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North York Hockey League tries to keep 6-year-old hockey players on full ice

Last Updated Sep 22, 2017 at 10:47 am EST

The North York Hockey League (NYHL) is hoping to pull off a so-called miracle on ice as it tries to keep six-year-old elite hockey players on full ice this season.

New Hockey Canada rules announced last January and implemented this season require that all five- and six-year-old hockey players are to play on cross-ice or half-ice. The game is faster, smaller and focused on skill development as kids play along the width, versus the length, of the rink.

But the rules have created considerable confusion among some leagues about how it applies to the elite teams.

As CityNews first reported earlier this week, it’s wreaking havoc on select and elite team rosters in the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) and nowhere more so than the NYHL. Last weekend, dozens of six-year-old players were benched while their teams competed in a North York tournament.

At issue are play-up players — kids whose abilities and skills have allowed them to play and compete with older age divisions.

In this case, it’s having a major effect on select teams for seven-year-old children.

“The impact is huge for our players,” Keith Smales, an assistant coach with the Duffield Devils and father of a six-year-old player, explained. “Half our team is 2011 players; the other half is 2010 players.

“The impact for those 2010 players is that they are going to have to be released and find another team and it’s very late in the season to find another team. I feel for those 2010 players.”

Paul Maich, NYHL’s chief operating officer, believes the rule change could impact up to 600 “tyke” players in his league because either they won’t be able to play full-ice or teams won’t have enough players for a full roster.

In an attempt to rectify the issue, the NYHL has brought forth a proposal to the GTHL.

Although no details on the proposal have been released, the Ontario Hockey Federation (OHF) did confirm that “there will be a discussion this weekend.”

“We don’t know if a decision will come out of that, but all the members will be part of the conversation to ensure everyone is on board with whatever is going forward,” an OHF spokesperson told CityNews.

OHF director and Hockey Canada member Phillip McKee said right now there is nothing stopping six-year-olds from playing on older teams.

“We don’t have a problem with a skilled player playing-up, but that has to be cross-hockey (half-ice).”

Team rosters were approved last spring and summer, because teams of seven-year-old players can play cross-ice hockey without penalty.

But parents, players and coaches of seven-year-old “tyke” teams don’t want to change their game.

“For the more skilled players who have played two or three years on full ice, it is demoralizing, disheartening and unfair to be forced to play half-ice with rubber bumpers in a lesser version of the game they want to play,” Maich explained.

This may not be the end of the confusion for the young hockey players.

Hockey Canada is looking to expand cross-ice hockey to other age groups moving forward. The idea behind this decision is that by the 2019-20 season, players up to the age of eight will be playing some form of cross-ice hockey.

“Hockey Canada’s Board of Directors … recommended that novice-aged players (traditionally aged seven- and eight-years-old) play half-ice or cross-ice games in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 season, and it will be mandatory that all games played at the Novice level be cross-ice or half-ice games beginning in the 2019-20 season,” the organization said in an email.

“Again, that is all around making it age-appropriate and focusing on fun skill-development at an early age. Some areas are implementing half-ice and cross-ice hockey at the novice level this season, others will take a more gradual approach to meeting the 2019-20 implementation timeline. So, for 2011 players, they could see a mix of both cross-ice/half-ice hockey and full-ice hockey during this implementation, but technically, starting with the 2012 players, they would be cross-ice or half-ice through the age of eight (their last novice year).”