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Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018
Labrecque promotes a step forward for minor hockey
by Randy Pascal

In the minds of more than a small handful of minor hockey parents across Northern Ontario, the Initiation Program and modified ice hockey blueprint that was introduced this past September represented a radical alteration to the status quo.

Pierre Labrecque didn't see it that way at all.

The current president of the Sudbury Minor Hockey Association and father of four young children was recently presented the Rick F. Albert Memorial Award at the NOHA (Northern Ontario Hockey Association) AGM, recognizing his work with the Hockey Canada initiative.

“There is a bit of a misconception,” said Labrecque recently. “A lot of people saw it as an entirely new program that was being rolled out. In fact, it was the same program, in terms of fundamentals, that has been around since the 1980s. The big change was how games were being played. In terms of what skills the kids should be learning and how they should be learning them, that's been the same for a long time.”

A lifelong Sudbury resident, Labrecque enjoyed a minor hockey experience similar to so many others. “I played hockey since I was about four years old, all the way until midget,” Labrecque recalled. “Hockey was a big part of my childhood growing up, a lot of great memories and friends from that time period.”

Demonstrating an equal or stronger proficiency in track and field, the local man who recently celebrated his 40th birthday would merge training sessions with Track North Athletic Club to his busy schedule, progressing to the point of incorporating a varsity track career at the University of Waterloo with his Engineering studies.

His move back to hockey came, so like many fathers from North Bay to Thunder Bay and beyond, as his own children stepped trepidatiously to Canada's most feverishly followed sport, for the very first time. “I showed up on the first day, found a coach and asked how I could help,” said Labrecque. “I ended up coaching his initiation team that year, and again for the second year.”

“I ended up talking a lot with Don MacLean, who was running the program there – he's been involved with the grassroots stuff forever. I was learning a lot of the philosophies, the way that they structured the program, and had been doing for a long time.”

That was roughly six years ago. In many ways, Labrecque and the local group had no trouble whatsoever identifying with the current focus of Hockey Canada. “The focus, from the start, was not on game play at all,” he said. “It was on skill development for the kids, getting the kids to learn how to stand up first, how to skate, how to handle the puck, but having a lot of fun doing it.”

For the likes of Pierre Labrecque, John Zubyck (New Liskeard native who co-shared the NOHA award with Labrecque) and so many others, the new approach presented an opportunity for greater learning. “Because I was really interested and curious, I started asking questions, I was talking to other administrators,” noted Labrecque.

“The NOHA started pulling me into more meetings and they saw that I was really passionate about that age group, that I had some energy and interest, and we just kind of ran with that.” As so many parents of age eight and under hockey parents in Canada can readily attest, the toughest change to deal with came as a result of games becoming a cross-ice format, instead of the long-standing tradition of having four, five and six year olds mirror the 180 foot game displayed almost every night, at this time of year, via the NHL playoffs.

It would be difficult to argue with the overwhelming qualitative support behind the move.

“It's really logical, when you stop and think about it,” said Labrecque. “If you look at other sports, we're not forcing kids to play other sports the same way adults play them. They don't play on a full sized soccer field with giant nets. We don't do that to kids.”

Baseball has t-ball, curling has Little Rocks, volleyball has graduated net heights, local football has Mini Macs. “It's about making the playing field the right size for the kids,” said Labrecque. “You see it in schools, where water fountains are lowered, bike racks are smaller. You “right size” things for the kids.”

In terms of the long-term benefits for hockey development, in general, the evidence is compelling. “By making the play area smaller, every kid touches the park more,” noted Labrecque. “There are more puck battles, kids learn earlier how to protect the puck. There are more shots taken, they are going to give more passes and receive more passes.”

In fact, it's quite easy to even make a case for the young phenoms who all too often dominate at a very young age, many of whom find it challenging when the gaps shrink notably by the time their teenage years arrive. “Even the better players, where they previously could just skate the entire length of the ice and score, and often times did not even need to deke anyone, now they actually have to get around three or four kids, sometimes even their own teammates.”

Still, it would be naive to suggest there wasn't any pushback.

“For the most part, people really don't have a problem with the benefits – they get that,” said Labrecque. “They just wish their kid wasn't doing it (playing cross-ice). It's viewed as being a step backwards, because the kids were used to playing full ice. But it's really a step forward for hockey.”

“I think any change can be difficult in any scenario,” Labrecque continued. “The kids don't have that much of a problem with adapting. I can take the kids, whether it's on a cross-ice rink, whether it's outside on a playground or a lake, and throw up two nets and a puck, and the kids will play.”

And with the help of the Pierre Labrecques right across the country, more of these kids will have fun doing it.

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