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Youth Hockey Around the World

Don Cherry aside, many hockey experts maintain that Canada, while still producing more NHL players than any other country, is no longer producing the world's most skilled hockey players. A check of the NHL's top scorers in 1997-98 certainly reads like the roll call of the United Nations. Jaromir Jagr (Czech Republic), Peter Forsberg (Sweden) and Pavel Bure (Russia) finished 1-2-3, followed by Wayne Gretzky (Canada) and John LeClair (United States). But while Jagr, Forsberg, Bure and Finland's Teemu Selanne may well be the NHL's most talented performers, the fact remains that Canada was still the only nation to place three men (Gretzky, Ron Francis and Jason Allison) in the top 10 and no other country can match the 11 Canadians in the top 25. Then again, Canadians do make up 60 percent of the league, compared with about 20 percent each from Europe and the United States. The case can also be made that the likes of Gretzky, Francis, Adam Oates, and Steve Yzerman are all on the downside of their careers, but then players like Allison and Eric Lindros should still have their best years in front of them, and Paul Kariya takes a back seat to no one it terms of talent..... provided that concussions do not cut short his career.

So perhaps it is not so much that Canadian hockey players is in decline as it is the fact that the rest of the world has simply caught up. Perhaps this is why the United States could beat Canada at the World Cup of Hockey in 1996. Perhaps this is why Finland could win its first World Junior Championship in 1998. Perhaps this is why the Czech Republic became Olympic gold medalists for the first time in history at Nagano in 1998. But how did these countries do it? How did they develop the skills to play at the top?

When Robert Reichel, Martin Rucinsky, Robert Lang and Jiri Slegr were all in the same room at elementary school in Litvinov. Five other Olympic gold medalists from Nagano in 1998 — Petr Svoboda, Josef Beranek, Jan Caloun, Vladimir Ruzicka and coach Ivan Hlinka — grew up in the same town, which is located less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Prague. All of them played in the NHL in addition to their international experience.

With a population of only about 30,000, Litvinov is the smallest city represented in the Czech Elite League, yet it has produced the highest number of NHL players by far. In the town of Litvinov, you either play hockey or you watch hockey. There's nothing else to do. Litvinov has a long history of developing boys into skilled hockey players. Tradition and quality coaching are the key ingredients. Over the years there has been an uninterrupted chain of people playing the game, a chain which has evolved into an obsession.

Other small towns, also contributed to the Czech Republic's gold medal victory in 1998. Goalie hero Dominik Hasek was born in Pardubice. Jaromir Jagr hails from Hnidousy, a tiny village of just 134 people. Martin Prochazka comes from Kralupy, Roman Hamrlik from Otrokovice. Frantisek Kucera of Prague was the only member of the Olympic champions who hailed from a big city. All the others were discovered, and joined club teams, in their teens. Early morning trips to the rink, some of them very far away, are in the memories of all these Czech hockey heroes. These are the kind of memories that were shared by Canadian players for generations, But perhaps no longer. Facts such as these go a long way towards explaining why the Czechs, Finns and Swedes, like the Russians before them, have been able to make such strides in a game once dominated by Canada.

Minor hockey in Canada saw 507,000 young players enrolled in 1997-98. They played on approximately 30,000 teams in 2,300 minor hockey associations. It is estimated that as many as one million games and/or practices are held in an average year in Canada. The boom in minor hockey in the United States since the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980 has seen enrollment in minor hockey climb to 425,000 (most of them still in the traditional hockey areas, though the sport is growing in the South and West). The United States, however, with a population pushing 300 million has nearly 10 times as many people as Canada, which has a population of under 30 million. Russia has a population of 150 million and is home to two million hockey players, though only 40,000 are registered with the country's approximately 100 top sports clubs. The Czech Republic has over 50,000 minor hockey players from a population of 10.5 million, with another 100,000 unregistered players. Finland has 45,000 youth hockey players from a population of just over five million, while Sweden has 63,000 players from a population of under 10 million.

Players in most of the top hockey nations can begin to take up the game by the age of seven or eight. Canadians can start as young as four (though official games are not played until the age of six), while children in Sweden typically begin to play organized hockey by age nine. The Swedish Ice Hockey Association is that country's governing body, overseeing three different regions (North, Central and South) which are spilt into 23 districts. There are 848 sports clubs in Sweden within the 23 districts and each district can also be home to teams that are not affiliated with any of the 848 clubs.

Of the six nations surveyed, only the Czech Republic has no age requirements per se. "The only age rule in place," admits well-known Czech hockey journalist Pavel Barta, "requires the boys to attend grade school. It doesn't matter whether they were born in January or in December. All that matters is what grade they are in." The best hockey players in Russia can begin to take up the game at age seven. The country's top sports clubs operate special hockey schools that will accept "gifted" pupils at that age.

Club teams represent the highest level of minor hockey in Russia. Clubs like the Central Red Army and Moscow Dynamo not only have teams in the elite league that have become well known to hockey fans in North America, but, in fact, have an entire system of teams right down through the youngest age levels. These clubs represent a specific area (such as Moscow) but a young player has freedom of movement within this top level.

For example, former Moscow-based journalist Igor Kuperman, who now works in hockey operations for the Phoenix Coyotes, tells the story of 10-year-old Alexei Zhamnov failing at a tryout for the Central Army and then, literally, walking down the street to the Dynamo cattle call, where he impressed the coaches enough to make the team. Zhamnov worked his way up the ranks within the Dynamo system until he was 22 and entered the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets.

The second level of youth hockey in Russia involves teams sponsored by local factories and industry. Though not its only purpose, this factory level can serve as almost a farm system for the elite club teams. Former Soviet star Vladimir Krutov was a 10-year-old good enough to be playing with the 12-year-olds at the factory level when he was recruited to join the Red Army. The lower rung of Russian youth hockey involves the Golden Puck Tournament. This nationwide event showcases players from age 10 to 15 who are not affiliated with club or factory teams. It is an opportunity for the higher levels to uncover talented players who may have escaped their notice.

As in Russia, minor hockey in the United States falls into three distinct categories: House play (or house league), which is largely recreational; travel teams, which are more competitive; and selects, which comprise the all-stars. Generally, a league in any individual area will have teams at all three levels in the various age groups.

These leagues will conduct tryouts and players are placed at a level based on demonstrated skills. A panel of coaches from throughout the league makes the decisions. Movement of players to different teams, different leagues and different levels is permitted, but much of this movement is restricted by geography. Organizations (and parents) prefer to minimize travel time, as it is thought that a young player who has to travel long distances to get to games is less likely, in the long run, to enjoy playing.

Minor hockey in Finland is divided less along the lines of talent and more strictly in terms of a player's age. From eight to 11, there is absolutely no classification according to skill levels. Teams at this level play a friendly round-robin schedule of games within a system that is basically divided by region only. Not until the age of 12 do the individual regions begin to divide their players into different six- to eight-team leagues with a team placed in these leagues based on its success in previous years. As in Russia, club teams make up the highest leagues in Finland, and with the most successful players starting to move up together after the age of 12 the top talent usually finds its way onto club teams. When a child begins to demonstrate that he or she is clearly more talented than his or her teammates, it is the recommendation of the Finnish Ice Hockey Association that the coaches should discuss with the parents the possibility of this player moving up. In theory, the coaches and the parents make this decision together. If an outside opinion becomes necessary, most of the advanced clubs have a so-called head of coaching in their organization who has the final word on such matters. "This is the way we feel it should go," says Eero Lehti, manager of youth hockey programs for the FIHA, "but I have my doubts about how well it works within each club." After age 15, there is only one level of competition for the players good enough to remain in the game. The best players of 16 or 17 years of age will be moved up to compete with older players if they prove to be more talented than their teammates. Players are quite free to move from team to team in Finland and can change teams as often as once every season if they desire. "When asked," says Lehti, "all the youth hockey clubs and their teams absolutely deny recruiting kids under the age of 14, but everybody knows it happens anyway. the main topic is how openly and with what ways or means or procedure does the recruiting take place."

In Canada, there are typically five or six levels of play (depending on geographic region) available to any player above the age of six. House league is generally at the bottom, followed by select teams and than a system of "A" and "B" ratings that advance all the way up to 'AAA'. Parents and/or the child are responsible for the decision to try out for higher levels. Coaches generally make the evaluation for their own team, though some regions are beginning to use independent evaluators. Residency rules are the basic determination as to who can play where in Canada, and how much a player can move from team to team varies from region to region. Toronto, for example, has many different teams, so a player can potentially have more to choose from, though the strength of individual hockey clubs can be a limiting factor. Many areas across Canada have only one team at the various skill levels, so a child will play where his talent allows him. If a player does not make the team at the level he hopes to play, he is permitted to move to a different area, but only to a bordering geographic zone. In terms of division by age groups, children below the age of eight are classified as pre-novice in Canada; eight and nine as novice; 10 and 11, atom; 12 and 13, peewee; 14 and 15, bantam; and 16 and 17, midget. Players aged 18, 19 and 20 play either as juvenile or junior.

Major junior hockey is the top level of youth hockey in Canada, though the three major junior leagues are so focused on preparing players for pro careers that it is difficult to view them as the star atop Canada's minor hockey Christmas tree. Junior A or B is a more appropriate top class for the youth hockey system.

The Unites States breaks down its youth players along similar age lines, though the category names often differ.

As previously stated, the main factor is determining where a child will play in the Czech Republic is what grade he is in at school. "For those who have never had skates on their feet, it starts from scratch," explains Pavel Barta. "Others work from the level they are at." Regardless of skating skill, all players are entered in a preparation category, within which they are grouped according to skill level and the grade they belong to. Anything that would resemble an actual hockey game in not recommended until the second and third grades, and not until grade five is the preparation category abandoned. The more serious approach to youth hockey does not begin until a boy enters grade six.

Hockey players in sixth and seventh grade are classified as 'younger pupils' in the Czech Republic, while those in grades eight and nine are called 'older pupils.' Not until these years do players begin to compete in official leagues organized by geographical regions. These top teams are called 'triple A' and play in a system that is organized Eero Lehti. By 15, age becomes the determinant as 15- and 16-year-olds will play 'adolescent' hockey. Very talented players can now be moved up an age group if such a move is deemed helpful to their development. Similar to North America, junior players range in age from 17 to 20. Since the fall of Communism, state subsidies for sport and culture have been all but eliminated. "The financial burden has been shifted from the state to the pockets of the parents, and only in Litvinov and some other places are youth teams still getting free ice time," Educational programs have survived due to the support of Elite League clubs and their sponsors and "there is a tendency to bring the most talented players to the same school classes in bigger cities and carry on as if nothing has changed."

Like the Czech Republic, 15 is a key age for hockey players in Russia, as this is the age in which a player might be recruited to leave home to further his career. The best 15-year-olds are aggressively scouted and invited to play for top clubs. Fifteen is also the age at which the youngest national teams are put together in Russia. The ages of 14 and 15 are key years in Sweden, as two major district tournaments are held for those age groups. The latter is called TV-pucken and the playoffs in this tournament are broadcast throughout the country "so it can be said that the best 15-year-old players are identified by the hockey community in Sweden through television," says Swedish journalist Jan Stark. These 14- and 15-year-old tournaments are only for district teams, not for sports clubs. Sports clubs begin to play for national championships at age 16. By this age, top Swedish players may well have had to leave home to further their career. Further national championships for sports clubs are held at the age of 18 and 20.

In Canada, 16 is the age in which a child is permitted to leave home, but only to play major junior hockey. Younger players can also be promoted to this top level of minor hockey, but only in their hometown (meaning a 15-year0old Regina native could be called up to play for Regina Pats, but not the Seattle Thunderbirds). Seventeen is the youngest age at which a player is permitted to leave home to play at other levels, however a case can be made to leave home earlier — though a boy will not be allowed to move simply for the chance to play better hockey. Wayne Gretzky, for example, was permitted to play in Toronto as a 14-year-old om order to escape growing resentment and harassment in his hometown of Brantford. It is up to the parent and child to reach a decision on leaving home, but any such case will be heard by an appeals committee.

In the Unites States, a player can leave home to play high school or midget (which means an age range of 15 to 18). A player can also begin to play U.S. junior at this age and still retain his eligibility for the NCAA or Canadian major junior teams. Such advancement is often recommended for top players if they are obviously not receiving enough competition to further their development at home.

Finland has no specific requirements as to when a player can leave home. "If he/she lives in one of the major ice hockey cities [of which there are about 20]," explains Eero Lehti. "With all the necessary schools to attend, a player doesn't have to move anywhere. If he or she happens to live outside of these cities, it is quite necessary [although not obligatory to get to the top] for him or her to move to a city with a sports gymnasium to finish his/her school properly while at the same time practicing under good coaching."

At this point, there appears to be little more than cosmetic differences in the structure of youth hockey systems in the top hockey-playing countries. Where the differences between Canada and its international rivals become more apparent is in the handling of the very youngest players and in the amount of time allotted for practice at all age levels.

On the average, players from eight to 14 will play between 20 and 45 games a year in Finland (increasing by age), while players 15 and older can play between 50 and 80 games. Players under 11 will practice twice a week for up to 50 minutes each time. Players over 12 have 80-minute practices two or three times a week, while older players will practice for 80 minutes up to five times per week. Still, there are "too many games," says Eero Lehti. "Coaches and parents seem to be very eager to let the kids 'test their skills in real situations'. I know of a 12-year-old boys team that played 78 games five winters ago [1996]." In Canada the situation can be much worse.

While house league teams generally play only 15 to 20 games, top competitive teams can play as many as 130 games per year! Canadian Hockey, the sport's governing body, prefers a ratio of two practices to every one game, but officials admit this happens rarely. With so many teams and associations the practice-to-games ratio is extremely hard to police and, while younger children generally get more practice time than older ones, in reality most players get only one practice for every two games. This is seen as one of the key issues facing minor hockey in Canada, as games offer little opportunity to work on essential skills.

USA Hockey recommends a practice-to-games ratio of 3:1, but officials in the American hockey governing body admit that with top teams playing as many as 90 games in a year the ratio is more like 1:1. Parameters involving games and practices are not legislated by USA Hockey, so each local league has the say. Much is based on the importance of hockey in the region; for example more games will be played in Minneapolis than in Phoenix. The situation is similar in Sweden, where practice time has much to do with the availability of ice.

Stockholm is Sweden's largest city, as well as the largest of its 23 hockey districts, but "in Stockholm," says Jan Stark, "there are actually very few rinks when compared to the number of players." Still, a ratio of two practices for every game is maintained. "But on the other hand, in Ornskoldsvik (the hometown of Peter Forsberg) in the district of Angermanland they have more rinks which means more ice time and the ratio is about four to one."

Throughout minor hockey in the United States as much is done as possible to down-play the emphasis on winning, though a great deal of necessity depends on the parents and coaches. USA Hockey emphasizes such things as skill development, fair play and sportsmanship (what they call "life qualities"). Fun, Safe and Rewarding are considered to be the goals of hockey at the youth level. Similarly, Canadian Hockey lists fun and safety as its key concerns, but admits the emphasis an individual team places on winning is generally a reflection of the coach.

In Finland, "our main concern is how to educate our kids and youngsters into well-behaving citizens," says Eero Lehti. "The focus is totally on learning skills (individual technical skills and, especially, developing an understanding of the game) all the way from the age of six to the age of 18. Winning a game is just a result of an individual player's skills in the continuously changing playing situations and of the cooperation of the six players inside the rink." Minor hockey in Russia has a similar aim.

"The emphasis is on winning," says Igor Kuperman, while agreeing that it is more accurate to state that the emphasis is on winning by developing highly skilled players as a top priority. Russian teams will play a maximum of 40 to 50 games per season and practice twice a day! Under the Communist regime, there used to be special classes in regular schools where practice time was built into the daily curriculum. This is no longer the case. Teams now practice in the early morning before school and in the late afternoon after school. Players will generally use public transit to get themselves to and from practice. Such dedication is expected of young Russian hockey players. As a boy, former star defenseman Vladimir Lutchenko (a member of the Soviet national team from 1969 to 1979) would travel two hours each way to attend Practice! Practices in Russia stress skating and stick handling now, as they did then. There is also a lot of dry-land training away from the rink.

Not surprisingly, the demands for minor hockey in the Czech Republic are not unlike those in Russia, though, if anything, the Czech commitment is even more rigorous. Though interest in hockey is currently so high that sports clubs generally have more players than they can handle, traditional scouting practices include visiting public staking rinks or attending pre-school facilities in order to find physically well-developed children with a natural talent for playing games as young as age four!

"Whether they can skate or not is not an issus at all," says Pavel Barta. Once a prospective boy is identified, the scouts will give a questionnaire to his parents "in order to find out their physical measurements and see whether any of them were athletes with talents their child may have inherited." Children who are selected then form groups and start attending regular practices.

But, as we have seen, it is not until they reach grade one that Czech children truly begin their hockey career and not until they reach the second and third grade will they begin to play what is known as 'mini-hockey'. "Mini-hockey is played across the ice in one of the offensive zones with benches placed in the natural zone," Barta explains. "This means two games can be played at the same time. Teams change lines at the same time in one-minute intervals." Beginning in 1998-99, mini-games and practices for grades one and two use lighter pucks (four ounces), with regulation six-ounce pucks being introduced in the third grade. Absolutely no body contact is allowed under any circumstance. These changes are designed to better develop skating and stickhandling skills. In grades four and five, young Czech players start playing on the full sheet of ice. "But they still do not form teams and do not play in leagues, just short tournaments. The most important thing at this level is to work on their skating and other skills without the distractions or compromises necessary to win games at any cost." When Czech players do finally play real league games in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth grades, they do not play more than about 30 games per season plus playoffs. Even the elite midget and junior players play only a 38-game season with a best-of-three playoff format involving eight teams.

"The duration and intensity of practices is proportional to the age level," Barta says. "The youngest players between the first and third grades practice on the ice for a maximum of 75 minutes up to three times per week, while fourth- and fifth-grade pupils practice up to four times a week. After that, teams practice six days a week with the length extending to about 90 minutes." Power and body training is also mandatory and is run during the regular season "which is from about mid-August to late-March." There are also dry-land practices throughout the regular season and players participate in soccer, basketball, handball or rugby "to expand and develop skills that hockey practice alone cannot provide. It also helps to develop camaraderie and team cohesion." Players in the Czech Republic do not specialize at positions until they reach the 'older pupil' level (grades eight and nine).

The Czech Republic is not the only European nation that modifies the game to meet the needs of its youngest players. "The Finnish Ice Hockey Association has had special youth hockey rules since 1982," says Eero Lehti. "For those under 12 we have a so-called junior stick and a puck with a hole that weighs only half of what an official puck weighs." Finnish hockey players aged eight and nine play with smaller goalie nets and use just one-third of the ice, as they do in the Czech Republic. Body contact is not permitted until age 12, though "there is some pressure to move up the age or arrange special leagues where body contact will be permitted two years earlier." Body contact is not permitted in Sweden until the age of 14. Children at the entry level (age nine and 10) also play their games across the ice. In Russia, the youngest players practice on a cross-ice sheet, but games are always played on full ice surface (though smaller nets are used as they are in Finland). Body contact is permitted at all ages in Russian hockey.

At the present time nothing has been done to modify the game for young players in the United States aside from restricting body checking until the peewee level (age 14), though consideration is being given to using lighter pucks. Canada has had and initiative program for novice and pre-novice players in place for several years, but it is used by only about 20 percent of the country's 2,300 minor hockey associations. Canadian children can begin to play organized games as young as age six and only in recent years has the practice of using half the ice become more prominent. Smaller pucks and 'donut' pucks are now available for younger children in a effort to develop better shooting and puckhandling skills before muscles are developed enough to use regulation pucks. There is also a move towards the Finnish concept of making hockey sticks specifically for smaller children as opposed to cutting down larger sticks as has always been the case in the past.

No matter how a country chooses to structure its minor hockey system, no matter how much the game is tailored to meet the needs of its players, no matter how much practice time is guaranteed, it is the quality of coaching that ultimately makes the biggest difference.

Both USA Hockey and Canadian Hockey have similiar programs in place to train coaches. The USA Hockey Coaches Education Clinic provides instruction for basic, intermediate and advances levels and there are recommended levels a coach is expected to attain before moving up the ranks. Similarly in Canada, it is not thought that virtually any coach involved at even the game's lowest levels must have at least a minimum coaching certificate and more certification is required to coach at higher levels. Fathers are still the most common coaches among the younger age groups in Canada. More and more professional coaches enter the ranks as the age of the players increase. By the major minor level, all coaches in Canada are professionals. The progression is similar in the Unites States, where parents do most of the coaching at the house play level, with more and more professionals becoming involved as a player approaches the junior level.

The screening of coaches has become more important in recent years. At the national level in Canada, all employees must meet the 10-step screening process provided by Volunteer Canada. This process has been recommended to every minor hockey association in the country, but the ultimate decision rests with the individual association and the Volunteer Canada guidelines have not been widely accepted. It is expected, however, that Ontario will mandate the process for minor hockey associations in that province. In the United States, as screening program for state association has been set up by USA Hockey and is available for use by any that want it.

The training of coaches in Sweden is similar to the methods employed in Canada and the United States, with the 23 district associations taking responsibility of educating their coaches. Most younger teams are coached by volunteers (i.e. parents). The system for training and educating coaches in Finland consists of five levels. All coaches up to level three are drawn from the parents of players. Level 1 in Finland is meant for instructors ("We'd rather call them instructors than coaches," says Eero Lehti) of children aged six to 13. To get a diploma an instructor has to have at least 100 hours of mandatory studies organized by the Finnish Ice Hockey Association or through regional educational sports organizations accepted by FIHA. There are also three different obligatory ice hockey clinics (as well as two separate clinics for coaching goalies).

Levels 2 to 5 are mainly open to coaches of youngsters and adults aged 14 and up. A coach certified to Level 2 has to collect 200 hours of study plus 80 hours worth of mandatory on-ice clinics. (Once again, a separate clinic is available for those who wish to instruct 14-year-old goalies). The various regions throughout Finland also have FIHA approved hockey clinics for Level 2. To obtain a diploma at Level 3, a coach must put in 350 hours of mandatory study through three on-ice clinics. A diploma at levels 4 and 5 requires the study of coaches as a profession. At Level 5 a degree from a department of physical education of a university is required.

The education of coaches is taken no less seriously in Russia and the Czech Republic. While volunteers are used to coach at the Golden Puck level in Russia, both factory and club level teams are all coached by professionals, most of whom are former hockey players. These professionals are trained at the highly-regarded Institute of Physical Culture, which graduates only 20 to 50 coaches per year from its elite two-year training course.

The Czech Republic trains coaches in a three-tiered system, with approximately 1,500 'C' license coaches at the entry level in 1998. Players with more than 200 games of experience in the Elite League or with a World Championship or Olympic medal are also entitled to hold a 'C' license.

After gaining at least two years of experience, coaches can apply for a 'B' license. If they pass the rigorous course at this level, they are eligible for professional work. Czech hockey registered 600 holders of this license in 1998. Only 186 coaches hold an 'A' license. In order to reach this top level on the coaching ladder one must have served as a head coach for an additional two years and be a graduate of the coaching college in the Faculty of Physical Training and Sports at the Charles University in Prague. Required subjects include anatomy, physiology, psychology and teaching technique.

Since the defeat of Team Canada by the United States at the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, Canadian fans, media and hockey officials have been taking a much more critical look at the development of young hockey players. Subsequent losses by both the men's and women's teams at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and the collapse of the World Junior Team after five straight gold medals have further eroded Canada's once-unshakable hockey self-confidence. Having first taught the game to the Europeans at the start of the 1900's, it appears that both Canada and the United States could stand to take a few pointers from their international rivals as the beginning of a new century.

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