Big league dreams, big league odds

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:36 AM ET

It's easily the most controversial issue on the Winnipeg sports scene.

Ask a parent, coach or ref what's wrong with minor hockey, and you'll get an earful that'll last 30 minutes.

We're stretching it to three full days, with an in-depth look at the grassroots of Canada's game.

Today, we drop the puck and Just Let 'Em Play.

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They're all over television every Christmas during the World Junior Hockey Championships, becoming national heroes in the time it takes to score a shootout goal. Or three.

They're winning Stanley Cups, bringing the famous trophy home for day-long parties in Winnipeg, Winkler and St. Andrews.

They're pulling NHL jerseys over faces barely old enough to shave, signing million-dollar contracts, being hailed, even, as the saviour of a storied Original Six franchise.

Has there been a more glorious time for Manitobans in hockey?

From former World Junior shootout hero Jonathan Toews, now captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, to Detroit Red Wings prospect Darren Helm, who wins Stanley Cups as fast as he skates -- it took him just seven regular season games to get his first.

From NHL regulars like Travis Zajac, who's having a devil of a time in New Jersey, to Ranger Nigel Dawes, enjoying a full bite of the Big Apple.

Cam Barker in Chicago, Ian White of the Leafs, Calgary's Dustin Boyd, Andrew Murray in Columbus, Edmonton's Dustin Penner -- all everyday players in the NHL.

Another crop of nine were drafted last summer, led by first-round picks Colin Wilson and Chet Pickard. The next ones, apparently.

To a minor hockey mom and dad on the same trail, attempting to follow the fancy footwork of Toews and Dawes in St. Vital, or Zajac in St. James, it's all so deliciously tantalizing.

And terribly unlikely.

"A real high percentage of parents have unrealistic expectations of their kids," Billy Keane, a longtime local coach and organizer told the Sun. "You better just make sure you're creating good citizens. And don't be overly concerned with your nest egg. 'Cause little Johnny's probably not going to be a pro."

The truth is as cold and hard as an outdoor sheet of ice in January: your boy's odds of making it to the NHL are minuscule. Heck, he doesn't even stand a good chance of reaching major junior (see box).

The numbers don't lie.

Some 9,000 kids are playing minor boys hockey in Winnipeg in any given season. Since the year 2000, an average of four players per year from Winnipeg have been drafted by NHL teams. The numbers from rural Manitoba are similar.

How many of those actually end up playing in The Show?

Of the 31 Manitobans drafted from 2000 to 2003 -- they've had at least five years to make it -- just seven have spent any significant time (50 games or more) in the NHL. A full 15 players, or nearly half of those drafted in that time, still haven't played a single NHL game.

For every Toews, there is an Owen Fussey, an early-round 2001 pick who played four games. For every Barker, a Phil Cole, Geoff Waugh or Lance Monych, all of whom have yet to see a big-league game cheque.

If that's not scientific enough, a study of 30,000 players in Ontario concluded the odds of a Canadian player forging a significant NHL career, complete with a pension, are one in 5,000 -- and that's in a good year.

There are others who beat even longer odds by taking the circuitous route, undrafted players who make it as free agents, like tough guys Riley Cote (Philadelphia) and Colton Orr (Rangers).

But you can count them on one set of knuckles.

Whether you land punches or score goals, players sometimes have to be patient to get noticed here.

"We're a bit off the beaten path," former NHLer Carey Wilson, who operates local skills camps, said. "They don't get the same exposure. It's not that they're not good enough, they're just not always given the same opportunity."

When it comes to the NHL draft, Manitoba is holding its own with Saskatchewan these days (which hasn't always been the case), producing 13 prospects compared to our western neighbour's 14 over the last two years.

The cream of this province's recent crop should only help get people's attention.

"You can't knock the results," Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba, said. "Dustin Boyd, Jonathan Toews, Cam Barker, Nigel Dawes, Travis Zajac -- kids that have come through the minor hockey system in the last few years. Those are outstanding numbers, kids that have gone on to become household names in the NHL."

You might say they've won the lottery.

Against similar odds, too.

paul.friesen@sunmedia.ca

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STUNTED GROWTH

Registration Totals, Hockey Manitoba

2008-09 2007-08 2006-07

Boys 18,130 19,003 18,924

Girls 3,908 3,958 3,842

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LONG, HARD ROAD TO THE SHOW

WINNIPEG MINOR, 2007-08

- Number of boys: 9,000 (approx.)

- Number of boys at the AAA level: 280

- Number drafted by WHL teams: 22

- Number drafted by NHL teams: six

- Average yearly number drafted by NHL teams, since 2000: four

- Average yearly number to play significant NHL games: one

MANITOBA

- Average yearly number of boys: 19,000 (approx.)

- Average yearly number drafted since 2000: eight

- Most drafted in one year: 11 (2002 & 2003)

- Total drafted since 2000: 72

- Number of those playing regularly in the NHL this season: 11


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