Parents told to get with the program in cross-ice hockey controversy

There is anger in the centre of the hockey universe. What is causing discord in Toronto's hockey community? Kids hockey, of course.

Organizations across the country, including Toronto, have been mandated by Hockey Canada to implement half or cross-ice hockey for children playing in younger age groups.

Hockey Canada says that going into this season, all six- and seven-year-old players should only be playing cross-ice hockey. The idea is to divide the ice in half with two 4-on-4 games going on simultaneously.

The mandate would extend to eight- and nine-year-old players for the 2019 season.

Officials say the push towards cross ice is focused on fun and player development.

"Young players want to get the puck and studies show that on the half ice, players believe they have a better chance to get the puck," says Paul Carson, vice-president of hockey development for Hockey Canada.

"It's about fun, the kids appear reengaged. It's about nonrestrictive play away for the idea that everything in my kid's life needs to be structured," adds Phil McKee, executive director of the Ontario Hockey Federation.

"They are smiling when they come off the ice. It's really the adults who have trouble of not seeing their kids on the 200 by 85-foot ice. Parents should be happy that we're focusing back in fun."

Hockey Canada believes kids are more engaged playing cross-ice hockey. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Resistant to cross ice

Most centres across the country have employed cross ice for younger players for a number of years. But in Toronto, resistance has been fierce, even after a one-year reprieve by Hockey Canada.

Toronto is unique in that it is the only centre in Canada that for decades has offered a full ice select programs for six- and seven year-old players. Last season, more than a thousand children participated in the North York Hockey League's (NYHL) select program, which operates out of arenas across the city.

The league was given a year to come up with a plan to maintain the select program while adhering to the cross-ice mandate.

Initially, much of the focus of many parents, coaches and club officials was on how to maintain full-ice hockey, thought to be integral to a player's development.

Some suggested legal action, while others encouraged the NYHL to simply leave Hockey Canada and protect its right to offer full-ice hockey.

"The entire thing has been a dog's breakfast," says Ted Georgiadis, a manager with Goulding Park, an organization in the city's north end. "Initially, I was of the opinion that we simply pull out of Hockey Canada due to the cross ice because I didn't feel they were addressing the parents' concerns or the organizations."

"I always felt for the less skilled players the cross-ice initiative made sense," Georgiadis says. "For the more skilled players, it's remarkable how they skate. I didn't think a smaller ice surface would really help them. I even thought, 'Here could be a chance of increased injury because they would be in such tight quarters.'"

NYHL chief operating officer Paul Maich says leaving Hockey Canada was never an option. At the same time he acknowledges it has been difficult implementing a program he has never fully bought into.

"I would prefer to still be playing full ice but that isn't an option so my feeling is that given what we've been given we have to make the very best of it," Maich says.

"I want to make this as close to the hockey that parents and kids are used to while staying within the guidelines Hockey Canada has given us."

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

Divided in half

Hockey Canada says the ice should be divided in half. Instead, the NYHL plans to only have one game going on at a time.

For six-year-old players, the nets will be on either end of the red-line with barriers close to both blue-lines. For seven-year-old players, one net will be in its regular spot while the other will be brought up to the blue-line with barriers behind it.

Maich says the idea is to maintain the use of both benches and allow coaches to change on the fly.

"We have tried to adapt with what we have been given to try and make it as much like heritage hockey as we can."

Many aren't convinced it will work. Currently most full-ice teams carry 17 or 18 players. The NYHL's decision to have only one game at a time will mean teams will require fewer players.

"They will have to cut four or five players from the team that have been loyal to the team and organization," says David Noon, who coaches the seven-year-old team at Goulding Park.

"Hockey is very expensive, ice is expensive and the cost is not going down. We still need a full-ice surface but we have less children. Parents are saying are we going have to pay more for a lesser game."

Exploring options

Many are exploring other options. For example, four of Toronto's most established clubs have decided to run their own select league for younger players. It will adhere to Hockey Canada's split ice mandate, which will allow each team to carry 18 players.

"It is definitely costing us players and teams [and] I worry about that. There is no denying it does bother me," Maich says. "The biggest hit we took was in tyke last fall where we lost 14 tyke teams."

Many of those players have gone to private hockey schools, which are unburdened by Hockey Canada`s rules. Others have joined what Hockey Canada calla outlaw leagues like the Ontario Rep Hockey League.

"We are offering something new this year. We are offering full-ice tyke, which we have never had before," says league commissioner Kevin McKinnon

McKinnon is able to offer the full-ice option that includes 40 games because the league is not affiliated with Hockey Canada. Most games are played in Brampton, Ont., just north of Toronto.

“We have the flexibility to do stuff like this. The public has reached out to us in the wake of the Hockey Canada decision," McKinnon says. "We listened to the paying customers, the families, the parents. They were literally begging us for it and we responded."

He envisions about 15 teams of six- and seven-year-old players on teams based across the Greater Toronto Area. McKinnon only expects the number to grow.

"I've heard a lot of disappointment about kids that have played full ice for two years [that] can`t be grandfathered in. They have to regress back to half ice and parents feel it's a step backwards in their development."

Maich acknowledges that after a year of trying, Toronto`s move towards cross-ice hockey is anything but perfect.

"We should try and make the best of this and if it doesn't work we go back at them and say it's not working for these reasons and we need to make these changes."

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