What's in a birthdate?

 
I had a few minutes to kill between the pregame skate and the opening faceoff at Clare Drake the other night, so I had a hard look at the programme, particularly the birthdate information of the two teams. I was primarily looking for the average ages of the two teams, but in the process something else just jumped off both team pages at me.

Here are the birthdates by calendar month of the 52 listed players:

  1. January -- 10
  2. February -- 5
  3. March -- 6
  4. April -- 5
  5. May -- 8
  6. June -- 3
  7. July -- 6
  8. August -- 3
  9. September -- 2
  10. October -- 1
  11. November -- 1
  12. December -- 2

That's 21, 16, 11 and 4 players born in the respective calendar quarters, a rather astonishing distribution. More in January alone than August through December combined. Is this just a fluke of randomness?

I don't think it is, at least not entirely. I have noticed such a bias in advanced hockey before, albeit never to this extreme. What's going on? My pet theory follows the jump.

As a minor hockey dad for 13 years, I always thought my son faced a serious competitive disadvantage by virtue of being a December baby. Age levels were determined by birth year only, meaning that in each two-year cycle Kevin would alternate between being the youngest on his team and somewhere in the middle (the youngest of the senior class if you will). He was a grade behind many of his fellow 1987s, and not surprisingly trailed many of them in maturity level, both emotionally and physically. One result was that he and other end-of-year kids had fewer opportunities at leadership roles. Indeed, I sat in enough coaches' meetings and Northwest Zone player drafts to know that all else being equal, coaches in upper tiers tended to pick older, more mature players. It wasn't rocket science.

It also wouldn't be rocket science to rotate the threshold date to afford more equal opportunities over a kid's hockey life. At some of the Edmonton Minor Hockey Association/Hockey Canada meetings and clinics I attended, the idea was raised more than once to advance that threshold by a calendar quarter every two or three years, or even by a month a year. A little bit of an administrative headache, but it would mean each kid got an opportunity to "repeat a grade" at some point in his minor hockey career, and in the process go from being one of the youngest to one of the oldest. Lip service was paid to the concept, but nothing was ever actually done about it. For all I know the minor hockey deadline is still December 31, it certainly was in 2005 when my kid graduated from minor hockey, ironically because he was a couple of weeks too old to return for another season.

I can't say as I've ever done an in-depth analysis of NHL birthdates -- specifically, birthdates of Canadian-born players -- to see if the bias holds, or if the true talent needed to play at the highest level is randomly distributed as "should" be the norm. My guess is there will be a subtle bias in favour of earlier birthdates. Regardless, my conviction is that the rigidity of our minor hockey standards is doing some of our kids a disservice.

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