A model for the youth? The NHL and the consideration for youth academies

youth academies

Over the last week, I have been traveling around the Netherlands, and have been removed from the constant stream of hockey news that invariably comes with the start of NHL training camps. Currently, I am in Amsterdam, home of Ajax, the local football club, that within this city, appears to transcend the sport that it plays. Last night, in the first match of their Champions League group stage, they traveled to Barcelona and fell 4-0 to the European giants. It was a matchup that pitted two clubs with similar philosophies in collective, expansive total football, which is fostered within each club’s players, as early as the age of seven. Though Ajax is not the same European force it had once been nearly twenty years ago, they are a sporting and cultural institution in Amsterdam, and their famed youth setups have been a model for professional clubs around the world. The club scouts young, prodigious talents from all over The Netherlands (and ever more so, the rest of the world), and brings in children as young as seven to their academy. Those that are lucky to attend the academy are placed in a comprehensive program that provides both schooling, and football training within their facilities. Over the years, this hot house of talent allows these young athletes to develop and hone their skills, with the dreams of becoming professional players and playing for the first team.

In professional hockey, with the implementation of the salary cap, and the increased pressure to find effective, low salaried players in the NHL, the entry draft has taken on greater importance in recent years. But given the abundance of talent that resides in the backyards of many NHL teams, especially the Canadian ones, would there be enough incentive for these clubs to build academies to further develop their local talent, to one day play in the NHL? Considering the cultural relevance of Canadian NHL teams within their cities, and their oft reliance of public funds to build their arenas, NHL teams should consider investing in the development of youth programs, similar to that of Ajax Amsterdam. Such a system could provide tremendous, mutual benefit for both club and community, and would help further grow the game in Canada, a game that appears to have stagnated at the grassroots level with declining participation.

Although the fans of Canadian NHL teams are considered rabid, the relationship they have with their teams appear to be relatively one-sided. All Canadian clubs are owned by a local billionaire or big corporations, and the rosters are populated by players that largely do not emanate from the geographic area of the team. For most fans, this may not ultimately matter. However, for some, cheering for an NHL team often feels like cheering for a corporation, and the love shown by the fans is not reciprocated. It also feels somewhat unjust that players that were developed in the local community are employed to play for American teams, whose cities contributed very little to the development of that player. The 2010 Olympic Gold medal winning Canada hockey team only had two Canadian based players (Roberto Luongo and Jarome Iginla). Canadian fans should feel more ownership of their NHL clubs, considering that the seven Canadian clubs generate at third of the league revenues and that the majority of Canadian NHL arenas are publicly funded. The new Edmonton Downtown Arena, which will finally be constructed after years of wrangling between government and private enterprise, will see owner Darryl Katz contribute only 25% of the projected $500 million price tag. When you take into account how much money these professional teams take and rely on from its citizens, you could reasonably argue that they do not make a commensurate level of investment within their communities. That is not to say that clubs do not make any community contributions. Many clubs run community foundations and use their brand to fund raise for local charities. Clubs also send players for school programs, local children’s hospital visits or hold occasional hockey camps for young children, all of which mostly appear to act as a great photo opportunity for the team. Other teams have made more substantial investments in the community, such as the Dallas Stars, who since 1993 have built community rinks all over the Dallas/Fort Worth area in attempts to build the grassroot level of the sport. Their contribution is a major reason for why hockey participation in Texas has increased exponentially over the last decade. Meanwhile, in Canada, the cultural home of hockey, youth hockey participation numbers have been eroding, and the development seems to have stagnated at the elite international level compared to other countries. Should NHL teams not feel obligated to play a more central role in youth hockey development, considering that this is the ultimate source of their product?

If a team like the Edmonton Oilers, who’s arena is being built by the public, invested in an academy system, where they housed top local players at under-9, under-11, under-13, under-15, under-17 levels, it would give fans within the community a greater sense of ownership of the club and would give the club the privilege of further developing these players. From a pure hockey standpoint, young players would receive dedicated, top quality training from NHL trainers. They would get more practice time, and fulfill the concept of “10,000 hours” of practice that was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. From a young age, these young athletes would be immersed in a culture of healthy living, and would appreciate the true pleasures of athletic pursuit. In the Ajax model, which was later adopted by FC Barcelona, the culture of the club, their football system and style of play become indoctrinated into the young players. Over the years, this would create a sense of loyalty amongst the players within the academy. The community at large would also benefit, and have an increased sense of pride for their community and what it can achieve. When these players go on to professional hockey, and play in international competitions, it would create a great sense of civic pride, knowing that a player that was born, raised, and developed within the community played a great role in international glory. Of course, for the clubs, this would also enable them to have an increased, tangible presence in the community.  As a business that makes money off athletics, NHL teams should play a more active role in developing a culture of sport and healthy living within their cities. They possess the wealth, brandpower and facilities to do so, and the academy could be one way of promoting that. The creation of this academy would also give the public another use for the arena that they helped to pay for. The academy system could be housed within the arena, allowing the club to leave a true legacy within the community, an idea that would actually exist in real life rather than on a press release. Even for those youth that are not involved in the academy setup, the club can consider opening the athletic facilities for general public use. These opportunities exist within the professional team’s infrastructure, and would ultimately increase the team’s importance in the community, further increase the team’s brand power, loyalty amongst the fanbase and ultimately, a channel for increased revenues for the club.

Now one of the obvious and major reasons why this system would likely not be adopted by North American teams, and would be deemed as unnecessary, is that the NHL has an Entry Draft, which is the main route through which players enter the league. The development of elite players is not cheap, particularly in hockey, where facilities are expensive to build and maintain, and equipment is expensive. It has been documented that the development of an elite NHL talent such as Patrick Kane cost as much as $250,000. For NHL teams running an academy, the entry draft at age 18 means that they would be burdened with the expensive cost of developing a top player, only to see that player be drafted by a different team. However, I see a few potential advantages of the academy system, that could make it worthwhile for NHL teams to still pursue this concept. Firstly, within the academy system, professional scouts can assemble an indepth scouting report of the young players within their system, and would have a vast advantage in knowledge about these players when they become draft eligible. This could be particularly useful in later rounds, when the differences between individual players at age 18 are not as vast, and any extra knowledge could be quite advantageous. For Canadian teams, considering the depth of talent that exists within their backyards, scouts could develop very comprehensive reports, with years of data, on young players from their region, who have played in the academy. For the cases where the top academy player gets drafted by another NHL club, when that player becomes an unrestricted free agent, his progress through the NHL academy may have fostered within him a feeling of loyalty and indebtedness towards his boyhood club, and prompt him to sign with the team that developed him. This could be a potential advantage for Canadian clubs that have had difficulty in attracting unrestricted free agents over the years. Another potential benefit is that since the cap era began in 2005, an alternative method of player acquisition has been through free agent signings of undrafted players, and there has been an increasing trend of teams signing American college or European players, who are a few years older, and further developed. Not every player in the NHL is deemed worthy to be drafted at age 18, however the same knowledge advantage that teams would have for their players come draft time, could be used to sign players that were not drafted. This could be a relatively cheap source of NHL calibre players that teams could employ as the cap era continues.

The academy system is not without its warts, and certainly they have caused some consternation in European football. Hockey is a very competitive game at all levels, and the competition in youth hockey all too frequently extends off the ice, and in the stands, between parents. Some hockey parents might view the opportunity of playing and developing at an NHL academy as essentially being a professional player, when in fact years of further development and training is required. In England, where football academies or Centres of Excellence have existed for Premier League football clubs since 1999, it is reported that 90% of academy players never play for their first team, and that the majority of players in these academies never make it to any level of professional football. Creating a hyper-competitive environment may increase the competitiveness amongst the most hard-core hockey parents, and this could be potentially detrimental for certain children and dissuade them from continuing on in sport. In a recent survey released by Bauer Hockey, a major reason for why participation in youth hockey has dropped in Canada has been due to a lack of fun, secondary to ultra competitive leagues. Additionally, the academies may seem to professionalize a child’s game. Stories like Real Madrid signing a seven year old Argentinean seem rather uncomfortable in the North American landscape. Also, by assembling the best players in the community and putting them together on a single team, some talented players, who would be leading their community club sides and garnering ample ice time, could spend more time on the bench during games, and ultimately have their development hindered. Quite rightfully, detractors of the academy system argue that these are children first and foremost, and should be allowed to behave as such.

Admittedly, the idea of hockey academies created by NHL clubs does seem somewhat foreign and unnecessary considering that the infrastructure for the development of these players is already provided by Hockey Canada, and the Canadian Hockey League, and this system is already developed, matured and successful. Equally, the likelihood that the best academy players would play for the NHL club that developed them would be slim, considering the presence of the NHL Entry Draft, which distributes the best 18 year old talents around the NHL anyway. Yet, there are some aspects of the academy that could be mutually beneficial for both the club and the player, and certainly over the decades, this set up has increased the pride and prestige of Ajax within Amsterdam and abroad. Perhaps more importantly, the creation of an academy would allow NHL clubs to invest towards the grassroots development of sport in the community that they extract much emotional and financial support from.

– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada

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