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They say we can see the future in children's eyes. Well, that's because the future depends on them, and the same can be said about Dek Hockey. Here come the kids!
Although ball hockey as an organized sport is still in its infancy, the game’s growth over the past 20 years in Quebec, Canada, and internationally is undeniable. Dek hockey rinks have popped up all over North America, and more are on the way.
As is the case with any sport’s prospects for growth, it all starts at the grassroots level. Kids must be introduced to the game and fall in love with it to make it thrive beyond the current generation of enthusiasts.
The challenge for ball hockey proponents is obvious. Since it is a derived version of a major North American sport (ice hockey), it lacks the media attention its parent sport enjoys daily.
Because little-to-nothing has been written about youth (or junior) ball/dek hockey, I set out to gather as much information as possible from as good a specialist as you can find on the subject.
THE LDDH: BACK TO THE BASICS
Marc Potvin heads the LDDH, the biggest recreational youth dek hockey organization in Canada. In fact, the LDDH pioneered junior dek hockey in Quebec, creating the very first youth development program for the sport back in 2010.
LDDH youth leagues cover the South-Shore of Montreal (from Varennes to Châteauguay) and offers players three locations with dek hockey rinks. The dek surface is made up of colored (usually light blue) interlocking plastic tiles that work just as well for the indoor and outdoor versions of the game.
The mission of the LDDH is to provide a fun environment to young developing dek hockey players in which they can learn the rudiments of the sport in the same way their parents did before them – having fun with friends on the street or the school backyard.
“That’s why we don’t count stats,” says Potvin, “We want the kids to enjoy the sport in a stress-free environment.”
The LDDH firmly believes that the recipe to grow the game is to make ball hockey enjoyable while framing it in a structured atmosphere, where kids can still benefit from the instruction and coaching needed to learn the basics of the sport.
“We’re like more structured street hockey,” explains Potvin, adding: “80% of our kids play the game on a recreational level.”
“The other 20% (the more skilled players) we send out to tournaments throughout the province.”
So, the LDDH concept does uncover elite talent while nurturing an enjoyment-first mentality.
A FRACTURED STRUCTURE
Perhaps it is a product of the sport being so young, but ball/dek hockey’s lack of mainstream coverage may also have something to do with a lack of a united front among the different governing bodies.
First, there is the ball hockey/dek hockey dichotomy. Internationally recognized ball hockey is played on ice hockey rink cement floors and is a 5-on-5 game.
Dek hockey is played on plastic tile rinks of many different sizes, which allow for 5-on-5, 4-on-4, or 3-on-3 play. The 3-on-3 style, introduced by the NBHPA (National Ball Hockey Players Association), has really taken off in Quebec, since it allows all players to be more involved in the play, regardless of skill level. This style of play is therefore more conducive to individual skill development.
In Canada, we have the CBHA (Canadian Ball Hockey Association), which is a member of the ISBHF (International Street and Ball Hockey Federation). Founded in 1977, the CBHA associates with Hockey Canada to promote ball hockey (the international 5-on-5 game) in the country. It incorporates 9 member organizations across 8 provinces and counts 40,000 players of all ages as official members.
The CBHA also runs Team Canada, an elite squad made up of the best players representing the country in international events for each category, including the World Ball Hockey Championships.
Dek hockey was born out of a need for more playing surfaces – since most skating rinks are now iced year-round. Also, because outdoor dek rinks are cheaper to build and people prefer the outdoors in the summer, the tiles are made to evacuate excess water from rain or condensation.
The enormous popularity of dek hockey in Quebec has made it the form of choice in that province, whereas the rest of Canada mostly plays 5-on-5 ball hockey.
Privately run dek hockey facilities have sprung in every corner of Quebec and have developed their own regional leagues and camps. Organizations like the NBHPA and the competing Central Dek have then attempted to unify the dek hockey community by developing a player identification and rating system and organizing provincial tournaments for all ages and skill levels.
Most private regional leagues are members of either the NBHPA or Central Dek. But Marc Potvin’s LDDH program has made the very conscious decision to be a neutral entity.
“Democracy (politics), personalities, different visions (of the sport’s path forward),” is how Potvin puts this main obstacle to a full-fledged explosion of this very popular style of ball hockey that is dek hockey, particularly at the national and international levels.
Without getting into detail about the divergent opinions, Potvin simply adds: “We are very comfortable with our approach of just letting the kids develop without the added pressure of performance.”
PROSPECTS FOR GROWTH
With this lack of coordination between so many private venture bodies, what does the future hold for ball hockey?
Marc Potvin is pessimistic as to a unification of the sport’s governing entities. He doesn’t see the current divergent interests finding common ground any time soon. But that doesn’t mean the sport can’t keep flourishing.
“Our junior category is our fastest growing,” states Potvin, adding that the women’s and men’s participation has also seen a steady growth in participation.
Potvin is very proud to say that the LDDH has doubled its youth player totals over the last two years, up to a healthy 1500 players currently enrolled.
The summer leagues see a lot of kids that are ice hockey players (20% of all players), while most winter league players are dek hockey-only participants, which bodes well for the sport’s future.
According to Potvin, throughout his travels the same indicators can be observed all around the province of Quebec. Although there is no official census of registered youth players in the province, if we take the population covered by the LDDH and extrapolate, it is safe to say that Quebec currently has between 15,000 to 20,000 juniors playing some form of organized dek hockey.
And the girls? They play with the boys up to age 12. Starting at age 13, they are given the choice to continue with the boys’ programs or to play with the women.
One key indicator of the game’s health that Potvin confirmed is that the vast majority of kids who play in the winter are not from dek hockey families (parents who are also players). They are kids who show an interest in the game despite not being introduced to the sport of hockey in their early formative years.
So where does dek hockey’s appeal come from?
First, it is a much less expensive version of Canada’s national sport than the one played on ice, mostly stemming from the more limited protective gear and travel requirements.
Secondly, the limited travel lends to schedules that are better adapted to the parents’ busy schedules, especially since the kids don’t have to get to the games one half-hour to an hour before game-time to get dressed and warmed up.
The simple fact that kids don’t need to learn to skate is also an advantage dek hockey holds over ice hockey. Many parents these days don’t have the means to buy their children a decent pair of hockey skates (not to mention the rest of the gear), and skating is a difficult skill to catch up on if not taught early. As Potvin puts it, “Everybody knows how to run.”
Finally, it comes down to the approach Potvin’s LDDH has to development. Getting children involved in the sport through pure joy and fun seems to be the key to lasting success.
Other dek/ball hockey programs – not to mention other organized sports – would do well to follow the LDDH’s lead of going back to the basics. Just letting kids be kids!
The rest will take care of itself.