Skill Over Systems: Canadian Hockey’s Dilemma

Canada’s grass roots and minor league hockey programs have already started to come under scrutiny, following the national sides failure to secure a medal at the World Junior Championships.

It was inevitable in a way. Canada lives and breathes the game in a way no other nation does, and any failure seems to wound the nation’s pride.

Some say it is a little silly to put so much on a group of young men, barely out of their teens – if that.

Others see the failure to win a medal for a second consecutive year as a sign Canadian hockey is failing at its foundation level.

Brent Sutter

Brent Sutter, who has coached Canadian at three World Junior Championships, suggested, in an interview with the Toronto Sun, that the emphasis is being placed on the wrong things at the grass roots of the game in Canada:

“There’s too much focus on winning and losing at such a young age,” said Sutter, who also has a keen eye from his perch as owner, general manager and coach of the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League.

“And not enough about the skill part of it. That’s truly where it starts. At 16, 17 when they hit the Canadian Hockey League, there should already be a standard of skill already in place.

“I think there are times there is too much focus on winning and losing hockey games and Xs and Os at a young age and not enough on developing the skill sets.”

You can read Sutter’s full interview with Terry Koshan here.

Sutter isn’t the only one questioning the ‘skills’ young Canadian’s are being taught though.

When I interviewed Sarnia Sting goaltending coach Dave Rook recently, he also noticed the difference between Canada’s teaching methods and those in another emerging nation – Switzerland.

Dave spent some time coaching in Switzerland before joining Sarnia; and like Sutter noticed a more ‘tactical’ approach to the development of young players in his native country:

“One thing I noticed in Switzerland, that I don’t notice even in Canada, is the emphasis on skill development as opposed to team systems.”

“They spend alot of their practice time on developing skills (passing, shooting, skating). In Canada we spend alot of time on defensive zone coverage, break-outs etc. However, without being able to skate or pass, these systems aren’t going to be very successful.”

It’s interesting to see two men, both with coaching experience in the NHL and CHL, make such startling similar comments.

Sutter also avoided the ‘easy out’, and didn’t blame the influx of European players in to the CHL – instead turning the spot light back on Canada itself:

“The import draft is great for our league,” Sutter said. “It adds skill to our league. A lot of those European players that come to our league are top-end players. But development starts at peewee age, at bantam age, at 10 years of age.

“It’s about developing your skills, your skating. You see how some of these teams in Europe have done a remarkable job with that. We have to evaluate that.”

With import goalies being banned in the CHL, it’s refreshing to see someone in Sutter’s position defend the import draft and keeping the focus where it belongs.

Too many people in the British game have blamed the influx of import players (or ‘non British trained’ as the EPL and NIHL label them). Others have said the key to improving the British game is improving the skills young players in our junior system are being taught – not unlike Sutter and Rook across the Atlantic.

Whilst hockey in Canada and Britain are worlds apart in so many ways – it appears there is at least one thing the two nations have in common right now.


About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on January 6, 2014, in Hockey and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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