STINSON: Does Canada win on how talent is cultivated, or in spite of it?

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Wayne Gretzky played major junior hockey as a teenager for the Soo Greyhounds in Northern Ontario. Sidney Crosby played in the Quebec league. Connor McDavid left his home in suburban Toronto to play with an Ontario Hockey League team in northern Pennsylvania.

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Team Canada has won the last two best-vs-best men’s Olympics, as well as a World Cup. They have won the World Juniors a record 18 times. The United States has five titles from this tournament. Sweden? Of them.

Obviously, then, the hockey development system in this country works. But does Canada win big in international tournaments because of the way elite talent is cultivated, or in spite of it?

It’s a question worth asking again, as attention has been focused on Canada’s junior hockey system following allegations of sexual assault from two separate World Junior teams at 15. apart.

Much of the attention over the past few weeks has focused on Hockey Canada, and for good reason. It was Hockey Canada that was made aware of gang sexual assault allegations in 2018 and, for reasons known only to Hockey Canada, allowed its own internal investigation to end without any sort of conclusion.

But while much criticism has focused on the sport’s loosely defined culture and Hockey Canada is itself committed to tackling issues around “masculinity” and “toxic behaviors”, the reality is that Hockey Canada, the national sports organization, has little leverage over the actors who are seen as part of this same cultural problem. These players, the best of the best, only come under Hockey Canada’s umbrella if they are good enough to participate in national team training camps and, eventually, the team roster. It’s only a matter of weeks in any season. For the rest of their elite amateur careers, unless they choose to play in the American college system, they play in Canada’s major junior leagues. These leagues are both familiar and slightly ridiculous. Young men – children, in fact – are drafted into one of three regional leagues, where they usually play (and live) away from home, away from family and under the sole supervision of foster parents. They can be traded mid-season, benched, dropped, or forced to take on an entirely different role than they were originally expected to take on. If you proposed this system today and suggested that it is a way to develop hockey skills, most people would think you were crazy. Teens don’t have a say in where they play? Does a young elite hockey star have less agency than, say, a barista?

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It’s not like there aren’t other options. Young athletes showing potential for a professional career in the other three major North American leagues should play in college for at least a year, and usually longer than that. Big college sports aren’t without their problems, but at least athletes and their families retain the choice of where they play their final seasons before turning pro. Football, the greatest sport in the world, is even more equal. Talented youngsters are essentially free agents, and no team would imagine being able to claim a 15-year-old phenom just because the team stunk the season before.

But that’s how it works in hockey, in Canada. Other hockey nations, which lack the infrastructure of Canada’s junior system, develop their best young players in other ways. They play collegially, in elite youth teams or sometimes against older players in semi-professional leagues. In the United States, there is both the NCAA path and a National Development Team, each of which has produced players who are National Hockey League stars today. And while a limited number of foreign skaters choose to come to Canada to play junior, the pipeline is increasingly moving in the other direction, with Canadian professional prospects entering the NCAA system rather than playing hockey. junior here. Talk to some of them, and they wonder why everyone wouldn’t do it like this: they choose their school, they start an education, and they don’t have to leave home so soon.

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The Canadian Hockey League and its three regional leagues, the OHL, the WHL and the QMJHL, have one factor working in their favour: the status quo trend. There have been calls for major changes in junior hockey for decades, and while the rules and policies have changed, they have basically remained the same. When a class action challenged the players’ lack of pay, the CHL successfully lobbied the provinces to exempt them from employment standards provisions. There remain other lawsuits related to concussions, hazing practices and mobility rights. But the system lasted.

On Wednesday of this week, members of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage directed the vast majority of their questions, and their opprobrium, to Hockey Canada CEO Scott Smith and his lieutenants. Also, were there to testify the men responsible for the CHL and its member leagues. They rarely had the opportunity to speak.

At some point near the end of the long afternoon session, a question was posed to Western Hockey League commissioner Ron Robison, who was participating remotely. He started talking and the president interrupted him to say that his microphone was off. Robison noted that he sat there in silence for two and a half hours.

And indeed he had. But amidst all the calls for change and demands for a cultural change in Canadians’ favorite sport, it shouldn’t just be Hockey Canada promising reform. And the men who run junior hockey in this country shouldn’t be left on the sidelines, sitting quietly.

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