What is the future of minor hockey in Canada?
As the Ridge Meadows Minor Hockey Association enters its 50th anniversary season, one wonders what it will look like in 2067.
Hockey schools and academies are changing the landscape, with schools like Abbotsford’s Yale’s Hockey Academy increasingly seen as a conduit to the highest levels of hockey. They choose to spend tens of thousands of dollars on hockey, instead of hundreds.
“That’s a huge challenge to any minor hockey association,” said Scott Falconer, RMMHA president. “Kids and their families believe that’s the way to go, and they’re not wrong in many cases.”
But he isn’t relegating minor hockey as a glorified house league.
“I’m still of the belief that we can be just as beneficial to kids as those programs,” he said.
The job of the executive is to enhance programming, offering more opportunities for skill development, while maintaining a fun environment.
The association is entering its fifth season with a full-time director of hockey development, James Eccles, whose focus is on teaching skill.
He heads a development team that gets contributions from the likes of Rick Lanz, who played 11 seasons in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Chicago Black Hawks, and has since coached in the BCHL and WHL. He is a skills coach and coach mentor, and brings the kind of character that the executive wants to impart on the association.
“Respect, desire, pride is our motto – you can’t just say things like that, you have to act it, too,” said Falconer. “It’s about building quality citizens for our community, too.”
The work of the development team is definitely starting to show, he said.
But with Maple Ridge’s elite players going to play for major midget, winter clubs and academies, it is tough to compete for a provincial championship. Now major bantam is a new level of select competition that is coming.
“We need those kids to stick around,” said Falconer.
Spence Levan has been coaching since 1988, when he brought his kids up through the minor hockey ranks. He has been running Maple Ridge’s midget triple-A program since 1994, and saw it take the association’s only provincial championship, as well as five silver medals.
The midget teams had talent, had swagger and were the team to beat in B.C.
“We had a run from 1998 to 2008, and that’s when we went [to provincials] all the time,”
“We had Brad Hunt, Cody Campbell, Brandon Yip and a lot of guys who are playing in Europe and played junior from that team,” he said.
Ridge Meadows Flames coach Bayne Ryshak has his name on the championship banner.
Back then players put a premium on playing with their friends of years, guys they went to school with, and decided to forego other opportunities to take a run at a championship with their hometown team.
Now, he said, the drain of talent leaves traditional associations like Maple Ridge with much weaker teams than in those glory years.
The winter clubs have become dominant at provincials, and Levan said it is tough for association teams to be competitive.
“In terms of development, I think we can, especially at the younger levels,” said Levan. “Competitively, no, not anymore, not at the midget and bantam levels, you can’t compete with those organizations.”
Falconer still sees the importance of local associations.
“Nobody starts out at a hockey school,” he points out. “Most stated out in a minor hockey association somewhere.”
He said associations are gaining ground on winter clubs through a skills focus.
“Do I think the gap is closing? The optimist in my says yes.”
They are confident that a talented kid playing rep hockey in Maple Ridge will be seen by scouts.
“If you’re good enough, they find you,” said Levan. “It’s the same as always.
Eccles, 39, said the game has changed for the better since his minor hockey days.
“The biggest difference would be the number of A-level teams. In small towns back 25 years ago, you had an A and a B team. Now, when you can populate it, you have four teams, which is good for development purposes.”
“It’s a lot calmer in our arenas than it was growing up,” he said, noting there were negative experiences. “It was a little bit – as you got older like bantam hockey – fierce.”
As the association enters its 50th year, the executive is planning to put more hometown pride back in the Ridge Meadows Rustlers.
They have built new trophy case at Planet Ice to display the many awards won over the years, and are contacting old coaches and managers to find banners, so they can be displayed for the first time.
Falconer mentions a RMMHA alumnus in Patrick Wiercioch who signed with the Vancouver Canucks this year, as one of many local talents to highlight.
“We’re working on ways to celebrate all the guys who came up through RMMHA,” he said. “Hall of famer Cam Neely, that’s the top of the heap, or Andrew Ladd winning Stanley Cups. But even playing minor pro or in college is a huge accomplishment. This has been overlooked for too long.”