Minor hockey, major uproar: Controversy over cross-ice vs. full length for house-league kids

Hockey Canada mandated last March that cross-ice hockey – where the rink is divided in half and teams play across the ice rather than the full length – is mandatory for all players under the age of seven beginning this season. But there are a number of leagues, mostly in Toronto, that don’t like the rule because they have “select” teams which take the best players and create an elite stream for kids as young as six years old.

If you follow minor hockey in Canada, you’ve undoubtedly heard about a tsunami of controversy surrounding Hockey Canada’s decision to implement cross-ice hockey this season for players under the age of seven. Or perhaps not. It might just be one of those Center of the Hockey Universe™ things. Because it’s actually largely confined to the Toronto area, where some organizations and parents think that what’s best for the country and the game doesn’t suit their uber-talented Little Johnny.

To recap: Hockey Canada mandated last March that beginning this season, cross-ice hockey – where the rink is divided in half and teams play across the ice rather than the length of the rink – is mandatory at the Initiation Program level. That encompasses all players under the age of seven. And by 2019-20, all kids under nine in Canada will be mandated to play cross-ice hockey.

But there are a number of leagues, most of them in and around Toronto, that have threatened to defy the rule because they have what are known as “select” teams, which hothouse the best house-league players and create an elite stream for kids as young as six years old. Their argument is that these kids are ahead of their peers in terms of development and need to be challenged at a higher level. Never mind that cross-ice hockey is played in virtually every other constituency in the country by kids that age.

The fact of the matter is there are about 75,000 children playing hockey in this age group in Canada. The leagues that are willing to defy Hockey Canada – and face the sanctions that come with that action – account for a couple thousand kids. But that hasn’t stopped this from being an around-the-clock issue for the people involved. After a weekend meeting that failed to produce a resolution, Ontario Hockey Federation executive director Phil McKee said, “We are constantly working through it, every hour of every day.”

If that sounds a little crazy, perhaps that’s because that’s exactly what it is. But the question that is not being asked amid all of this is why on earth does Hockey Canada allow some of its constituents to essentially stream kids into elite hockey programs as early as five years old? As far as Hockey Canada vice-president of hockey development Paul Carson knows, select teams at that early an age is exclusive to southern Ontario. And it creates an elite stream of players and shuts others out before they even have a chance to grow into their first pair of skates.

“I really don’t believe there is such a thing as tyke select or initiation select hockey anywhere else in the country,” Carson said. “I could be wrong. I don’t know the Toronto landscape that well, but I didn’t really know that the 5- and 6-year-old age category also had this rep or travelling level of hockey.”

And that seems to be the issue that nobody is talking about here. I could be wrong, but there doesn’t appear to be a groundswell of parents that are pushing to have their children skip kindergarten and Grade 1 because they went to a Montessori preschool and can read and write far above their grade level. So why is it acceptable in hockey? Part of the problem is that there is a subset of helicopter parents out there who honestly believe that exposing their children to the highest level of competition possible as early as possible is the best thing they can do for them. This creates another subset of parents who go along with this philosophy because they’re deathly afraid that their children will be left behind. And, in a way, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Creating an elite level at such a young age identifies children early and gives them a competitive advantage. The downside is that it shuts out a whole other group of children who might be as talented and driven, but won’t or can’t go beyond grassroots participation at that age. And it sets up the system for failure.

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“I have people say to me, ‘My son plays elite-level atom (players who are 9- and 10-years-olds) and I get into arguments with people because I don’t believe it should even happen at that level,” Carson said. “For me, it should be a while before we start identifying kids as elite players. And the minute we do that, we start to choke our system and we limit the number of players with great potential who can advance through our system because they’ve already been excluded and they’re only nine years old.”

The fact remains that cross-ice hockey is a wonderful tool for developing young players. USA Hockey has been doing it for their under-8 players for years with great results. Sweden, which has been known to produce a skilled player or two, has done it for decades and does not stream players into elite levels until their teenage years. And there are constituencies all over Canada that have been doing it for years, even before it was mandated by Hockey Canada. Not only does it allow for players of all skill levels to get more touches, more shots and more engagement, it also creates more ice time for organizations because they can have multiple practices and games going on at the same time.

One of the complaints both Hockey Canada and the Ontario Hockey Federation have heard was that the program was foisted upon them without enough time to prepare, which begs the question surrounding what they have been doing for the past six months. A two-minute search on Google shows ads for rink dividers that can be delivered within four weeks. And when you’re dealing with kids that age, all you need are a couple of volunteers to stand between the games and direct traffic. It seems there is a little more than logistics at work here.

“A lot of the correspondence we’ve received and the OHF has received has been, ‘Hey, we agree with the plan, we agree with the policy, we think this is a good thing, but not for our group,’ ” Carson said. “You can’t agree this is the right approach to developing the skills of young 5- and 6-year old hockey players and then say, ‘But not for our group because they’re exceptional.’ ”