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Summit to address grassroots efforts to grow game

by Dan Rosen
Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke will have a notable audience this summer, and he's hopeful his thoughts on growing the sport globally won't fall on deaf ears.

Burke, Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman, Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson and Canadian women's star Hayley Wickenheiser were announced during a conference call Wednesday as the leadership team for the 2010 Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit, which will take place Aug. 23-26 in Toronto.

"The Summit is an important opportunity to exchange ideas with major hockey constituencies," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "The League takes its role in international hockey seriously. The objective of the Summit is to improve the quality of hockey throughout the world at all levels and we want to be part of the leadership effort."

Among the topics to be discussed during the event will be the challenges facing grassroots hockey, both for boys and girls. Burke believes that in order to grow the sport, it first has to be available to all people and then be made affordable in what is already a depressed economy.

He stressed that in Toronto, for example, the Leafs' practice facility, the Mastercard Centre, was the first new rink built within the city limits in at least a quarter century. Burke also noted that the ethnic base in Toronto has changed dramatically over that time span.

Something must change in order to ensure kids will continue to pick up the stick and become, as Burke said, "hockey players for life."

"The challenges that I think we have in our game, forget where it's played, are to keep the game available, affordable and to make sure we're always looking at alternatives," Burke said. "In other words, if we can't afford to build 365-day-a-year refrigerated ice rinks in Canada, why aren't we building roller rinks where players can play in-line in the summertime? We've got to focus on alternatives where we can still develop skill and teach the game."

Alfredsson and Yzerman agreed, though neither is exactly sure if the sport will ever become available and affordable to all people.

"Honestly, I have no idea," Alfredsson said candidly. "It's not like putting a soccer field out there where you get some land and grow some grass. It's tough. That's going to be a big challenge."

It's one that Yzerman said would be easier to tackle if everyone -- including rink managers and equipment makers -- were on board.

"It's just good business to make it affordable," he said. "To grow your business and also to grow the game, ultimately you need kids playing it."

Beyond just making the sport available and affordable, the summit leadership team has concerns over how players, specifically those in North America, are developed.

Burke is incensed with the amount of games kids are playing these days.

He said it's one thing for an NHL player to be playing upwards of 100 games per year, but even the pros should have three practices for every one game that they play, and "we'd kill to get two … but it's one-to-one or less in a lot of youth situations."

"The parents are a big part of the problem," he continued. "They don't want to watch a practice. They want to see Johnny out there with four other skaters, a referee and two linesmen, not realizing that if we play 3-on-3, change on the horn, that we can keep their kid on the ice way more and develop their skill at a much higher level."

Burke recalled starting a 4-on-4 league in Vancouver in the spring in order to stop the burnout factor and focus on skill and fun. He said he doesn't think they still play it there anymore because enough parents weren't interested.

"They don't want to watch 4-on-4 or 3-on-3, even if guys like me tell them it's important," Burke said.

Alfredsson, a native of Sweden, remains shocked at how different the training is in North America.

"It's important to get ice time, but especially at a young age, if you're a decent or average player you're not going to touch the puck very many times in a game," he said. "In practice everybody can have the puck. You can do different drills to develop your skills. But, like Brian said, parents like to watch games."
"If you look at where the U.S. National Team players are coming from, they're coming from 50 states, not just Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan. We have kids from Las Vegas, Texas. There are second-round picks from California. We have broken down a lot of geographic barriers." -- Brian Burke

Clearly USA Hockey is doing something right. Its junior program had a clean golden sweep of the U-20, U-18 and U-17 tournaments this summer, and the national team was an overtime goal away from capturing gold at the Olympics as well.

Burke, the GM of the U.S. Men's Olympic team, traces the Americans' success back to the National Team Development Program, a model of success that maybe should be copied by European countries looking to become one a global hockey power.

However, he also said a key in development in the United States has surprisingly been the growth of minor-league hockey. The American Hockey League will have 30 teams in 2010-11, including 26 in the U.S., while 18 of the 19 teams in the ECHL play in the States as well. There are also several lower-level leagues that encompass areas such as the Southeast, Midwest and Texas.

"Wherever we put a minor-league team, Central League, East Coast team, non-traditional hockey markets, we plunk down a pro team, youth hockey flourishes and springs up," Burke said. "If you look at where the U.S. National Team players are coming from, they're coming from 50 states, not just Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan. We have kids from Las Vegas, Texas. There are second-round picks from California. We have broken down a lot of geographic barriers."

However, still more kids could be playing, both in the United States and abroad. Burke has ideas on how that can happen, and the World Hockey Summit will give him an open forum to throw them at the wall and see what sticks.

"Is the game affordable for people across all spectrums? The answer, in my opinion, is no," Burke said. "It doesn't cost any money to go to a field with a soccer ball. It doesn't cost any money to take a basketball to a municipal court. It doesn't take any money to throw passes to your buddy. To play hockey, you need equipment, ice, it has to be organized. With global warming, we don't even get the outdoor opportunities we want.  Then it's the hardest game to play by a mile.

"The reason we get such wonderful athletes that play this game, like Steve and Daniel, is the price you have to invest to become a great hockey player."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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