In Praise of 3-on-3

I spent Saturday night at The Rink watching my two sons play 3-on-3 hockey.  We no longer register them for the traditional spring teams, but the boys aren’t quite ready to stop playing when the season winds down in March.  There’s also a long gap between the end of the regular season and the baseball/soccer season.  So they play 3-on-3, and love it.  We often hear people bemoaning the loss of unorganized pond hockey – that’s where kids can be creative and try new moves, where they can just play the game.   That’s what I like about 3-on-3.   There are some 3-on-3 leagues but I like the system at The Rink where the kids are just put on teams when they get there.  They play with a different group each week so the competitiveness of the league isn’t there, and they have to learn to play with new boys and girls each week.  All the benefits of pond hockey without the frostbite!



Does Minor Hockey Provide Enough Exercise?

A recently published paper by Carla Van Den Berg (Calgary) and Angela Kolen (St. FX) found its way to my inbox the other day (google alerts is a great thing) and it caught my eye. This paper, published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, is titled “Children in Organized Hockey: How Much Physical Activity Do They Really Get?”

This is a great question to ask as we increasingly see kids specializing in a single sport at a young age, and so relying more and more on that sport for their exercise requirements. I think of my kids as fairly active, with the oldest playing hockey around 5 times a week, and the middle one playing about 3 times a week. Are they getting their daily exercise requirements when they play hockey?

As the authors point out, Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines suggest kids should be participating in 60 minutes or more of moderate or intense physical activity daily. What the authors do in this study is use Actigraph GT3X triaxial accelerometers (I don’t know what these are either!) to measure the intensity and amount of physical activity a group of Atom AA kids experience in a 70 minute practice and a 80 minute game. What they found was that in a 70 minute practice a kid spent 43% of that time in moderate or intense physical activity, while during an 80 minute game, 28% of the time was spent on moderate or intense physical activity. Not surprisingly, (given the amount of time a player is on the bench rather than the ice during a game) practices led to more high level physical activity than games, but neither provided near the recommended 60 minutes of exercise at moderate/physical levels.

A few things about this study. One is the choice of an Atom AA team. At this age and level of hockey, the players are going to be pretty serious about hockey, as will their coaches, and so the kids should be putting in a decent amount of effort, and the coaches should be running high quality practices. A younger age group, or a lower level of hockey, might find even less physical activity scores as the amount of effort, and intensity of the practice could be less than what is seen in the paper.

Also, this study is focused on a single team and only 1 practice and 1 game was used for measuring effort. This study would have benefited from measuring the effort of this group of kids over a number of practices and games rather than just one of each. As anyone that has had kids in hockey knows, some practices/games the kids as a whole can work hard while others they don’t put in as much effort (Friday nights, quality of competition, etc), and the quality of the practices can vary too for a given team (eg the coach was too busy to prepare a practice plan for a given night). Further, running this study on more than one team would have also improved the study as again, even for an age group sometimes differences exist across teams and coaches in terms of effort, quality of practices, etc.

Obviously this is just one study, and I have reservations about the approach used, but the question asked – whether our kids are getting enough exercise through hockey – is an important one and deserves further research. This study seems to suggest that hockey is not enough, unless your kids are playing a few hours a day. I should note this isn’t a hockey specific issue, the authors mention other popular kids’ sports (eg soccer, basketball) that provide far less than an hour of moderate or intense physical activity per hour of activity.

If the findings the authors demonstrate are in the ball park (and although I have reservations on the sample size, the results are consistent with my prior beliefs), even if your kid plays an hour of hockey each day they aren’t meeting their exercise requirements. So what to do? It’s costly to play hockey (in terms of both time and money) and so adding an additional sport isn’t always easy. What stands out for me is gym class. These findings highlight the importance of additional physical activity during the day, and this is where a strong school phys. ed. program that really gets the kids active during school comes in. With debate about the value of physical education in our schools, this study would appear to suggest gym class is as important as ever for the physical and mental health of our kids. As well, getting kids active with unstructured physical activities after school and on weekends (street hockey or the outdoor rinks for those with hockey crazed kids) is another way to supplement what they get through organized hockey.


What Happens When We Use Analytics Tracking on 8 Year Olds?

A recent video by USA Hockey brings together two of my current interests, hockey analytics and minor hockey.* One of the things coming from the analytics movement is the development of technology to better track the actual game play of NHL players. Recently we saw some of this technology with the 2015 NHL All Star game which incorporated computer chips in the jerseys of the players. This type of technology has been generating a lot of attention as it may improve and change our understanding of hockey performance (see my February 18th blog for more on this).

While this sort of technology applied to the NHL seems really cool, the use of this technology to better understand the game for young kids and how to provide an environment that maximizes their development and interest in the sport could provide important insights. That’s where this recent video comes in. USA Hockey took a group of kids from Detroit’s Little Caesars 8U team and used microchip (RFID ) technology to track the kids in full-ice as well as half-ice and cross-ice game play. They measured things like how often they possess the puck, number of shots, pass attempts, etc and looked at how these changed across different ice sizes.

The findings show how much kids benefit from the smaller ice-surface play. This result probably isn’t that surprising, as I know many who have argued for smaller ice surfaces for young kids anecdotally, but this video provides data which supports this. For skill development, this is great to know, and for keeping kids interested in the game and not getting turned off at an early age, this also proves important.

In Winnipeg, games at 5 and 6 years old are full ice games. I’ve had two kids go through this and I’ve experienced it with a kid who skated through everyone scoring 5 or 6 goals a game (and so possessed the puck for most of the game), and I’ve experienced it with a kid that never got to touch the puck and would quickly become frustrated or lose interest during the game. Both kids have always really enjoyed 3 on 3 at a place in Winnipeg known as The Rink. This is partly due to the unstructured nature of 3 on 3, but also due to the fact that The Rink ice surface is much smaller than a full ice surface. The kids therefore get many more touches with the puck, and are always engaged in puck battles and pressure due to the small quarters, in line with the points raised in the video.

My understanding is that Hockey Manitoba is moving towards games using less than full ice for 5 and 6 year old kids, and I look forward to seeing how my third son experiences the game this way when he starts.

If you have a few minutes, definitely give the video a watch.
*Thanks to Glenn Yates and Randy Aitken for both bringing this video to my attention!

Parents and Respect in Sport

The topic of crazy hockey parents, often a source of discussion (and more) in rinks across Canada, has made the rounds in Winnipeg this past 2 weeks. First was the news of a fist fight among two parents and rival coaches of two 8 year old (novice) Winnipeg teams playing down in Fargo North Dakota the weekend before last.

 Second was the announcement days later that Hockey Winnipeg will be requiring hockey parents take a Respect in Sport course starting this upcoming hockey season before their kids will be able to participate in minor hockey.

Finally was the hockey fight that broke out among 12 year old kids this past weekend in Winnipeg, and the melee that ensued.

As a hockey parent (usually the good kind, but honestly not always) I find the incidents in Fargo and Winnipeg unfortunate but not surprising, and the efforts of Hockey Winnipeg a step in the right direction but unfortunately not something that will cure the sort of “headline” incidents we read in papers across Canada. First let me focus on why these actions of Hockey Winnipeg likely will have only a marginal affect, and then why this issue of aggressive hockey parents matters for the success of minor hockey in Canada.

From my experience (5 years as a parent of a kid in minor hockey, as well as a few years as a coach), overly aggressive parents usually fall into one of two groups:  intense hockey parents and protective hockey parents.  Those in the first group may believe their kid is going to the NHL (WHL/NCAA/etc)  or at the very least spend significant money and time trying to make their kid a competitive player within their peer group (so they can make AA, AAA, top spring teams, etc). These parents are heavily invested (financially and emotionally) in their kids’ hockey development and so not surprisingly are also heavily invested in the games these kids play.  Many of these parents coach hockey when their kids are very young, so they have already taken the Respect in Sport course (note that the two incidents above involved coaches).   For the non-coaches in the group, it is unclear to me that an internet course will have much impact on their intensity at the rink. 

The other group are the parents who witness their child being harmed or being put in harm’s way during a game and lash out.  Will a Respect in Sport course have much impact here?  As any parent knows, their kids are the most important things in their lives, and when they see their child harmed or potentially harmed, the protective side comes out. A course is not going to offset that natural instinct to protect.

This is not to say that the Respect in Sport course is going to make things worse, it won’t.  Calgary introduced a program three years ago.  Since the program was begun, disciplinary actions against parents has declined from approximately 25 per year to 21 or 22.  Not a big change, in my opinion, and perhaps not a causal relationship.    

The program may help with the image of minor hockey in Canada.  If Hockey Canada wants to get more kids (and their parents) interested in minor hockey, they need to do more to improve the image of minor hockey and hockey parents.  

While this is not a single solution problem (or an easy one), something that will go a long way in improving parent behaviour is improving the refereeing in minor hockey.  Often these headline incidents occur as a result of games getting out of hand, leading parents, coaches, and the kids to do regrettable things on and off the ice.   This isn’t to say there aren’t high quality referees out there, there certainly are. And no one would argue that being a referee is easy.  It’s a tough job, especially for teenagers, and minor hockey has a tough time finding referees. Having said that, minor hockey owes it to the kids on the ice and the parents paying pretty serious money for their kids to participate in the sport, to ensure that there are competent referees.  Too often the games are policed (at least at the younger levels) by two very young, inexperienced referees.  A big step forward would be to require one of the referees (for every level of play) be older and/or experienced.  There needs to be someone on the ice who is confident enough to make the hard calls on the ice and is willing to stop the game until a coach or an abusive fan leaves the arena.  When this happens, things get settled very quickly. 

This is obviously part of a larger discussion, but courses like Respect in Sport are only a small part of the larger measures needed to improve minor hockey for all involved, and for those potential parents and kids that Hockey Canada wants to reach.


Minor Hockey Participation

There has been a rash of stories lately about the problems with minor hockey in Canada.  CBC recently posted an interesting interactive on minor hockey.  The takeaway I got from the webpage, which includes a number of statements and statistics, is that minor hockey is costly and unpopular.   Interesting what you can do with statistics.   First, consider their opening lines:

“…for kids under 14 almost twice as many kids play soccer than hockey”.   Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is not new.  I remember hearing this statement decades ago.   The statement does not mean that soccer is preferred to hockey by twice as many kids.  In Manitoba, soccer (at least for the younger kids) has an 8 week season.   Most kids can fit it in even if it is not their “main” sport.    Also, I really wish these would be split by gender.  Like it or not, hockey is still mainly a boys’ sport.  Soccer is much more gender neutral.

More adults play golf than ice hockey”.   Ummm… hockey is hard and physically demanding.  Golf is…not.    And again, not too many 60 year old women out there playing hockey with my father-in-law.

There are also more ice hockey participants in the U.S. today than there are in Canada. And the game is growing much faster south of the border than it is here.”   Well, the U.S. is ten times the size of Canada, so the absolute numbers are obvious.   The growth rate is likely due to a much lower starting point.  Michigan’s population is about one-quarter the size of Canada’s, but the number of hockey players in Michigan (53,000) is less than one-tenth of the players in Canada (624,000).  Starting from a lower base, a higher growth rate is not unexpected.  And Michigan is a state where we would expect hockey to be relatively popular.   Apparently Hawaii had outstanding 71% annual growth in hockey registrations in 2011 – Increasing from 7 players to 12.

One number often floated around the media is that only 10% of Canadian children play minor hockey.    I find this statistic disingenuous, again given the gender split in hockey.  Boys make up 87% of registered players nationally.  It really makes more sense to split the numbers up.

I crunched some numbers using Hockey Canada’s registration info and StatsCan’s population data.  CBC could have pitched the story in a much different way.  Hockey is back!  Hockey is growing!

While it may be true that the growth rate in Hockey Canada registration has been low for the past decade, it is positive.  In contrast, the population of boys and girls aged 5-17 has been in decline.[1]   In the 2005-2006 season, 17.6% of boys and 2.5% of girls aged 5-17 were registered for hockey.  By the 2012/2013 season, 20.8% of boys and 3.6% of girls were playing hockey.    The growth rate is not huge, but contrary to what many believe, the sport is actually gaining in popularity.

Population and Registration Graph

Hockey Canada Participation Rates

The national numbers hide a lot of variation across provinces.  The chart below shows the proportion of boys and girls aged 5-17 registered through Hockey Canada.  I’ve ordered the provinces by the boys’ proportion.    There is a lot of variation.  In PEI, 37% of boys and 12% of girls play hockey.  In BC, the proportions are 16.5% and 3%.  The ordering of the provinces is interesting, and raises a bunch of questions.  Certainly, immigration history will play a big role, pushing participation in Ontario, Quebec  and BC down.  Even still, I am surprised that Quebec is so low, but then I’m often surprised by Quebec statistics.  And Alberta?  With two NHL teams?

Provincial Participation Rates:

Besides immigration, the other main explanation would be costs.  As the CBC webpage points out, the cost of renting ice is higher in large cities than in small towns, so we might expect the costs of hockey to be higher in the big cities (big provinces).  But equipment should be similarly priced across the country, and one could argue that travel costs should be lower in an area of high density.  Plus incomes are higher in these provinces.

I would argue that if costs are significantly higher in Toronto and Vancouver, compared to Saskatoon, this is largely by choice and not by necessity.

The CBC website shows the average amount it could cost to outfit a child to play hockey and argues this is high relative to other sports.   Other sites note the average amount parents spend on hockey.   The problem with these statistics is that a large part of hockey costs are by choice, determined by the team and peer group.   In Manitoba, we pay an upfront registration cost, and then the coach (after discussions with parents) usually requests an additional amount to cover additional ice times, fancy track suits, tournament entry fees, etc.    If your child is on a team with wealthy, competitive parents, you’re going to have a lot of extra practises and out of town tournaments and your additional fees will be high.  If your child is on a team with less wealthy or less competitive parents, the additional fees will be low.   Equipment costs are also likely to be influenced by the peer group.  Ryan spends what I consider to be a ridiculous amount of money on hockey equipment, partly to keep up with the Joneses, but ultimately this is his choice and not something inherently forced on him as part of his kids playing hockey.

So while it may be the case that the high cost of hockey discourages low-income households from participation, it is also probable that as lower-income households drop out of hockey, the average cost of hockey rises.   Following from that, it is likely that areas with high income disparities will have lower participation in hockey, all else equal.     I haven’t tested this (yet) but the correlation between provincial income inequality and minor hockey participation looks about right.  (Except, once again, for Quebec).



Hockey Canada Participation Rates:

Statistics Canada Population:

US Figures:

CBC Interactive Website:

[1] Different sources use different age categories as denominators.  The ages included in Hockey Canada’s registration data are not clear.  The 10% figure is based on a denominator of 5-19, although the CBC website information states that Hockey Canada’s registration figures are for Under 18.  I use the 5-17 population as the denominator (taking 3/5 of the 15-19 category available from Statscan).