About a decade ago, I had a chance to chat with Wayne Gretzky's father, Walter. We spoke at length about what happens this time of the year with young competitive hockey players across Canada. With their winter hockey seasons now complete, these young players can now turn their attention to spring and summer sports. For them, springtime means hockey. And then in the summer, they're now ready for some hockey. That way, they can be ready for the fall sports season when there's hockey.
Walter’s take on playing hockey all year long was the same as his son’s. He didn't believe in it. He believed kids needed time away from the game, time to rest, time to try other sports. He told me that Wayne played no hockey at all from late March to September, save for the odd week-long summer camp.
Walter was also convinced he could pick out the kids who didn’t take a summer break. They were the ones who looked tired, burned out and bored in the 2nd half of the season. He also believed if you’re really that good, you’ll make it to the NHL whether you play in the summertime or not.
That’s a nice thought. But in most cases, I don't believe it's accurate anymore.
Sure, a few of the gifted, natural athletes might be able to take summers off and still make the NHL. But for the rest, it's reasonable to assume the kids who never put their skates away eventually bypass most of the ones who do.
When Gretzky was a teen in the 70’s, almost everyone took the summer off – even NHL’ers. Heck, 50 years ago, Team Canada almost lost the Summit Series against the Soviets because the Canadian guys did nothing but drink beer at the cottage all summer.
Today, there are just too many kids who don't stop. Spring hockey, power skating, shooting clinics, strength training for hockey, evaluation camp money grabs, nutritional seminars and so on. Some kids burn out from that and start hating hockey. But tons of others embrace it or at least roll their eyes and power through.
Consider two kids from Ottawa with equal skill, size and strength. Kyle plays all year around from age 7 to his draft year at 18. Justin does the same, but shuts it down for the summers the way the Gretzkys suggested. Kyle will have played 60 more months of hockey – five full calendars years more than Justin and the rest of the summer break crowd.
The developmental advantage is staggering.
The Gretzky family advice remains excellent if the focus is a well-rounded young human. And to be clear, I'm not a fan of playing all year around. I think kids do need the break. Some family time. Give them a chance to miss it and be all the happier o get back. They need to develop in so many other crucial areas of their lives. If kids do go 12 months a year, I think it should only be because they're desperately pushing for it, happily waiting by the car with their gear packed in July, yelling, "Let's go. I don't want to be late!".
But strictly speaking, as far as making the NHL goes, the Gretzky family advice is now dated. Any kid that takes the Gretzky-suggested summer break probably loses their already minuscule chances of making the NHL. The families willing to roll 12 months a year and pay for it? They're the ones whose kids will generally make up the prospect pool the NHL will draw from.
I wonder how many of this year’s 2023 NHL first rounders ever put their skates away for five months? If Gretzky came up today and did that, would he still be dominant? Would he make it at all?
By Steve Warne | Minor Hockey Magazine