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Let the Games Begin

By Mike Toth on September 01, 2016

Sue Townshend / AC Studios Co.

Across the country, the puck is dropping on another great season of minor hockey. From smaller ice surfaces [with new partnerships to help facilitate the process], to new female divisions [and increased interest thanks to Canada’s stellar female Olympians], to improved health and safety [with an emphasis on mental health awareness], here’s what we have to look forward to this year.

The opening face-off.

You can feel the anticipation in the air as a pair of steely-eyed centres square off on a pristine sheet of ice, ready for the start of a brand new game.

The start of a brand new hockey season?

Well, that's the ultimate opening face-off.

"A new season is always exciting," said Ian Taylor, the Director of Hockey Development for the Ontario Minor Hockey Association. "People have been away from the game for a little bit and they're coming back to the rink feeling refreshed."

Scott Oakman is the Executive Director of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, and he shares Taylor's enthusiasm for getting back on the ice.

"I think we (the GTHL) probably feel the same way about the start of a new season as a lot of players and coaches. We're always excited to see how the new initiatives we're undertaking will play out as the season goes along."

So, as we count down to another exciting year, let's take a look at "What's new?" about a hockey season that's approaching faster than a Sidney Crosby snapper.

Skill Development Still at the Forefront
At the NHL level, players are becoming younger and more skilled by the day. A lot of eyes, for example, will be on Connor McDavid at September's World Cup of Hockey in Toronto as the Newmarket, Ont. phenom leads Team North America, a talented pack of young stallions who are all under the tender age of 23.

Canadian minor hockey is also focused on the "young guns" – the really young guns – as the training of four-, five- and six-year-olds will receive heavy emphasis this season.

"Hockey is starting to do things that other sports are doing," explained Taylor. "Soccer fields for young kids are smaller. In basketball, the rims are lower. So we're now using a lighter puck at those age groups and cutting down on the ice surface to make sure kids are touching the puck more often and feeling engaged in the action.”

Hockey Alberta, in fact, has teamed up with a corporate sponsor to help kids develop their skills by chopping down the ice surface.

"We've partnered with (Calgary gas company) Pembina Pipeline to work with our minor hockey associations that are interested in purchasing rink dividers," explained Hockey Alberta Communications Manager Brad Lyon. “We divide the playing surface into half-ice or third-ice dimensions so that kids can skate in a modified area that suits their skill level. Pembina has paid for about 60 of these dividers and they're going to be dispersed across the province."

BC Hockey is also continuing to implement smaller ice surfaces for smaller players.

“With [BC Hockey’s] focus on player development and having fun, cross-ice hockey will become the norm for players entering our game and will allow them the best opportunity to learn the fundamentals of hockey,” said BC Hockey CEO Barry Petrachenko.

Of course, minor hockey players in the older age categories also need to get their "skill fill.” With that in mind, BC Hockey has brought on a new Coach Coordinator for the 2016-17 season. Aaron Hoffman played junior hockey for the BCHL Merritt Centennials and Surrey Eagles in the early 90's before suiting up as a player/coach in the Australian Ice Hockey League. Hoffman then turned to coaching full-time, developing an impressive résumé that includes a sting as head coach of the under-17 program in the Okanagan region of B.C. 

"Aaron is a great addition to our coaching program and we're looking forward to bringing him into this role," said BC Hockey CEO Barry Petrachenko. "His background as a player and administrator, both here in B.C. and overseas, will have a positive impact on the growth and delivery of the coaching program." 

And while coaches continue to develop players, minor hockey organizations are also committed to training their coaches and other league officials as the new season beckons.

"We continue to focus on developing all of our volunteers, our coaches, trainers and referees," said Taylor. "We're asking more and more from our volunteers every year. Parents are spending a lot of time and money on youth sports so there's an expectation of great service and our ongoing focus is to make sure our volunteers are prepared so they feel good about the process. Volunteers are much like the players. If they don't have a good experience, they're not going to come back, so our programs have to support those people."

Female Hockey Continues on its Sky-High Projection
As we look at registration numbers for this year and last, it’s clear that female hockey just keeps getting bigger and bigger – with no sign of letting up.

"Truthfully, female hockey is the growing entity of sports in Canada," said Taylor. "That's where most of the growth in the game is coming.”
To service that demand, Hockey Alberta has made sweeping changes for the upcoming season that include the formation of a brand new "Super League.”

"What used to be the Triple A and Double A levels have been funnelled into what will now be called the Alberta Female Hockey League," explained Lyon. "We have a Triple A division that's located in six centres (Calgary, Edmonton, Lloydminster, Okotoks, Red Deer and St. Albert) and we also have Midget and Bantam Elite divisions with 12 teams in each group."

However, as Lyon points out, the program isn't only aimed at the players.

"Part of our goal is to also attract and develop more female coaches. As older players graduate from our programs, we want to encourage them to look at coaching as a way of staying involved in hockey."

Carla MacLeod, for instance, won a pair of gold medals with our powerhouse Canadian Olympic women's hockey squad, and was recently named the head coach for Alberta's under-18 female program. And even red and white glory at the Summer Olympics can have a huge impact on girls who play hockey, as we witnessed at the August Games in Brazil.

"The success our female athletes enjoyed in Rio really energized young female athletes," enthused Fran Rider, President of the Ontario Women's Hockey Association. "You see someone like Brooke Henderson, who grew up as a hockey goalie in Smith Falls, Ont., and has gone on to become a great role model for this country. Brooke attributes a lot of her golfing success to the lessons she learned in hockey.

There's still a lot of young girls who don't have confidence and don't believe in themselves but when they see excellent role models succeed, they really get inspired.”

Speaking of inspiration, the OWHA will once again host the World Girls Hockey Weekend over Thanksgiving weekend.

"It's an initiative where organizations in women's hockey around the world do something special to celebrate and grow the female game," explained Rider. "There's a website where we exchange ideas and stage skill development camps and everybody shares the information and works together."

Hockey Alberta also has a special day planned for Jan. 21, 2017 in Grande Prairie, the Alberta Female Hockey Celebration.

"We want to let every female in the province who might be interested in playing hockey know what's out there and where they can access it," said Lyon. "One of the things we're looking at is enticing a few collegiate teams to play a game in Grande Prairie to get as much exposure and buzz as we can generate."

Embracing Benefits (and Safe Practices) of Social Media
If it's not buzzing on Twitter or Instagram, chances are not many people care about it.

Welcome to the new world of social media, and, like everybody else, minor hockey is scurrying to keep up with technology that seems to change by the hour. In Toronto, the GTHL is rolling out a new social media strategy designed to get their message out to the public and keep their own people in the loop.

"Our training programs will begin in September," said Oakman. "They'll involve everything from how each organization can use social media to do a better job promoting themselves, to how to use the tools to recruit more young people to play the game."

Like The GTHL, the OMHA is also planning to fine-tune its social media presence.

"We're a large association with a huge membership," pointed out Taylor. "So we're constantly trying to educate and communicate through our website, on Twitter, Facebook and for the younger kids, we're now getting into Instagram."

But the social media universe can be a dangerous place to navigate, and minor hockey officials are aware of the potential hazards.

"One of the things we've done as an association focuses on social media and bullying," said Rider. "We don't tolerate poor behaviour. One of the models we use is based on the referee calling a match penalty when there's a deliberate attempt to injure another player. If you're deliberately attempting to injure someone emotionally on social media, that's also a deliberate attempt to injure and we legislate accountability to provide a safe environment for our players."

Physical and Mental Health Above All Else
While social media is a fairly new initiative, the area of on-ice player safety continues to be a work in progress.

Concussions are at the forefront of every sport and to help deal with the issue, the GTHL is teaming up with a major Toronto health institution.

"We have a brand new 'concussion/return to play' policy we've developed in partnership with the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital," announced Oakman. "In our opinion, it's going to be the most comprehensive 'return to play' protocol for kids involved in minor sports across the country. We believe it's going to make the game safer for kids who are involved in hockey and ensure they're returning to the game completely healed and ready to play."

Oakman is also excited about the research component of their relationship with the hospital.

"We're going to be able to collect data to see if some of our safety initiatives are having an impact. We're also doing a series of educational sessions at the start of the season with the head coach and trainer of every team to increase concussion education. We're going to monitor the progress over the next few years to see whether we're improving our knowledge base and coming up with more solutions on concussions."

But while concussions represent a continuing challenge, the area of mental health is another issue the hockey world has been forced to address. Head injuries and mental health, in fact, have been linked together to help explain the deaths of ex-NHLers such as Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador. However, the increased pressure on kids to make good on all the time and money their parents are investing in their "careers" is something that could impact even the youngest minor hockey players.

"Mental Health has to be intertwined in everything we do," stressed Rider. "You need to treat young players fairly, but you also need to be mindful of the most sensitive child and their specific needs."

Oakman agrees, and believes the hockey world needs to look outside itself for potential answers.

"The partnership we've established with Holland Bloorview is a model that we'll likely use to address other issues kids are facing. We're working with the top pediatric people in the world on concussions and we need to follow the same protocol when it comes to mental health.

We've come to the realization that hockey people don't know everything and we should be reaching out to the people who do know their stuff in the areas where we have challenges."

As Always, Fun is the Name of the Game
So there you go.

We've discussed plenty of new initiatives on the hockey horizon, all designed to make the game more enjoyable for everyone.
But sprinkled in with all those fresh ideas is one fact that hasn't changed at all.

"The number one reason kids play hockey is because it's fun and the number one reason they choose not to play is because they're not having fun," said Taylor. "The minor hockey years go by pretty quick so you have to step back and enjoy the process. As hockey parents, we put in a lot of time and there is a financial consideration. But at the end of the day, we want our kids to be active, to hang out with their buddies at the rink, and to enjoy a juice box after practice. Those are the experiences that really count.”

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By Mike Toth| September 01, 2016
Categories:  Minor Hockey

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