From The Street To The Show: Pick-up Hockey’s Role in Creating NHL Talent

Ask any hockey player where he or she learned their moves, and most of them will tell you about the late evenings on the streets outside their childhood homes, where every single night ended with their mothers physically dragging them in from a game of pick-up. Unlike the rink where it’s team first, the street is where you can get a little selfish...

No Ball Hockey

You can work on creative stick-handling and develop a trick shot or two... You can also trash talk something fierce because your opponent today is your teammate tomorrow. Everybody knows it so you just go with it. And because there are no refs there are no real rules. 

That means a fair bit of extra-curricular nonsense that teaches kids to play through pain and stand up for themselves. Given that Toronto is the mecca of hockey (despite what the Montrealers say), you’d think the city would welcome kids playing ball hockey in the street...

And until this past June, you would’ve been wrong.

In a long-overdue reversal, in the summer of 2016, city council voted 35-2 to ice the no-ball-hockey bylaw, which had been on the books since the ’90s, and was far-too-often enforced by police when crotchety neighbours with nothing better to do called to complain. But what were the effects of this ban on street hockey? Did it have any effect on the number of Toronto-raised kids who made it to the sport’s highest echelon? The numbers say yes — and shockingly so.

Toronto the Hotbed — Put to Sleep

In 1973, when ball hockey was as much a part of Toronto’s fabric as bland food and no-shopping Sundays, the city had 0.32 NHL players per 10,000 residents, including Syl Apps, Nick Beverley, Mike Murphy and Craig Ramsay.  

In 1983, that number jumped to 0.44 NHL players per 10,000 residents. Among them were Paul Coffey, Dale Hawerchuk, Mike Palmateer and future Norris Trophy winner Larry Murphy.

The year 1993 levelled off a bit at 0.31 NHL players per 10,000 Toronto residents, but the quantity losses were more than offset by the quality: Adam Oates, Michael Peca, Brendan Shannahan, Rick Tocchet, Adam Foote and the list goes on.

Then the bylaw came into effect. And not so mysteriously, the numbers went into the tank. 

In 2003, there were only 0.20 NHL players per 10,000 residents — but to be fair, there were some good ones in that crop like Gary Roberts, Kris Draper and the Primeau brothers (Keith & Wayne).

And in 2013? An underwhelming 0.16% NHL players per 10,000 residents. And yeah, Subban and Stamkos are in there, but even their talent doesn’t make up for the dearth of talent.

What Was the Point Anyway?

“The reasons for the initial ban had a lot to do with the changing face of the city at the time and the brand it wanted to put out into the universe,” said Toronto historian Graham Caswell.

The brass at city hall saw Toronto moving from a Canadian to a world city. They wanted to quash some of the stereotypically ‘Canadian’ elements from the city to give it broader appeal to visiting business leaders — and it doesn't get more Canadian than street hockey, unless the players were wearing beaver hats and drinking maple syrup.”

Another other consideration was the incredible influx of immigration to the city at the time. “The thinking,” said Caswell, “was that kids from other countries playing hockey in the street would feel pressured to forego their national sports for hockey, and the celebrated multicultural tapestry that Toronto was becoming known for would be diluted.”

This was a perfect example of a city going through growing pains. They tossed ideas against the wall and went for them without really considering if they were right. In some cases their decisions worked out, like when they approved a massive influx of condo development downtown. That transformed the city for the better. This street hockey by-law didn’t. And yeah it took awhile to get rid of it — but at least they did.”

There was also a practical consideration for the ban; namely, the increased volume of vehicles. People were starting to move back to the city after the great suburban migration had run its course. That meant more family vehicles, but also more service vehicles.

The government was worried about safety, especially in the winter. While these reasons make sense, Caswell sees no actual merit in any of them.

Game On?

With hockey back on the streets of the hockey universe’s centre, what can we expect to happen in the city? Former mayoral candidate Ryan Goldhar, who built a repealing of this bylaw into his 2006 platform sees nothing but good things. “I wanted it out because, quite frankly, I missed seeing the kids out there in the street. It got to the point where playing hockey meant firing up an NHL game on the PlayStation or Xbox, and that just seemed wrong.”

Goldhar sees the repealing as a positive act of rebellion against a system that preached physical activity for children on the one hand, but then prohibited the best forms of it in on the other. “I can tell you this,” said Goldhar, “when I was a kid, I never slept as well as I did when I was out playing hockey with my friends until the sun went down.”

As for its effect on the future of NHL talent coming from Toronto, the reality is that the more you play the better you get. From a pure skills perspective, stick-handling a ball on the pavement is much more difficult that a puck on the ice because less surface material of the ball touches the road so the ball moves faster. Then there’s the lighter weight of the ball versus the puck. A game on a windy day is great for goalie training.

From an endurance standpoint, there’s no gliding along the ice like you could do if you were on skates. If you want to move you have to move your body. But it’s the passion that regular play brings that many local coaches really think will reinvigorate Toronto’s talent factory.

Amy W is a co-coach of her son’s hockey team and she’s already noticed a difference. “The kids I see on the street playing as hard as they do in the rink when there are fans and adrenaline and all that — those are the kids who love the game.” And while her son’s destined for house league, there are a few kids on the team who clearly have the skills to advance. 

“Just the experience of playing with different people, which happens all the time in the street, is monumental for development. Learning to adjust to playing styles and player styles is how one player can make an entire team better.”

We’ll see soon enough if the number of Toronto-raised hockey players normalizes now that the council lifted the ban. And as a gift to the city, they left the positively charming signs up. If you’re into design at all, you have to love it. For a bit of fun, check out this awesome interactive heat map of Canada, showing the concentration of NHL players from each region since 1923.And for a bit more fun, put a bet down on one of the Toronto boys this week...

And for a bit more fun, put a bet down on one of the Toronto boys this week...

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