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Small Town Exodus: NHL talent from small B.C. towns diminishing with sport academies on the rise

By Neil Hilts on January 15, 2016

Trail, B.C. has one of the province's richest hockey histories. However, small town players are moving to bigger cities or joining hockey academies, decreasing the number of small town players in the NHL. (Photo by Jason de Frias)

So you live in a small town in British Columbia and want to get drafted into the National Hockey League?

Years ago, this wouldn't have been that much of a stretch if you worked hard enough and got the right opportunities.

But now, especially in B.C., sport academies appear to be the best route to the big leagues if you don’t live in a highly populated area such as the Lower Mainland.

Consider the past three NHL drafts. In 2015, there were 13 players from BC selected, nine in 2014 and another 13 players taken in 2013.
Of these 35 total players, five come from a town with a population of less than 50,000.

These five are Tanner Faith (Terrace), Jedd Soleway (Vernon), Dane Birks (Merritt), Ben Betker (Cranbrook) and Curtis Lazar (Salmon Arm). Both Lazar and Faith joined hockey academies, while Betker, Soleway and Birks played minor hockey in their towns before playing junior hockey and getting drafted.

Expanding to cities with populations of 100,000 or less, Brad Morrison (Prince George), Deven Sideroff (Kamloops), Ryan Gropp (Kamloops), Dysin Mayo (Victoria), Wade Murphy (Victoria), Nolan De Jong (Victoria), Alec Dillon (Nanaimo), and Chase Lang (Nanaimo) are included.

Of those eight, only De Jong, Murphy and Dillon did not attend an academy. That makes six out of the last 35 drafted players, or 17 per cent who played local minor hockey en route to the juniors.

Living in the Lower Mainland provides year-round potential training, higher and more frequent competition, and better resources.

Andy Oakes, president of the Okanagan Hockey Academy (OHA), grew up in Princeton, B.C. and said when he was playing minor hockey, teams consisted of around 12-14 players, but now, there aren’t enough kids to make a team.

“The regular hockey stream system has not allowed for the changing demographics in our country … Now in that community in those age brackets, they have seven or eight,” Oakes said. “They can’t even make teams. Those kids get stuck, ‘do we move out of town, do we not move out of town?’ Do we go to a neighboring association if they’ll accept us?”

As of Jan. 3, 50 players from/born in B.C. have appeared in the NHL this year. Of that group, 13 never played in an academy or minor hockey in the Lower Mainland. Moving forward, that number will likely decrease.

B.C. hit its peak for most players in the NHL when they had 61 during the 1995-96 campaign. Typically, the province has anywhere from 50-60 representatives each year.

Examining B.C. minor hockey players who plied their trade in the NHL during the 90s, smaller towns dot the chart just as they do now, but there were no hockey academies to play in, and Greater Vancouver’s edge wasn’t as huge as it is now.

Look at Trail, B.C. – the town has had a representative in the NHL since 1961 starting with Cesare Maniago, with guys like Ray Ferraro, Steve Tambellini and Shawn Horcoff afterwards. Fifty-five years later, there has been a player in the league with ties to Trail each year.

Currently, Barret Jackman and Horcoff, in the twilight of their careers, represent the current group, while Craig Cunningham pushes for a spot in Arizona to keep the streak alive. Landon Ferraro was born in Trail, but played his minor hockey in Vancouver.

If a youngster playing minor hockey in B.C. wants to make the highest level, the answer is likely join an academy or move to a larger city like Calgary or Vancouver. Sure, it can be done the hard way, but to actually get drafted, the odds are better with increased playing time.

Maco Balkovec, the Burnaby Winter Club’s (BWC) Hockey Director, said he agreed this is a trend for players.

“I think as we continue forward we’re going to see that’s the way that players look for their development,” Balkovec said. “The year-round model has really become really popular. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, I think it’s debatable. We’ll probably see over the next 10 years whether it’s something we should be doing or shouldn't be doing.”

Academy players have to sacrifice a lot, moving away from family and skating hours a day, but they’ve identified what is needed to make the next level.

One of the biggest barriers is cost of the sport. Even with bursaries and endowments, reaching the pinnacle of hockey – or any sport for that matter – requires an open wallet.

“Price is a barrier for all of it,” Oakes said. “Whether you’re playing minor hockey or sports school, the barrier of entry is the cost. The cost of sticks, the cost of skates, the cost of ice time.”

Oakes also stated about the importance of schooling in academies, and how it shouldn’t get lost. While hockey and athletics is a major focus, the players are students first.

As the sport becomes more costly, stories of players from middle-class families going to the show will become less common.

Recalling his minor hockey days in Port Moody years ago, Balkovec definitely notices a difference.

“It was a very blue-collar game and it didn’t costs thousands and thousands of dollars,” he said.

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By Neil Hilts| January 15, 2016
Categories:  Minor Hockey
Keywords:  B.C. Minor Hockey

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