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When a member of Canada's most famous hockey family says parents have their children playing too much hockey, perhaps people should listen.
Red Deer Rebels coach and owner Brent Sutter is probably as establishment as it gets in the sport, but he's lent his voice to the criticism that playing the sport year-round from an early age doesn't churn out better hockey players, it just causes burnout. (The general term is developmental compression.) One should have doubts over whether this makes any parents change their minds about registering children for the Wild West that is spring hockey, but it ties back to a recent post here about the perils of playing too much at an early age. It just isn't efficient, plus you get into the whole robbing someone of an adolescene thing.
From Jason Gregor (@Jason Gregor):
“You just don’t have as many players today that are as good athletes as they used to be,” Sutter said recently. “Too much today, especially in young players, is focused on hockey 12 months a year. They don’t play soccer, they don’t play baseball or tennis or the other things that people used to do.”
... “It is so noticeable on a hockey team that the kids who have played other sports and experienced different things are always the smarter players on your team, and they are able to handle adversity better,” Sutter said. “They deal with adversity better because they are thrown into different environments and they trust their skills that they may have learned elsewhere to get them through certain things.”
And that’s leading Sutter to change the way his WHL team evaluates and scouts young players.
“I’ve really noticed it since leaving (to the NHL) and coming back to the WHL how it has changed,” he said. “We are lacking in areas that we never used to lack in. I want our scouts to look at athletes not just strictly hockey players.”
It's a little hard to imagine the parents with a 10-year-old son playing AAA hockey '7 percenters' who believe their child will play pro hockey when only one in 3,000 does dialing back little Ethan's schedule. You can hear that conversation between two competitive hockey dads right now.
Dave: Maybe we shouldn't sign them up for spring hockey.
Gord: You first, Dave.
Sutter isn't the first to say it and will not be the last. (Former Hockey Canada president Murray Costello, now an IIHF vice-president, used to say it was good that soccer had surpassed hockey as the top mass-participation youth sport in Canada, since it meant minor hockey players were getting a break.) The sport science is firmly behind him, though. There are case studies that show the best way to improve a country's overall skill level in a sport is by focusing on technique skills during childhood. Speaking of which:
Sutter also isn’t a believer in burdening young players with learning systems. He encourages young coaches to devote some practice time to simple, unstructured fun.
“When was the last time minor coaches just threw the puck on the ice during practice and just let their kids play river hockey. Talk to guys like Sidney Crosby, and he will tell you that is when their skills flourished. They were able to just go play and not worry about being in this spot or that spot. What happens with system play at a young age is that kids become very robotic. Until you get to bantam or midget, the game should be about skills and letting their skills flourish."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.