August 23, 2013 – All across Canada, the number of players in minor hockey is quietly decreasing. While the reasons cited for the drop from around 700,000 to around 500,000 players often include fear of injuries and rising costs, one of the often overlooked reasons is the increasing pressure placed on young hockey players and the resulting reduction in their enjoyment of the game.
Lawrence Smyth, President of North Vancouver Minor Hockey, has no real control over the growth of the sport on a national level, but he is putting significant emphasis on ensuring that North Vancouver has a strong and growing minor hockey community. The key to this effort is shifting away from the model that pushes a select few to the sport’s upper echelons while relegating the vast number of their teammates to supporting roles. In its place, Smyth is trying to build what he describes as a “community hockey skills for life” model, one that encourages the development of players across all age groups and skill levels, with the goal of producing hockey players who will continue to play and give back to the game throughout their lives, well beyond their minor hockey days.
“We’re focused on getting players developed all the way through to Midget and even Juvenile,” said Smyth. “We’re trying to give kids a complete hockey education. There is a lot of development opportunities from Bantam through Midget ages with a lot of skills still to be learned.”
It is at these age groups – when the dreams of Junior and professional hockey begin to fade – that many associations experience the greatest dropout rates, but North Vancouver Minor Hockey has been able buck this trend by offering players the opportunities to pursue high level hockey at the Midget and Juvenile level, while keeping the window open for late bloomers who may find a second chance via Junior or the University route. They have also taken in 18-20 year old players from across the lower mainland who have recognized North Vancouver Minor Hockey’s program as the best avenue for continuing their minor hockey experience.
“Our goal is really to develop players,” said Smyth. “Winning is not secondary, but it is not our main focus. We stress fun – we don’t want kids dropping out – and we also follow the fair play model. Whether you’re being competitive or not, everyone should have the ability to touch the puck and attempt to execute the skills that we’re teaching them. I think we get more well rounded, more passionate players as a result.”
“About 30% of our association is competitive hockey, while the other 70% is recreational, so we’re serving a broader range of users than the winter clubs for example,” said Smyth, adding that the organization hopes to develop players’ off-ice and leadership skills just as much as it wants players to develop on-ice skills.
While it will take a number of years to see how the community hockey skills for life approach turns out, the real success of the initiative will be measured by how many players stay involved with the game as coaches, parents and recreational hockey players. Smyth, for his part, will try to lead by example, as he continues playing men’s league hockey twice a week. He trusts that a great minor hockey experience will serve as a foundation for the next generation of hockey players to enjoy the game throughout their lives.