Creativity and Shinny: What Minor Hockey Might Be Missing

CaptureIs minor hockey worth it?

This was a question asked by the Toronto Star in a 2013 article which addressed the cost of minor hockey in Canada, and the statistical outlook for kids who hope to make it to the NHL.

Being a recreational hockey organization, our initial response was a resounding YES! For most of us who enjoyed a hockey childhood, we remember cold winter days spent on the pond until it got so dark we couldn’t see the puck anymore. We remember the smell of the ice first thing in the morning for those early games, and that twenty-kid pileup on the goalie after a well-deserved win.

Is minor hockey worth it … seriously?? [Insert snort of derision here]

However, with such a provocative question put forth by the Star, we naturally wanted to find out what their opinion was. So we read the full article …

Ahhh, okay. They’re looking specifically at minor hockey, as opposed to our recreational type of program here at the CRHL. And the writer does make some fair points with regards to expense, demographics, and margins of success — all points which don’t apply to us in quite the same way.

We did, however, find one suggestion particularly intriguing. The Star argues that with such a heavy focus on regimented, intensive training, minor hockey associations throughout Canada are producing players who are less creative than their forbears.

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Photo credit: Robert Taylor

Well that’s quite a glove slap to minor hockey! But one the Star, and many other industry experts, defend with statistics and live examples. More than simply substantiating such an accusation, they go so far as to offer a solution to this alleged tangible problem. And that solution is …

Unstructured, unregimented, unscripted … shinny??

Yes, shinny. Apparently this free skate style of hockey for the sake of the game alone offers something that intense training cannot. According to the Massachusetts Hockey association (Mass), when there is “freedom from clocks and walls and officials and coaches and whistles and lines … unrivaled joy beckons. There is also a by-product from this lack of structure: Player development for young skaters.” Mass points to Roger Grillo, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, whom they quote as arguing that creativity is a major part of developing high-end players.

Triple-A coaches far and wide are beginning to recognize this shift in player development also. The star reports one coach as saying, “Unlike Guy Lafleur or Wayne Gretzky, [players today haven’t] logged thousands of hours playing shinny. Instead they log thousands of hours in minivans; a game that can be a three-hour commitment when factoring in commute times and dressing time, but it only yields 10-17 minutes of ice time for the player.”

Interesting … and not inaccurate, when one stops to think about it. Ken Dryden, in his book The Game, writes that, “It is in free time that the special player develops, not in the competitive expedience of games, in hour-long practices … in mechanical devotion to packaged, processed, coaching-manual, hockey-school skills.”

To further this suggestion, there is an interesting anecdote on the Herb Brooks Foundation website:

A generation ago, Johnson High School in St. Paul was a Minnesota hockey powerhouse … Its success wasn’t due to better coaching, facilities, or innate athletic ability of East Side kids. Instead, it was the countless hours of unstructured practice by the Phalen Park rink rats. Hockey was part of the culture on the St. Paul’s East Side. Kids went to the rink/pond to meet their friends and have fun playing hockey. The game belonged to them.

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Photo credit: jpellgen [modifications: cropped]
As a recreational hockey association, of course the CRHL firmly believes that hockey practice, with regimented drills and a focus on skills, is an essential part of hockey development. But it’s only a part. With Canada being so strong on hockey culture, it’s safe to say that most of us can agree a little shinny wouldn’t go amiss. In between the early morning power skating, the practices, the games and the tournaments, perhaps we do need to remember to carve out some time for our kids to get out there on a pond, or a free rink, and just have at it.

Their game. Their way.

It’s food for thought, anyway.

Featured image credit: Jamie McCaffrey