Politics in what was our game

Taking a closer look at Canada’s medal drought at the World Juniors

Most people who tuned in to watch Canada’s World Junior Hockey Championship this holiday season are probably wondering what’s going on with Canadian hockey. For decades, Canada has been a dominant force at the international level, a country producing the best players in the world. Yet we’ve gone two years in a row without a medal at the World Juniors. At the World Junior A Challenge, the United States has won five out of the last six times. Should we, as Canadians, be worried about our hockey performance? Yes. And the problem lies directly at the roots of the minor league hockey system.

On January 6, the Toronto Star published an article for which many coaches in Ontario’s best minor hockey league, the Greater Toronto Hockey League, were asked for their opinions on the reason for the loss. Some coaches believe the problem is with the selection process, which is a valid point. As Don Cherry says, this process is too “politically correct”. Canada has three leagues—the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League—and coaches are asked to choose an equal number of players from each league.

This means that, in some cases, the best junior players aren’t chosen because the coaching staff has to satisfy this requirement. Some players didn’t make the team this year because they are all from the OHL, like Max Domi, son of retired Maple Leafs bruiser Tie Domi, who nearly made the cut for the Phoenix Coyotes roster; Scott Kosmachuk, who recently signed an entry-level contract with the Winnipeg Jets; and Darnell Nurse, who went seventh overall in the 2013 NHL entry draft to the Oilers.

“We need to be picking the best players available, regardless of what league they play in,” says Mark Runciman, a fourth-year criminology major. “We can’t be skipping out on NHL first-rounders. It’s ridiculous!”

Timothy de Medeiros, a first-year sociology major, says, “This loss was embarrassing.” De Medeiros was angry that Connor McDavid, a skilled prospect selected to the Canadian squad, didn’t get enough ice time during the tournament.

    But this was only part of the reason the team lost at the World Juniors. The majority of the problem lies in the new taboo on physicality, and a general shift away from contact in young age groups. The shift is a result of attempts to increase awareness of concussions and head injuries resulting from hard hits. The problem is that junior leagues, the NHL, and its affiliates all play with contact.

     The physicality of the Canadian game has always been an asset. What comes to mind is the 1976 exhibition game between the Philadelphia Flyers, a team on which all by two players were Canadian, and the Soviet Union, whose players skated off the ice during the game because they couldn’t deal with the level of Canadian physicality. The game is losing a powerful asset, and this year’s Canadian World Junior team was a good example of this. If we want our players to be better, they must learn to play with contact at a young age.

Young players can avoid injuries if they’re taught to properly give and receive a check. Rory Bourgeois, a fourth-year political science major, says, “We wonby playing the Canadian game, which is highly physical. We can’t beat [European teams] by playing Euro-style hockey.”

The GTHL has produced many amazing hockey players. The active players from the 1992 age group include Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes, Tyler Toffoli of the Los Angeles Kings, Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars, and Devante Smith-Pelley of the Anaheim Ducks. From this age group, there were four top teams for which these players played: the Toronto Junior Canadians, the Toronto Marlboros, the Toronto Red Wings, and the Toronto Young Nationals. All of these teams managed to win big because of the style of hockey they played. It brought a new level of competitiveness to the game and allowed them to be dominant forces in the junior leagues.

Scouts often cite the problem of finding good defencemen in the GTHL due to a lack of real competition; they instead look to draft players in the NCAA, AHL, and ECHL to the big leagues, which makes it hard for players in the GTHL to pursue hockey careers. Many GTHL players have invested thousands of dollars into a hockey career and attended practice as if it were more important than doing homework, only to be forced out of competitive hockey without a scholarship.

Meanwhile, Triple A hockey is getting too expensive for a lot of players. The Toronto Star reports that there are many teams in AAA leagues that cost over $8,000 a year to join, in addition to the weekly $7 skate sharpening, $300 hockey sticks that need monthly replacement, and other expensive equipment, along with the gym membership, personal training expenses, and many other expenses associated with playing the sport.

With Canadian consumer debt levels rising 21% in 2013 alone, to take a single figure, it’s safe to say that these costs are a burden to the majority of families in the GTHL. There are very few success stories, such as the Staal and Subban brothers, who have gone through the Ontario hockey system and ended up in the NHL. In fact, it’s reported that the chances of a Canadian making the NHL are one in 6,000 and that in the 2012/13 NHL season, 3.7% of all NHL rosters were composed of GTHL alumni, while the top Swedish minor hockey league’s alumni, with substantially fewer hockey players, composed 6.4% of NHL rosters.

Apart from the ridiculous team budgets in AAA, which average $110,000, another problem riddling the GTHL is the level of bribery within these selective teams. That, at least, is the phenomenon as cited by many players who don’t make it to the NHL. The picture they paint is that coaches want to make a profit while coaching, and wealthy parents can pay. When the coach’s salary isn’t written directly into the team’s operating budget, the players’ parents will pay the coach’s salary to award their child a spot on the team. The CBC reports that the average salary of a coach in 2008 was $25,000, although there are many coaches with some integrity who receive these payments as an offer of simple gratuity, with no strings attached. More often than not, players either can’t afford to pay a coach or don’t believe it’s morally acceptable to do so to earn a spot on a team or more ice time, preferring to earn these based on merit.

“AA hockey is not treated as a business, unlike AAA,” says Matthew Emanuele, a fourth-year political science major and assistant coach for the AA Streetsville Tigers. “Our budgets are highly affordable, and it’s rare to see a coach turn a profit from budgets or wealthy parents. Talent is not concentrated within the top four teams. It’s unfortunate, because there are many players on my team who are talented enough to play AAA, but either cannot afford to or don’t want to deal with all of the politics. Something needs to be done.”

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