-- The development of skilled hockey players at the youth level is the lifeblood of the pro game.
Tuesday morning, the best-practices method to develop such players was the topic under the microscope at the Molson World Hockey Summit at the Air Canada Center.
While many esoteric and cutting-edge topics were discussed, the undeniable theme that the game must remain fun for today's youth players quickly and clearly took center stage.
All of the skill development schemes in the world will fall on deaf ears if the players those schemes target aren't having fun playing the game.
In a sobering stat, USA Hockey's Bob Mancini, a regional manager of its American Development Model, said that 44 percent of USA Hockey's youth players stop playing the game before they reach the age of nine.
That, he says, is an unacceptable attrition rate and while there are many reasons for it -- the quality of coaching, the fear of injury and the cost of participation to name three -- the main reason for the dropouts, according to him, is that the players stop having fun and become casualties of a hockey culture that has become too rigid at even the introductory levels.
"It has to be fun first," Mancini said of youth hockey's mandate. "We have to change the introduction kids get to hockey. Every decision we make in youth hockey has to be about the player first."
, now the NHL's Vice President of Hockey and Business Development, spent more than two decades playing the game at the highest level, but still remembers how he first fell in love with it as a boy growing up in the suburbs of Toronto.
He says it happened more playing neighborhood shinny games on the closest natural-ice surface and racing around the municipal rink -- sans pads and stick -- playing tag with whatever kids were handy.
Today, his seven-year-old son is just starting to play the game and Shanahan knows he needs to pass on those lessons that shaped his love of the game.
"I just wanted to play tag and I wanted to skate," Shanahan told NHL.com. "Looking back on that now, I would encourage my son to do that. I just think it is a great way to develop.
"Anytime you can get a kid out on the ice and just make it fun and he is developing and improving without knowing he's developing and improving, and all he cares about is that he is having a great deal of fun out there, that's when you have really locked onto something valuable."
The question Tuesday morning for the World Hockey Summit was how exactly does organized youth hockey lock onto those moments that hook initiates on the sport for good?
Virtually all agreed that one of the best ways to keep players interested is to introduce body checking as late as possible to the game.
"The later we introduce body hitting, the more we will be able to develop skill," Mancini said.
Mancini's assertion came just minutes after Dr. Marc Aubrey, the International Ice Hockey Federation's chief medical officer, presented a compelling study of the links between a rise in injuries -- particularly incidents of concussions -- in youth leagues that allow body checking as opposed to those that do not.
But numbers are one thing. Personal experience is another.
, the current coach of the Philadelphia Flyers
, played a hard-nosed, hitting style throughout a pro career spent largely in the minor leagues. He understands the ability to play physical hockey is a meal ticket for many players, but that doesn't mean it has to be taught at the youth levels.
"Anytime you can get a kid out on the ice and just make it fun and he is developing and improving without knowing he's developing and improving, and all he cares about is that he is having a great deal of fun out there, that's when you have really locked onto something valuable." -- Brendan Shanahan
Tuesday, he told a poignant story about taking his sons, 12 and 11, onto the ice this summer to teach them the art of body checking. The older son, who has a 60-pound advantage on the younger son, got the better of the hitting session to the point that the younger son became more concerned in an ensuing scrimmage about being hit than enjoying the game.
He also says his oldest son has already suffered a concussion playing the game.
For those reasons, he would rather see the introduction of body checking reserved for older players.
Shanahan, one of the toughest players of his generation, grew up without the opportunity to body check as a youth player. At the time, body checking was illegal in Toronto-area youth leagues.
"I tend to agree with doctors and Peter Laviolette
that think we should really put the body checking off," Shanahan said. "I think that it is a skill you can adopt at a later age.
"I didn't have body checking when I was a kid, my teammate was Bryan Marchment
and he didn't have body checking as a kid, and he turned out to be a great body checker."
Marchment, an NHL defenseman for almost two decades, evolved into one of the most intimidating and effective body checkers the NHL has ever known.
Shanahan also believes youth players can follow a similar blueprint: enjoy the game and develop skills as a youth player. The physicality can always come at a later date when it is a more natural evolution, he argues.
"Again, a very small percentage of these kids are going to make it to the NHL or even play at collegiate level, so I think that player safety and skill development is more important," he said.