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Rushing Players Hurting Everyone

by Greg Millen / Toronto Maple Leafs
We live in a day and age where it seems everyone is in a rush to get ahead. Patience is a word of the past. Whatever happened to the theory life is a marathon not a sprint?

In our education system, we often push our kids out the door to university before they are ready to move into the real world. In fact, half the time they have no idea what program to enrol in. Fifty per cent of our children in Ontario alone stay back for another year of school – the victory lap as it’s named.

Sport has not been isolated from this “faster/more” is better theory in our development of youth. Let’s examine our Canadian youth hockey system. Organized travelling teams are starting at the age of five. Five to 10 tournaments a season seem like the norm in minor hockey. We rush our kids to the gym before they are mentally and physically ready. The minor hockey system now encourages kids to play year round. There is spring hockey, summer hockey… there are even skill clinics and private lessons. We draft kids at 15 or 16 years of age and often move them out of their homes. Then the NHL comes along and drafts players at 18 years of age when only a select few are ready for the big time. Where has the process of slow and steady development gone?

So why this rant? Josh Bailey a third-year player with the New York Islanders was just sent to their American Hockey League affiliate this week. He was drafted ninth overall in the 2008 NHL draft.

In the 2008 draft, Steven Stamkos was the first overall pick. The next four picks were Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo and Luke Schenn. As always, there was pressure to keep this great stock of early picks in the NHL.

John Davidson felt that Pietrangelo at the time was not ready for NHL competition so the St. Louis Blues sent him back to junior. It was a smart move by JD. The other four were kept and by all counts were ready as 18-year-old players. After these top five picks, Josh Bailey was the only player to make the NHL as an 18-year-old. In fact, after the Schenn pick by Toronto at five, Bailey before this season was the only player that played at least 100 games in the NHL. The question is: As an 18 year-old was Bailey ready for NHL competition? Would another year in junior playing for a terrific organization, the Windsor Spitfires and playing in the World Junior Tournament not have been better for the kid?

As mentioned, the Islanders just sent Bailey to the AHL. Why? To further develop his game. One could blame the Islanders in Bailey’s slow development curve but to be fair there has been terrific pressure on the Island to sell the game. Their attendance has been poor and they desperately need a new building. There has been an undercurrent to keep their young draft picks to sell the game. At least Garth Snow, the New York Islanders general manager sent Nino Niederreiter their first pick from the 2010 draft back to junior. Give Snow full marks for that!

Instead of blaming the Islanders why don’t we blame the system? A 20-year-old draft with perhaps an exempt system for exceptional 18-year-old players would solve this. No longer would there be the pressure of rushing players when they’re not ready. This would then filter down to the junior ranks and perhaps we could talk the Canadian Hockey League into a 17-year-old draft as well. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Now some Leaf fans have been upset at the way Leafs management has handled Nazem Kadri. Brian Burke and his management team sent Kadri back last season for another year of junior. They felt that he just wasn’t ready.

This season, Nazem started in the AHL and although he has played very well since his call-up, he still may end up back with the Marlies for more seasoning. Burke is doing what he feels is best for Kadri’s development long term.

Leafs Nation what would you rather have: A Kadri who by next year may start to look like a solid everyday NHL player or a Josh Bailey who you rush and in year three have to rethink his development curve by sending him to the AHL?

The development of athletes from the time they are kids to elite athletes needs to really slow down. It’s a marathon not a sprint. The system needs to change from the top down!
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