL camp, or dress for so much as one exhibition game, and you are forever ineligible to be an NCAA student-athlete in the US.

All of which means that a just-turned 16 year old Ontario kid who goes to rookie camp with the Sarnia Sting for a week in August has no viable way of pursuing education and athletics at an elite level in North America. And make no mistake about it, this is by Hockey Canada design.

Odd, given that Dave Branch attended U-Mass (Amherst) on a hockey scholarship and played NCAA hockey himself. But Hockey Canada’s near obsession with manipulating minor hockey so it is little more than a closed-shop feeder system for the CHL is undeniable.

Best that I stop here . . .

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