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The Importance Of A Player’s Birthday

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
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The biggest deal maker or deal breaker for the feasibility of a hockey career is not genetics.

It’s not competetiveness, off-ice training, affluence or bloodlines.

Turns out it’s when the kid’s parents decided to get busy. That was one of the revealing truths to come out of the World Hockey Summit at the Air Canada Centre

A study showed children born in the first half of the year routinely make up 70 per cent of the players on Canada’s World Junior Hockey Championship team.

That figure, bandied about at the Summit, is the closest bet to a sure thing. Only one of the 38 players on the Leafs roster, Jeff Finger, was born in December.

The percentage of players on last year’s Leafs, the 29th team in the NHL standings: 68. The percentage on the current roster of the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Black Hawks: 68. The figure for the Gold medal women’s hockey team: 68.

That’s why one of the under-the-radar topics at this event is the dicey question of who does what and, most importantly, when.

Longtime NHL winger Brendan Shanahan, a panelist at a morning session on skill development, drew giggles from the audience when he noted that mid-March was a washout for procreation because of St. Patrick’s Day. His son Jack is a December baby.

Flyers coach Peter Laviolette admitted he also missed the boat. His son was born on December 19 leaving very little chance for another Laviolette in a hockey uniform.

"I definitely think there is something to it," he said. Hockey people say that because the gap between January 1 and December 31, kids born early in the season gain an advantage in size over children born later in the year. In essence, that gap is never closed. The bigger, more physically-able children enjoy better and more intensive coaching. Their promise garners more interest for parents and they enjoy a better level of competition earlier in their careers.

But the effect of the early-bird syndrome, hockey people insist, is detrimental. For one thing, smaller children quickly tire of being run over by bigger kids. If the kids are discouraged, imagine the parents. One U.S. presenter noted that by age nine, 44 percent of USA Hockey kids have cycled out of the sport. A narrowing of the bottom of the pyramid invariably affects those players at the top.

The phenomenon is particularly damaging in leagues that allow body contact. One study revealed three times the injuries in leagues that allow bodychecking when compared to leagues that do. The injury rates for boys in body contact is routinely twice what it is in the women’s game where body checking is not permitted.

"The answer is to stop-tiering kids at an early age," said Paul Carson, vice president of hockey development for Hockey Canada. Carson said the remedy is actually simple. Instead of picking 20 kids from one group, hockey associations should pool and disperse players evenly from a larger sample. He also advocated extra training and ice time for players disadvantaged by the calendar.

"I’m worried about that 21st player, the first cut," Carson said. "We are losing some great athletes who might take a little longer to develop. I live in British Columbia. Do you think (basketball star) Steve Nash would have made a good hockey player instead of playing soccer and basketball? Alas, no amount of pre-arranged kanoodling can turn out the perfect hockey player.

"My son Jack," Shanahan said, “has the aggressiveness of a Sean Avery, the desire of a Zach Parise and the skating of a Happy Gilmore."

Author: Mike Ulmer | Mapleleafs.commentator

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