The System

Sports | The NHL lockout has pro hockey on hold, putting the focus on Canada's year-round elite youth leagues where players too young to drive are minor-league professionals in all but name. The two-decade-old trend toward the professionalization of youth sports in the United States is being blamed for problems ranging from burnout to Sunday games, but Canada's experience in hockey hints at even more ominous consequences | by Les Sillars in Brandon, Manitoba

Issue: "Iraq: Terror without end," Oct. 2, 2004

BRANDON, Manitoba - Take all the time, money, achievement, sacrifice, dreams, heartbreak, and vicarious parental glory an American community expends on football, baseball, and basketball. Stuff it into one bowl, and sweeten with Wayne Gretzky, Stanley Cups, and Olympic gold. That's hockey in Canada, eh?

That's why Canadians have paid close attention to a criminal trial involving two NHL players. In July, St. Louis Blues forward Mike Danton pleaded guilty of conspiring to hire a hit man to kill David Frost, a notorious, Svengali-like character who'd been his coach since age 11 and then his agent. The world of professional sports often seems surreal (Kobe Bryant, anyone?), but this case seems unusually odd: Why would a father turn his young teen's life over to such a coach? The search for answers begins in Brandon, a mid-size river valley town in southwestern Manitoba.

A tall, rangy forward for the Man.-Sask. Panthers swoops toward the goal from the right side and collars a rebound, but a Cypress Timberwolves defenseman is shoving him toward the blue line, so he can't turn and shoot. Instead, he slips the puck between the legs of another defender charging from the side, dodges the check and then slides the puck over to the top of the left circle where a waiting teammate one-times a rocket on net. But the Timberwolves goalie, having drifted out to cut down the angle, nabs the shot and hangs on to force a face-off.

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It's an impressive display of skill and power, like nailing a runner at home with a throw from centerfield, or a backdoor pass that leads to a dunk. But the players, coaches, and handful of parents inside the 5,000-seat Keystone Center arena are accustomed to such moves from 12- and 13-year-olds, so the teams change shifts with hardly a glove-touch. It's a strangely quiet, businesslike atmosphere at the AAA Challenge. The largest summer youth hockey tournament west of Toronto draws 110 teams from across Canada and the United States for three weeks every July.

Summer hockey is an integral part of The System. A partly government-funded organization called Hockey Canada rules the country's sprawling, confusing network of provincial and regional youth leagues, divisions, and classes. It has 560,000 players plus thousands of volunteer coaches, officials, and team moms. However The System, which is strictly unofficial, is smaller. It's the top leagues and players in each age group in each region, and the people who run them.

Most hockey dads will admit that their son's chances of making the NHL or even top-level junior or college hockey are not good. But they also know that it's a quixotic fantasy outside The System. A player who is not "tiered" (playing for a top team) by age 10 or 11 can kiss his already wildly improbable NHL dream goodbye. One parent says that when he considers pulling his 12-year-old from The System for a 3-on-3 rec league, "a part of me goes, Am I robbing my kid of a chance?"

Hockey's central place in Canadian culture feeds The System. Over 4 million Canadians in a country of about 30 million either play, volunteer, or watch as fans. So parents put up with or even demand 40- or 60-game seasons running from August to May, followed by summer tournaments. Aluminum sticks-$300; quality skates-$400; league registration -$500; chasing your child's NHL dream-$4,000-$10,000 per year after age 12 for the elite programs, depending on travel. Major credit cards accepted.

TYLER AND ALEX PLANTE OF BRANDON are a couple of princes of The System. The Brandon Wheat Kings of the prestigious Western Hockey League drafted Tyler, now 17, two years ago. (The WHL is a "major junior" league for 16- to 20-year-olds. Most of the best prospects with NHL aspirations enter the Western, Ontario, or Quebec major junior leagues.) Tyler, a goalie, starred on Brandon's national champion AAA midget team last year. In provincial league play he collected 88 penalty minutes; the next most-penalized goalie had four. "They came into my crease, and I shoved 'em out," he says with a shrug and an impish grin. The Wheat Kings have already ordered his goalie pads for this season.

Alex, 15, is a 6'3" defenseman with a ready smile and an arena seat from Montreal's legendary (and now demolished) Forum in his bedroom. Observers say he's a smooth skater who understands the game and "has physical presence," hockey jargon for "is a tough body-checker." The Calgary Hitmen made him the first pick of the second round this spring, the highest a Brandon product has ever gone in the major junior draft.


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