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Thursday, 14 February, 2002, 19:51 GMT

Confidence crisis in Canadian hockey

Ahead of a crucial Olympic clash with Sweden, Barry Smith explores what ice hockey means to Canadians and the debate over how his country can re-establish itself as a dominant force in the international game.

Playing "pee-wee" ice hockey in Canada is a rite of passage for most - almost all - children of Canada.

Every child hopes lacing up shiny new skates, packing on the padding, helmet and gloves, and fumbling to centre ice will be their first tentative steps to the National Hockey League, the Olympics, or even the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"Legions of crestfallen armchair athletes across our eager nation have sighed too often. For us, losing is confusing "

Leigh Smith, aged 16, is typical. He has played competitive hockey since he was seven years old.

Today Leigh plays up to six times a week in a local Toronto league and is on his high school team. Hockey runs deep within him and his family.

"I have a jacket for every team I played on ... seven different jackets." Leigh says he has no intention of quitting, even though the 0600 practices are less fun, now that he likes to sleep in.

Hockey in the blood

Skates scraping on ice is a sound innate to Canadians. So is the bone-jarring buzzer that marks the end of each of the three hard-fought periods.

The smell of powered hot chocolate and cheap hot dogs smothered in tomato ketchup is also part of the fervour, especially among the dutiful parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles who shiver and cheer in the stands.

Hockey is Canada's national pastime. That is why for young and old our sights are firmly fixed on 15 February when the men of Team Canada square off with Sweden in Salt Lake City.

The Winter Olympics is a big deal for Canadian hockey fans.

The competition is the opportunity for Canada's most talented players to sharpen their blades and slice through the competition to take their natural place on the gold medal podium.

At least, that is what Canadians think is our natural position. But it does not always work out that way. Coming in second in hockey hurts our pride.

'Losing is confusing'

Legions of crestfallen armchair athletes across our eager nation, from the Atlantic, to the Arctic, to the Pacific, have sighed too often.

For us with hockey, losing is confusing. This is the rub for Canadians: there are just too many excellent hockey players in the world now.

"If you inhibit creativity in youngsters they will be functionally disabled in a sport that is reactionary in nature"
Bob Richardson, Dallas Stars

We peer into the mirror and ask ourselves, why are we not still better?

Why, as skills have improved internationally, have we not remained ahead in the game? Is the answer in our childhood?

Moderate pundits agree that we are not raising new generations to excel beyond the limiting confines of a kinder, gentler overly coached, give-every-kid-equal-ice-time-style hockey.

The zealots rail against the results as if this modern philosophy is the new Communism. Whatever the gripe, there are strong arguments to support their case.

Youthful creativity and skills development is inhibited by an emphasis on rules, tactics, management and, eventually, learned behaviour.

'Let 'em play'

The message is the same for the pros. As National Hockey League (NHL) hero Bobby Orr told the Boston Globe flatly: "Let 'em play. If an offensive player is able to create, we have to let 'em do it - at every level."

Dallas Stars scout, Bob Richardson, agrees.

"If you inhibit creativity in youngsters, if you do not allow them to develop an intuitive feel for the game, they will be functionally disabled in a sport that is reactionary in nature."

"The consensus in Canada is that coaching is focused on winning and advancing kids up through the leagues"

Richardson has gone further, citing the growing profile of European players in the NHL as the success story of coaching youth hockey.

The intuitive feel of the game, he says, closes a little with each passing year. Essentially, Canada is quashing its young players' drive to achieve.

The consensus in Canada is that coaching is focused on winning and advancing kids up through the leagues. It is more rushed with less love of the game and more results driven.

What has not changed, however, is the fresh exhilarating experience of youth, or the hockey jackets, or the lumpy hot chocolate.

And especially unchanged is the ringing cry: "He shoots. He scores!"


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