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Photo Credit: Photo: Bildbyrån/Ludvig Thunman

Can Canada Reverse The Trend of Producing Fewer NHL Players?

In the past decade, we have seen fewer Canadians playing in the NHL. There’s been a drop of almost 8%, down from 51.8% in 2009 to 43.6% in 2019. But that drop might be much higher in the next ten years if you look at the significant drop in the % of Canadians being drafted by NHL teams.

Why is this happening?

Before we get to the whys, let’s look at NHL rosters in 2009 compared to 2019.

In the 2008/2009 season 804 players played in 10 or more NHL games. It broke down to 482 forwards, 256 defencemen and 66 goalies. There were 259 Canadian forwards (53.7%), 123 defenders (48%) and 35 goalies (53%) and they made up 51.8% of the NHL.

Fast forward to 2019 where the league has 31 teams and more players. There was 837 players who played 10+ NHL games. The Canadian breakdown was 217 forwards (43.4%), 119 defenders (44.4%) and 29 goalies (41.4%). They completed 43.6% of the rosters.

The biggest drop was in goal, down 11.6% , with a 10.3% drop in forwards and 3.6% dip among defenders.

Many believe it is simply the rest of the hockey world catching up. I suspect that is part of it, but I wonder if the emergence of more year-round hockey, combined with the elite hockey leagues which have popped up the past decade, is actually weakening the overall prospect pool of hockey players in Canada.

Kids as young as seven years old are playing spring hockey or joining “elite” programs. It is happening more and more, and with it means the best coaches are going to a smaller group of players. The prospect pool is shrinking because of this, and it happens at way too young of an age.

The reality is hockey is still considered a late developing sport. The top two or three kids on a team at seven and eight years of age are usually still the best at 14 and 15, and it has been that way for decades. However the kids who are the fourth to 15th best often see massive changes in how they develop over time. Some kids have a growth spurt later. Others are passive at a young age, but become more competitive later. Others aren’t as coordinated at a young age.

Are we decreasing the chance more players are playing competitive hockey by making what are essentially all-star teams at young ages?

The current model seems to put all the best kids on one team early, and lump the rest in lower tiers. Those lower tiers don’t get to face better players, which usually makes everyone else better, and they might not get the same level of coaching. And the top-tier kids are being asked to play more hockey at a younger age than ever before. That limits their overall athletic development, and potentially leads to burning out and losing their passion for the game.

The club teams are grabbing the best coaches and putting them on one staff. Now only the best kids are getting access to the really good coaches. How much is this impacting the overall development of Canada’s prospect pool? I’m not sure, but I think it is very narrow-minded to be placing all the best players on top teams right away. I realize there has always been “A”, “B” and “C” teams, but even the “A” teams had the best players spread out across more teams.

INJURIES…

Another major concern about early sport specialization is the risk of injury. Many different studies have been done on this subject, and most conclude the risk of injury increases when you expose your child to sport specialization at a young age. “The musculoskeletal risks are predominantly overuse injuries, as up to 50% of all injuries seen in pediatric sports medicine are related to overuse,” wrote Seamus E. Dalton.

Sport specialization isn’t new. People were writing about in 2006, but it has become much more prevalent in Canada in the past 15 years.

Daryl Nelson has been the head strength and conditioning coach for USA Hockey’s National Team Development program since 2000. He wrote an article in 2017 about sport specialization and how it relates to hockey. He wrote much of it from a training and development mindset.

“For young athletes 12 years old and under, it is absolutely essential that a wide array of sports are played. These sports should be as varied as possible and include vastly different environments. For example, young kids should be doing activities in the water, on fields and courts, on snow and ice, and even some air-born sports. Learning in these environments for kids under ten years old builds a foundation on which they can learn more complex skills later on in their development.”

Despite studies and articles from experts, more and more parents are feeling pressured or encouraging their children into early sports specialization. They feel their son or daughter will fall behind if they don’t. It leads to more injuries, but I am also curious if it is a factor in weakening Canada’s prospect pool for hockey players.

SIGNIFICANT DECREASE AT THE DRAFT…

Here is the breakdown of how many players, by country, were drafted since the 2009.

YEAR CAN USA SWE FIN RUS SLOV CZE GER OTHER
2009 102 55 24 10 7 5 3 1 3
2010 99 59 20 7 8 2 5 5 5
2011 78 65 28 9 8 4 8 2 9
2012 100 55 22 9 11 0 6 1 7
2013 96 57 23 11 8 2 4 0 10
2014 78 66 27 9 13 1 8 1 7
2015 78 56 19 13 17 5 11 1 11
2016 89 52 25 14 17 0 4 1 9
2017 78 50 27 23 17 2 9 1 10
YEAR CAN USA SWE FIN RUS SLOV CZE GER OTHER
2018 70 56 28 15 19 5 10 4 10
2019 64 58 26 22 26 1 8 2 10

**The other countries and number of drafted players are: Switzerland (24), Denmark (15), Latvia (12), Belarus (11), Norway (7), United Kingdom (6), Austria, Belgium, France and Ukraine (2) and Slovenia, Lithuania, Neatherlands, Australia, Uzbekistan, Jamaica, Thailand and China with one each.***

In 2009 we saw 102 Canadian players drafted, which was 48.8% of the 210 draft picks.
2019 produced 64 Canadian players drafted, for a total of 29.4% of the 217 draft picks.

That is a significant drop.

The United States, who had the second most players drafted during the same time span, remained virtually the same with 26.1% in 2009 and 26.7% in 2019.

Between 2009-2019 Canada has produced 43.8% of the drafted players (932 of 2,127), while the USA had produced 29.4% (629 of 2,127).

USA was slightly under their average the past two drafts, while Canada has seen a steady decline since 2016, going from 42.1% to 36% to 32% and down to 29.4% in 2019. Russia and Finland have seen a significant increase in drafted players the past three seasons, while Sweden is virtually the exact the same. Sweden was struggling in the early 2000s and made some changes to their Hockey Federation.

WRAP UP

Maybe the decline is simply due to other countries producing more players and NHL scouting staffs scouting European players more. USA hockey has more kids playing hockey now, so they might be maintaining simply by having more good players enrolled in hockey. Sweden, however, might be an example to study for Hockey Canada and other associations. In the early 2000s their program was struggling. They realized they had to revamp everything. It didn’t happen overnight, as the changes began in 2002.

They convinced Tommy Boustedt, who was coaching Frolunda at the time, to become the director of youth development for the Swedish Ice Hockey Association. Boustedt explained what was ailing their federation and what changes they needed in an interview with Sunaya Sapurji of the Athletic in 2017.

A few things really stood out for me.

“The problems were at many levels. The recruitment wasn’t good enough. We weren’t retaining enough players to create good programs. We had a lack of development programs for players. Our coaching education wasn’t good enough and that’s because we weren’t producing enough good education materials,” Boustedt explained to Sapurji.

The other one was they had coaches and instructors visiting clubs during the season. Sweden is much smaller geographically than Canada, so it would be harder and very expensive to have Hockey Canada have people travel across the country. Earlier this week in a discussion on my radio show I talked about having someone monitor coaches practices. Would it be up to each association? Each province? Or Hockey Canada? I know it wouldn’t be easy, and there would be a cost, but if you improve coaching, then more players are getting better coaching and will become better players, and likely enjoy the game more.

Could Hockey Alberta set up a program where they hire a few people to go around the province talking to and overseeing coaches? Watch their practices, and see what they are doing right and what needs to improve so the kids are receiving better coaching and doing better drills and activities. Coaching is crucial at young ages, and if the these new elite clubs are taking the best coaches, then Hockey Canada and each provincial association needs to look at how they can retain or attract some of the best coaches.

The other factor is cost, and that is the most difficult one to manage. Hockey is very expensive, and the rising costs force many families out of the game.

During the 1960s through to the 1990s kids played various sports, and often the best athletes played hockey as well as other sports. Many gravitated towards hockey as they got older because of how passionate Canadians are about the game. Many of the best athletes were in hockey.

But today, the best athletes aren’t only playing hockey. Many are playing basketball, football, tennis and a variety of other sports and games. Many immigrants over the past few decades have become big hockey fans, but they aren’t necessarily playing the game. They, or their children, play other sports, and as we have seen in basketball recently, Canada is developing more and more top-end basketball players. And because of that, more kids will start playing and some might leave hockey because of it.

Canada still produces the most hockey players in the world. We are still the best hockey nation, but the numbers have slipped, and other countries are improving. However, while Canada’s numbers have dipped at the draft since 2009, the 2nd and 3rd highest teams, USA and Sweden, haven’t seen a dip in their drafted numbers. As Sweden proved in 2002, a few changes can quickly get things back on track.

I’m leery that specializing in hockey at such a young age is going to help Canada’s development long-term. Hockey is still a late developing sport. We should look at other ways to keep developing elite players, while not overlooking the 99% who won’t become elite, and find ways to have more kids playing hockey longer, with better coaching and better competition.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • Randaman

    God forbid that other countries produce elite talent. Why does it have to be a negative in Canadian’s eyes? Personally, I think it has to do with weaker competition, higher costs and overly touchy parents that don’t want their kid having physical contact. Is the age for having contact in the game still at the pee wee level? I also say let girls play with girls and guys play with guys.

    • El Connor mcdaddy

      Yea I agree, I don’t think it matters if we produce half of the league’s worth of players. We may be producing less players but Canada will never STOP producing hockey players, and Hockey will never stop being Canada’s game. We know it and the world knows it. Hockey is for everyone right?

    • Jason Gregor

      You think the odd 7-12 year old girls playing with boys is an issue? Also, you seemed to miss the point about how Canada has dropped off, but the 2nd and 3rd countries, USA and Sweden haven’t changed. Why would other countries improving only impact Canada, but not the other two. Seems odd. I don’t see raising the point and discussing the significant decrease in numbers as a negative. Just something to discuss.

      • MrBung

        Agreed. I think it is absolutely ridiculous to have kids playing hockey on ice in Spring/Summer at young ages like 7-12 – especially in structured/skill building environemnts. Mental illness of parents in these cases. Exposure to diverse sports and experiences is best.

      • kormega

        Things done changed. Where were Germany or Switzerland a dozen of years ago? Now they represent #1 pick and 50-goal scorer. Nowhere it’s odd, hockey is getting over unusual areas, this town just might be big enough.

    • Mark Lesser

      Even though hockey isn’t one of the top 10 high school sports in the USA by participation, the population difference between the US and Canada has led to the US catching Canada. Especially as hockey gains popularity in the Southern US. And I agree the cost of the sport is hurting participation in the USA and Canada. Go back to wood sticks. Looking forward to McDavid and Crosby v Eichel and Matthews in the next Olympics.

    • Homer

      As a parent of two boys who played minor hockey the one major reason my kids stopped playing was concussions plan and simple the sport is too rough and dangerous with hormone driven teens trying to run other teens thru the boards. Add in insane hockey parents and absolutely horrendous coaching and this would be why the vast majority leave the game early

      • D

        @MrBung – I don’t have any stats, but it’s got to be a minuscule amount. Regardless, there’s enough money that it makes the attempt worthwhile for many individuals.

        • jesse says yep

          Even though there is no increase in the numbers of those making the jump between to players in hockey academies having any sort of edge compared to players who are in minor hockey? Seems more like marketing directed and desperate parents.

  • Introduce high school hockey. Most kids seem to be dropping out at that age to play other sports for their high school. If high schools had teams and kids from the school came to cheer players on there would be a lot more kids continuing on

  • Towers-of-dub

    i wonder if NHL teams sometimes look at where an elite player came from and try to find the next one. Before Kipprusoff, how many teams had a Finn as their starting goalie. After Kipper, how many teams looked at Finland for a starting goalie? Before Lidstrom, how many teams had a Swede as their #1 D? Now how many do? Same with Hasek? Surely there were more elite Czech goalies out there too? it’s a copy cat league. It’s easy to find a good canadian player, but if 3 of the best D in the league are Swedes, then teams are going to go to Sweden to find another, because Sweden evidently produces the best defensemen.

  • billsbills

    I guess the question has to go to minor hockey registration. Are there as many kids playing hockey as their used to be?

    I’m not convinced that the way hockey is tiered is really having a detrimental effect to kids development. Yes you get better with your level of competition. But that goes for the best kids at that pre to early teen levels. If the elite play against other elite, by the same logic they are better served than playing against lesser competition and just padding personal stats.

    I would lean towards coaching at all levels. I would also say the US development program has helped them. Maybe Canada needs to have a nother division for the highest development at even a younger age that is more on a national level. Let the best players across the nation develop against eachother.

  • Serious Gord

    Probably 80-90% of the reason is the growth of the game in the rest of the world.

    The remainder is mostly flaws in the system – politics and favoritism – amateur coaches (the US and others have far more pro coaches) the structure that is outside of the school system etc.

    In most of the rest of the world hockey is a sport played only by kids with very well to-do parents (not far off of equestrian) and the coaching and training is much better with a resulting higher per player success rate at the nhl level.

    Regardless the globe more and more wanting to play and succeed at the game is a delightful thing.

    • Jason Gregor

      If it is 80 to 90%, why hasn’t USA and Sweden dropped? Only impacting Canada seems very odd.

      Also hockey registration in Sweden is much more cost effective, because it is subsidized. Granted they pay more taxes, but it allows more to have access to playing.

      • Serious Gord

        Credit the US system 10-20% for the answer. Their high school and university system is getting better while Cda has been stalled or maybe in decline a little bit.

        • Beer_League_Ringer

          We have AA and AAA and community league (B and down). There is more than enough opportunity for kids of all skill levels to play and bloom early or late. The USA has 10x our population. Mystery solved.

      • VvV

        Is US not producing more players, that’s where the drop comes from I’d say. The US is a massive virtually untapped market for hockey. It’s inevitable that we see an increase in US players which in turn means less Canadians. I also think that the decrease in children playing Football in the coming years because of the concussion issues, will mean more kids who want to play a contact sport choosing hockey.

  • Fireball

    I have friends who won’t put their kids in Hockey because they can’t afford it. I have other friends who won’t because the politics start at a young age as many parents think their kids are going to the NHL would do anything to make sure they get the jump on everyone else., I’ve seen it first hand watching my family go from novice to WHL camps and to play in AJHL n SJHL. If your kid plays in one of those league expenses are way way less., if your kids playing AAA or B hockey it’s a much greater exspence. A hockey camp in Edmonton for my Boy this year is almost $1000 for first year novice. A lot of kids parents cannot afford that. Skills n skating camps can cost a fortune at all levels. Just to register for novice hockey is in the range of $800 for this year.. that’s not equipment travel, time or volunteering that comes with it. All of this is affecting development. Some Places like spruce grove have banned street hockey., kids can’t even have fun play in the streets and be creative anymore. Also the league is a parody and always have been. The Red Wings really started a movement hitting on 3-4-5-6th round Hall of fammers back in the 90s and 2000s. Players that had been over looked.. even by their own staff .. As Scotty Bowmen said., do you really think we would have waited till those rounds to draft them guys if we thought they’d be hall of famers. Most team didn’t even have Euro scouting back then. Now teams have scouts all over the world looking for the next Lidstrom and Zetterburg. A kid like Jesse scores 16 goals in the SHL and goes 3rd n 4th overall now while kids with 100 points in the WHL don’t even get a sniff. Right or wrong I think there’s plenty of talent getting overlooked in Canada. Pretty hard to draft Guys like Messier out of the AJ in the third round when there’s so much focus every where else. I’ve been at the pre draft tourments in New England. I’ve seen what the US kids can do. It takes the whole of the US system to put together the national development team.. which is basically about the same as our world junior team. But we don’t have our world junior team going around playing 50 games against the AJ n SJ kids. Most of the leagues down there aren’t as good as AJ n SJ. A mediocre AJ team would anialate the pre draft tourney or chowder cup. I’ve got the programme from a few years ago and a bunch of them kids just went in the first round. I don’t discredit what they are doing but still here in Canada we could send 2-3 teams to the junior tournaments and you wouldn’t know which would win and they’d likely all be in the top 5. Same for our men’s teams. We’ve been falling behind yet we could send two teams to the Olympics and likely finish first and second. We still are producing at a high rate.. I think there’s a lot of parody with people hitting stars so they are trying harder to find them there and I think it’ll all come around when they start finding Hall of Fame players in the 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th rounds here again.. scouting is not a precise science. Look at Jesse., there’s a dozen Canadians picked later that are better. ( remind everyone that everyone had Jesse above where the oil took him ) Barzal was 15th over all and won Rookie of the year. Do you think 13 of those teams would had picked the players they did that year if they know that ? Anyhow I’m rambling. Could talk for hours on it. Just my view. PS. I put up the money for my boy to play not because I can afford it or because I want him to be a star.. I do it cause he loves the game and as long as he wants to play it I will support him. Most parents use cost as a excuse lol.. don’t stop them from smoking a pack a day or going to the bar 😉

    • Fireball

      Of course it helps to have 3-400 million people south of the boarder. I don’t take anything away from them US Hockey is pushing hard to produce their talent but I will say there’s as talented kids in Canada not having the effort put into turning them pro. And in many cases completely being over looked.

      • Fireball

        I was told this year Hockey Canada is rolling out 1/2 ice hockey and un structured no rule hockey for novice levels. I was told it’s because that’s what they are doing in Europe and the states. I’m not sure the validity of that but the idea is to be less structured and more creative

  • Just Sayin!

    I dont think the NHL puts much money into minor hockey development. You would think if they can pay out the big bucks in salaries they can throw a decent percent towards grass root development programs. There may be more but about all I ever know about is the Dreams and Goals fund provided by the NHLPA which in the scheme of things is a token amount. As well I guess the junior teams get rewarded for drafted players. Just my thought.

    • Spiel

      The NHL doesn’t in Canada, but they do fund minor hockey in the United States, especially in the newer sun belt cities where there was not a minor hockey system in place.

  • BobbyCanuck

    As mentioned hockey is an elitist sport, much like equestrian, polo, yatching. Only the domain for rich. Canada’s income gap between the poor and the rich is widening. As the middle class shrinks, so does discretionary income for non mandatory activities

    If I had to choose between buying one kid a hockey stick, or taking the whole family camping for the weekend, I know what I would pick

  • Simba99

    To much politics. To expensive ,and if your kid isn’t playing 12 months out of the year your left behind. Kids in general overall aren’t having fun anymore. don’t get me wrong sure there are some that excel cause they do it 11 months out of the year but they are kids and they don’t know anything else. Make it fun and make it accessible and not the end all be all for these kids and more will play because they want to but not need to. !!

  • Slipknot 8

    When hockey Canada & provinces & municipalities figure out that kids are dropping out because the costs for Non-Rep hockey or just regular hockey runs a family around $1000 a year per child then maybe we can discuss why more elite kids are dropping out.
    Anyone have any idea how much Rep hockey costs……..it’s insane.

  • toprightcorner

    I have always said/thought that the amount of time youth spend in any sport should be tracked by the Provincial or National organizations for each sport and that each child under the age of 14, should be limited to 6 months of playing time and 2 months of offseason training/camps per year.

    Hockey is expensive and ice time is hard to come by, but by limiting the amount they can play, it makes ice time much more accessible so Johnny doesn’t have to wake up at 5:30 am for practice, and it also cuts the cost for the parents down significantly. This could allow more families to afford to have their kids play in sports.
    Kids need to be kids and should be exposed to as many activities as possible.

    In my day, we played hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer. IT was refreshing to change sports and kept your interest high.

  • toprightcorner

    I think the growth in international scouting has made a significant difference. The CHL used to be the main area NHL teams scouted and now they are reaching to other countries. The number of U.S. programs have grown significantly and thus the talent level.

    I would be interested to see the percentages per round and see how they compare. I would guess that in the later rounds, NHL teams used to draft mostly Canadians because they were just more familiar with them, but now, teams are drafting more Russians and Europeans in later rounds. The first 2-3 rounds, the numbers probably have not changed that much and Canadians have lost ground in the final 4 rounds becasue they are not getting drafted by default.

  • Kevwan

    Canada is producing world class athletes just not hockey players.

    Up until the ’94 Winter Olympics Canada had not won more than 7 total medals at any winter games. In the ’94 through ’02 games they won 13, 15. and 17 medals. In the last 4 games they haven’t won fewer than 24 medals.

    Canada’s recent draft record in the NBA is even more impressive

    https://ca.nba.com/news/nba-draft-all-time-canadian-selections-history/1r8tuhnwt2kxn1wq2q7853nl3i

    4 Canadians int the 1st rd , 6 overall drafted and this trend has been going on way before this year. Prior to Tristan Thompson getting selected as a lottery pick in 2011 no Canadian had ever been a lottery pick. Since then there have been NINE, including back to back first overalls.

    40 years ago Canadians were good at hockey but few played other sports at an elite level. Times have changed.

  • Shameless Plugger

    Hockey has become an elitists sport. I have a young son who in a couple years will be old enough to start sports. We aren’t even considering hockey. The costs are just to damned high. Between registration, equipment and time it just doesn’t seem worth the price. We’ll find something that provides more “bang for the buck” so to speak.

  • btrain

    I would say the below article sums up a significant part of the problem in Canada. We have a system that tailors to the rich and significantly impacts the amount of players that a) get access to high quality development resources and b) get noticed. Elite clubs then feed elite clubs, and we end up with a small sample of an “elite” labelled group getting all kinds of opportunity advantages over their equal/superior potential peers. Its one thing for this to start elite clubs at an age when kids (emerging teens) start to naturally sustain separation of ability from their peers. However, to not let this natural process occur by keeping equal opportunity as accessible as possible to as many as possible, you are narrowing the selection pool and perhaps, down the road, providing the NHL with a smaller net to cast on draft day.

    https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time-to-lead/the-great-offside-how-canadian-hockey-is-becoming-a-game-strictly-for-the-rich/article15349723/

  • Connor's Girlfriend

    I believe the best way to understand what Canada hasn’t done as well, is to study those countries that are. Finland and Russia.
    Based on what I see in Canada today. I’m not sure Hockey Canada is listening closely enough.
    JG discusses some of that in his article.
    The link below discusses some of what Finland is doing well.

    https://www.habseyesontheprize.com/2016/6/26/11916236/finland-finnish-hockey-prospect-player-development-draft-patrik-laine-jesse-puljujarvi-olli-juolevi