January 27, 2011

January births gain big advantage

By Lyle Phair

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Happy birthday to all of the youth hockey players born in December!

While the festive season really is a wonderful time of the year, it is not necessarily a great time to be celebrating your birthday. Not only do you get bamboozled out of an extravagant birthday celebration and gifts that kids born in other months of the year might get, but you also have the burden of beginning the hockey career race with the equivalent of having both skates untied, your helmet on backwards and a broken stick. In other words, you have a few more challenges to overcome than kids born in other months of the year.

It is sort of the youth hockey version of drawing the Jail Card in Monopoly. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Go to the end of the line behind all of the bigger, more mature kids born in July, August and September. You can find them behind the bigger, more mature kids born in March, April and May. And, of course, they will be directly behind the most fortunate souls born in January, February and March. A January 1 birth date is like winning the hockey lottery. December 31, not so much.

Obviously, there has to be a cut-off, a start date and an end date, and ultimately there has to be an oldest and youngest player in each age group. There is no way around that. To me, it makes sense to have that cut-off right around the time the season starts, sort of like they do with school, as opposed to in the middle. But either way, you are still going to have a one-year gap in age. By using a two-year age group instead of a single birth year, at least the youngest players have the chance every second year to be in the middle of the age group as opposed to always being the youngest.

Right about now you might be asking why it matters. What difference does it make? It does have significance in a couple of different areas.

First of all is opportunity. Clearly, all players are not provided with the same opportunity. And that opportunity, or lack of it, extends across all levels and age groups. In fact, Malcolm Gladwell devoted a whole chapter of his book, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” to the disparity in birth dates in junior hockey in Canada. As would be expected, junior hockey team rosters are more heavily weighted with players born in the first quarter of the year, followed by players born in April through June. There are typically fewer and fewer kids represented in each month as the year progresses.

Not that I think it is all that important that we structure our youth hockey programs with the primary goal of being player factories for the NHL. While that might be a nice by-product of a well-structured program, it certainly should not be the main objective. That being said, the fact that a miniscule percentage of youth hockey players do realize their dreams of playing professionally at the highest level makes me think that we should provide that same opportunity to all players, instead of creating a system that unfairly benefits so few who just happen to be born in the right months. And wouldn’t there be potentially significantly more players capable of fulfilling those dreams of playing at a higher level if players in all months were given that same opportunity?

It starts at the youngest age groups. In Mite travel hockey, for 7- and 8-year-olds, the coaches will usually select the biggest, strongest, fastest players on the ice at the tryout. Typically, those players are also the oldest players, the ones born earlier in the year. One to three months can make a huge difference in the physical and mental maturity of 7- and 8-year-olds. So those kids get an advantage right from the get-go.

To compound the issue, those selected teams often get more ice time than the rest of the teams at their age group. For example, a Mite travel team typically has three one-hour skates (games or practices) a week, while a Mite house or drafted team might get only two one-hour skates per week. And to add to it even further, the travel teams usually get the more experienced coaches, while the house leaguers often get the dads who might be great guys and do a wonderful job with the kids, but might not have a lot of experience at playing or coaching the game.

So who do you think will be most prepared to make the travel team the following year at tryouts? Would you be surprised to find out that it is again the older, bigger, more mature players, many of whom also benefited from more ice time and more experienced coaching than their peers?

The cycle repeats itself year after year after year all of the way up to Midgets and then on to Junior and above. Obviously, there are other factors that influence the outcome, such as how hard a player competes, athleticism, intelligence and this thing called puberty.

But more often than not, the herd is pretty much the same herd from year to year. A herd that was thinned far too soon, way before there is any reason to thin it out. And the unfortunate by-product of that thinning is that kids born later in the year are saddled with obstacles that are incredibly difficult for them to overcome. Don’t they all deserve the same chance? Not just to advance to the higher levels of hockey, but to be in a position to be one of the better players in their age group at some point? How fun can it be to always be starting the race in the back row?

Timing plays a huge role in the game of hockey. The players that are in the right place at the right time have the best chance to impact the game. Those who were born at the right time have the best chance.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com