Restoring midget hockey overdue

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:10 AM ET

When hockey's ugly duckling gets its face-lift, the entire game should be more presentable.

Sweeping proposals by Hockey Canada include a move to restore midget hockey, which has been considered a sort of wasteland in the game, particularly in Ontario. The body wants to preclude 14- and 15-year-olds from playing at the junior level in efforts to bolster the once-solid midget grouping.

It's about time.

Ever since the pro leagues began bringing in players as young as 18, minor teams began bringing up players at earlier ages. Caught in a sort of no-man's land was midget hockey.

What Greater London Hockey chairperson Brad Pope says was "once the creme de la creme of minor hockey" slipped badly and he agrees with the Hockey Canada approach.

The national governing body of the game wants to see the best players of that age group remain midgets, rather than turn junior and wind up warming somebody's bench.

Optimists see it as an initiative that could help reverse the trend in junior hockey right up to the major junior level. Where most teams were once comprised largely of 20- and 21-year-olds, the average age has dropped so dramatically some critics refer to it as glorified midget hockey.

Nobody disagrees with a gifted midget-aged youngster going up and playing regularly in junior, says Junior Knights chief Joe O'Neill. It's the many who don't get much ice time in junior A through D.

"Everyone knows kids like Sidney Crosby, if he'd stayed in midget AAA, would have scored 12 goals a game," O'Neill said of the Rimouski Oceanic phenom dubbed the Next One. "What nobody wants to see is the 15-year-old who could be playing in midget but is sitting on the end of somebody's bench."

O'Neill has seen midgets from his program excel, such as Logan Couture of St. Thomas Stars junior B's, while others' talents are wasted through lack of ice time. "Logan is the exception, not the rule. We're proud of him."

One of the reasons for the accelerated moves on the part of midget players is they get to play for free with most junior teams. There also is the parental perception that a player goes up to junior B, is drafted by a major junior team, gets established there and is drafted by an NHL team. The reality rarely corresponds to the theory.

Instead, often a youngster's brief ice time at any junior level stifles development, his confidence suffers and the entire progression goes off the rails. Scouts get a better look at him playing the power play, penalty kill and regular shift in midget than three shifts a game in junior.

Only a handful become immediate contributors a level up and everyone knows who they are beforehand. Another concern is that some junior teams will release a 15-year-old by the cutoff date and pick up a more mature player for a playoff run, leaving the youngster with no team at all.

"I think it's a good idea," Pope says of the Hockey Canada proposal. "My view is that holding them back will help them develop a little more."

It's not as great a problem outside Ontario, which might help explain this province's lack of success in national midget tourneys.

Hockey Canada also seeks to permit major junior and other junior leagues to register only one 16-year-old -- whose playing time would be monitored. Moreover, it seeks to preclude major junior teams from signing more than one non-North American player.

Currently, they can use as many Americans as they want. The London Knights have four Americans on the roster and one 16-year-old, Stephen Ferry.

HOCKEY CANADA PROPOSALS

- Players aged 15 remain in midget hockey.

- Junior teams be permitted to register only one 16-year-old player.

- Midget players not be recruited from outside their geographic area.

- Major junior teams be restricted to one non-North American player instead of two.


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