Sports: STINSON: Does Canada win on how talent is cultivated, or in spite of it?

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Wayne Gretzky played major junior hockey as a teenager for the Soo Greyhounds in northern Ontario. Sidney Crosby played in the Quebec league. Connor McDavid left his suburban Toronto home to play with an Ontario Hockey League team in northern Pennsylvania.

Team Canada has won the last two best-on-best Olympics on the men’s side, plus a World Cup. They have won the World Juniors a record 18 times. The United States has five titles from that tournament. Sweden? Two.

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Obviously, then, the hockey development system in this country works. But does Canada win a lot in international tournaments because of the way elite talent is cultivated, or in spite of it?

It’s a question worth asking again as attention has been cast on Canada’s junior hockey system following the sexual assault allegations stemming from two separate World Junior teams, 15 years apart.

Much of the attention of recent weeks has been focused on Hockey Canada, and for good reason. It’s Hockey Canada that was made aware of allegations of a group sexual assault in 2018 and, for reasons only known to Hockey Canada, let its own internal investigation lapse without any sort of conclusion.

But while much criticism has centred on the vaguely defined culture of the sport, and Hockey Canada has itself vowed to combat issues around “masculinity” and “toxic behaviours,” the reality is that Hockey Canada, the national sport organization, only has so much influence over the players who are thought to be part of that same cultural problem. Those players, the best of the best, are only under the Hockey Canada umbrella should they be good enough to make the national team training camps, and eventually the team roster. That’s just a matter of weeks in any season. For the rest of their elite amateur careers, unless they opt to play in the U.S. college system, they play in Canada’s major junior leagues. These leagues are both familiar and faintly ridiculous. Young men — kids, really — are drafted into one of three regional leagues, where they usually play (and live) far from home, away from their families and with only the supervision of billet parents. They can be traded in mid-season, benched, dumped, or forced to take on a role that was totally different than what was originally expected of them. If you came up with this system today, and proposed it was a way to develop hockey talent, most people would think you were mad. The teens don’t have any say over where they go and play? Does an elite young hockey star have less agency than, say, a barista?

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It’s not like there are no other options. Young athletes showing the potential for professional careers in the other three big North American leagues are expected to play in college for at least a year, and usually longer than that. Major-college sports are hardly without their own problems, but at least athletes and their families retain a choice over where they play their final seasons before turning pro. Soccer, the biggest sport in the world, is even more egalitarian. Talented youngsters are essentially free agents, and no team would imagine being able to lay claim to a 15-year-old phenom simply because the team stunk the season prior.

But that’s just the way it works in hockey, in Canada. Other hockey nations, lacking Canada’s junior-system infrastructure, develop their best young players in other ways. They play collegiately, on elite youth teams, or sometimes against older players in semi-pro leagues. In the United States, there is both the NCAA pathway and a national-development team, each of which has turned out players who are National Hockey League stars today. And while a limited number of foreign skaters choose to come to Canada to play junior, the pipeline is increasingly moving the other way, with Canadian pro hopefuls entering the NCAA system rather than playing junior hockey here. Talk to some of them, and they wonder why everyone wouldn’t do it that way: they choose their school, they begin an education, and they don’t have to leave home quite so early.

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The Canadian Hockey League, and its three regional leagues, the OHL, WHL, and QMJHL, have one factor working in their favour: the tendency toward the status quo. There have been calls for major changes to junior hockey for decades, and while rules and policies have been altered, fundamentally it has remained the same. When a class-action lawsuit challenged the lack of wages for players, the CHL successfully lobbied provinces to have them exempted from employment-standards provisions. There remain other lawsuits related to concussions, hazing practices, and mobility rights. But the system has endured.

On Wednesday of this week, the Members of Parliament on the Standing Committee for Canadian Heritage directed the vast majority of their questions, and their opprobrium, to Scott Smith, chief executive of Hockey Canada, and his lieutenants. Also, there to give evidence were the men in charge of the CHL, and its member leagues. They rarely had occasion to speak.

At one point near the end of the long afternoon session, a question was put to Ron Robison, commissioner of the Western Hockey League, who was participating remotely. He began to speak, and the chair interrupted to say his microphone was muted. Robison noted that he had been sitting there on mute for two and a half hours.

And indeed he had. But amid all the calls for change and demands for a cultural shift in Canada’s favourite sport, it shouldn’t just be Hockey Canada promising reforms. And the men running junior hockey in this country shouldn’t be left to the sidelines, sitting quietly.

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