The cross-ice hockey war is just getting started

There has been a temporary truce in a looming war of hockey cultures. Toronto has been given a one-year reprieve in implementing Hockey Canada's mandate of smaller ice surfaces for its youngest players.

Hockey Canada says smaller surface better for development of 5- and 6-year-olds

Hockey Canada says cross-ice hockey will be fully implemented for nine-year-olds in its member organizations in two years. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

A temporary truce has been reached in a budding war of hockey cultures.

The top five- and six-year-old players in Toronto will be allowed to play the 2017-18 season on a full ice surface. It is a one-year reprieve from mandatory Hockey Canada guidelines that all hockey for five- and six-year-olds is played on half- or cross-ice.

The concept isn't new. For years USA Hockey and many European organizations have confined the game's youngest players to smaller areas of ice as they learn the game.

"You don't put five- and six-year-olds on a full-size soccer pitch, or expect them to play basketball on a full-sized court with no height adjustments – hockey is no different," Hockey Canada says on its website. "Cross-ice/half-ice hockey allows young players the opportunity for more puck-touches which promotes greater opportunity for skill development (puck-handling, shooting, skating, coordination) and decision-making."

The decision to move toward this model has already been embraced by most leagues across Canada.

Many are balking

But in Toronto, home to the country's largest minor hockey participation, many have balked at the idea.

There have been complaints about how Hockey Canda rolled out and communicated the plan.

Most of the anger has been focused on how the idea would affect the city's select hockey league.

The North York Hockey League starts at the tyke age, when players are five and six. (Full disclosure: the author's eight-year-old son currently plays novice in the NYHL and is not affected by this ruling.)

"We are the only select program of its kind in the entire country," says Paul Maich, the NYHL's chief operating officer. "There isn't another one out there in terms of an actual select league. And this decision was made really without looking at the select program we are running.

"There is such a disparity in talent at the tyke level. Some of these kids have started skating at three years old and they are very competent. You look at our top tyke level and some of that hockey is amazing."

Rubber bumpers are used to create half-ice areas for young players. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC News)

Maich and many parents say the cross-ice model might work for players just learning, but not for top players.

"I realize this about getting some of the neophytes more touches, and if we are not separating out the more experienced kids that will be a very difficult thing to achieve," Maich says.

The league and many parents might not like it, but next year there will be no full-ice hockey in Canada for any five- or six-year-old, regardless of skill level.

The NYHL will hold three "festivals" this season featuring cross-ice games and has committed to educating parents about the merits of this development model.

But Maich and others aren't totally convinced.

"It wasn't very long ago we were talking about international ice surfaces being safer, and the game was so much faster because the surface was bigger, and there was more space in between the players and you didn't have the heavy hits and collisions," Maich says. "Now we are going to go the other way."

Andy Rivers has heard lots about this issue form both sides. He runs a hockey school in Toronto and has coached many teams in the NYHL, including top teams at the youngest level.

'Too much emphasis on winning'

"This is going to take a little while for Toronto people for it to sink into their minds and get comfortable with, but I think it's going to be a good thing," Rivers says, adding it works on a number of levels. "In the North York Hockey League there is too much emphasis on winning, too much structure. Think about the games. They play three 10-minute periods and say you've got the three lines, you are really on the ice for [only] nine minutes a game.

"To me that's ridiculous. They shouldn't be playing games. It should be all skills at six and seven and even at eight years old."

Rivers says the move toward cross-ice might temper what he sees as a disturbing hockey trend in Toronto.

"It should be just community hockey [house league], especially at six, seven and eight in Toronto and it's not," he says. "People are traveling from all over the place, people are putting together teams with the desire to win and be the best. That's what wrong with select hockey."

Reflects today's game

Rivers says the cross-ice model reflects today's game.

"I just think you can learn a lot more in smaller areas because you need to keep you head up, other players are on you a lot faster, that's the way the game is played now," he says.

The push to alter the game at the youngest levels is only the beginning. If people were upset at changes proposed for five- and six-year-olds, the next move by Hockey Canada could push some over the edge.

By 2019, Hockey Canada's cross-ice model will be mandatory for all seven- and eight-year-old games and practices.

Players at the tyke level, aged five and six, will play half-ice beginning next year in Toronto. (CBC)
Rivers says it's a fundamental shift in the way hockey will be taught to Canadian children. It's a model he has been using for years

"I have had hundreds of parents go through my programs and I think by the end of it a lot of them have changed their minds," Rivers says. "They see their son or daughter get a lot more opportunities to touch the puck. They really see an improvement from playing on the half ice."

Some of the game's best agree.

"It definitely helped me growing up," says Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Mathews, who learned the game growing up in Arizona. "It helps you process the game a lot faster. There's more action, you have to be aware. It's a lot more fun than being a six-year-old hauling down 200 feet of ice."

"You have to be able to make plays in pretty small areas and the more you practice the better off you are," Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby says in a Hockey Canada video.

Despite these big-name endorsements, making changes to Canada's national game is never easy.

"If you have seen our top novice (seven- and eight-year-old) kids play, the idea of putting them on cross-ice between rubber bumpers was ridiculous," Maich said.

To some perhaps. But soon there won't be a choice. It will simply be another evolution in a constantly changing game.


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC