When his government set up the Quebec Ice Hockey Development Committee in mid-November, Premier François Legault gave him a clear mandate: to create a plan that would allow more Quebec ice hockey players to reach the NHL and the Olympics.
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Over the weeks, this committee has examined what is being done around the world. We bet he took a close look at the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) team.
There are thousands of minor hockey leagues around the world. But the GTHL tops them all. It can boast of being THE Kindergarten of the NHL. Their success stems from strength in numbers, the high level of competition both on the ice and in the offices of each of their organizations, and a no-territory system.
“What I find interesting about GTHL is that it can offer these young people a very high level of competition. She’s able to do that because she has the pool of players, but also because she has the openness to get players from anywhere,” confirmed Jocelyn Thibault, Hockey Quebec’s general manager since October.
As of day one of the current season, 72 of the 736 players who have earned a position on any of the 32 teams on the Bettman Circuit (9.8%) were raised in the GTHL system.
“And if you look at the Junior Team Canada lineup, it’s typically between 20% and 25%,” added Scott Oakman, GTHL’s executive director and chief operating officer, when reached by the protocola few weeks ago.
Let’s get along well here. We’re not talking about the Ontario Hockey Federation, the equivalent of Hockey Quebec, which oversees our national sport’s activity across Ontario. We’re talking about a regional association covering the cities of Mississauga, Vaughan, Markham and Toronto. An area equal to that of Laval and Montreal multiplied by two.
Verification conducted, five of 25 players (20%) from the GTHL represented Canada last December when the tournament was cancelled. For comparison, 40 Quebecers started the season in the NHL (5.4%) and three wore the Canadian uniform (12%).
Wall to wall competition
With the development system and categories being identical from coast to coast, how does GTHL, which offers hockey from initiation category to U18 level, manage to be so dominant? Of course, strength lies in numbers.
Photo courtesy of Max Lewis
Duel between Christopher Brown (14 White) of the North York Rangers and William Moore (14 Blue) of the Mississauga Senators.
“In a normal year without COVID, we have 35,000 players. It’s a higher basin than an entire province like Prince Edward Island or Nova Scotia,” Oakman said.
This may be part of the answer. However, in the year before the pandemic, Hockey Quebec reports showed 87,430 registrations. This is more than double the GTHL census.
The other part of the answer may be that the competitive aspect is omnipresent. Even each city’s recreational league assembles a team that gathers its best players (the All-Star program) to compete against those from other cities.
“It’s like a league of its own,” explained Mr. Oakman.
Ice hockey without borders
Of course, if the recreational level involves some competition, one can imagine what it is for the higher levels.
52 organizations make up the ranks of the GTHL’s competitive arm, 12 of which play at AAA level, from U12 to U18. In this group of 12 is found the most striking difference compared to what is done in Quebec: hockey without territorial borders.
Photo courtesy of Max Lewis
Goalkeeper Landon Miller, Vaughan Kings
“Young people in the Markham, Mississauga, Vaughan and Toronto jurisdictions can grow in any of the organizations. You are not restricted by any limit or border,” said Mr. Oakman.
As if a Laval player had chosen a team from Lac-Saint-Louis.
At first glance, this system seems to encourage bribes, concealed gifts, and brown envelopes. Recognizing that the system has its weaknesses, Mr. Oakman prefers to insist on the leveling up that it manages.
“Each system has its advantages and disadvantages. In terms of benefits, parents have the freedom to find the coach that best fits their philosophy. It also motivates organizations to surpass themselves because they are in competition with each other,” he said.
“It’s like any business. If you want to be better than your competitors, improve your program, hire the right staff to ensure your organization ousts the rest, he continued. A system in which players have no choice does not encourage organizations to become better.
And when the scouts are also within 35 minutes of each of the circuit’s 12 formations, visibility increases significantly.
The newspaper Marc Denis, President of the Quebec Government Ice Hockey Development Committee, submitted an interview request. Due to a non-disclosure agreement, he had to decline the invitation.
Photo archive, AFP
Brothers Jack and Quinn Hughes
The Greater Toronto Hockey League is so well known that people come from all over to play. For example, brothers Jack and Quinn Hughes, both native Floridians, did their little ice hockey education there.
Faced with such unprecedented popularity, the federation’s leadership had to set guidelines and boundaries.
“In fact, we do allow a limited number of players from certain Toronto cities like Oakville, Brampton, Richmond Hill, Pickering and Ajax in the A, AA and AAA. For players coming from outside of these jurisdictions, it is only possible to play at AAA level,” explained Scott Oakman, specifying that the limit is four “foreign players” per team.
These positions are in great demand. Players from across Ontario come to compete for a spot in the world’s hottest development round.
“Parents want their son to play in our corner so they have the opportunity to grow with what we offer,” Mr. Oakman said. Plus, it’s easier for recruiters to get here. We have 12 teams in four communities. So visibility is greater.”
As far away as Europe
Quebec hockey players also join the celebration in large numbers. Every year a few manage to find a place in the GTHL. In some cases it is a matter of relocation, in others the pension option is given priority.
“The large number of companies based in Toronto gives families the opportunity to move here during a transfer. For others, getting their child to play GTHL is really the goal, Oakman explained. Opinions are divided as to whether it’s good or not, but it’s not my place to judge. We receive about 50 referrals a year. It’s hard to say how many are solely involved with hockey.
This is certainly true for those coming from Europe. At one point, athletes from the Old Continent skipped a season in the GTHL to be available for teams in the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OHL) without having to go through the draft of European players.
Faced with this practice becoming a scourge, the OHL enacted a rule that requires a player to have played at least two seasons in the GTHL to be released from European player status.