A solution to the "Birthday Bias" in minor hockey

Proof that you can't lose 'em all: After ten years of disappointment, my son's team finally won their Minor Hockey Week division in Midget. He's in the centre of the back row, the rightmost of the big guys. (2004 photo)

Editor's Note:  This is an article from the archives in which Bruce discusses the age tiers in hockey and the problems they create.  As Junior, Minor and all forms of amateur hockey are all set to kick off, the time is right to revisit the topic and Bruce's proposed solution.

Scenes like the above have been commonplace in arenas all across our city this weekend, as Edmonton Minor Hockey Week rolls to its conclusion. It's closer to Minor Hockey 10 Days, but who's counting? It's always a highlight of any hockey season, a celebration of the grass roots of the game. Invariably it gets me thinking of my own experiences within the Edmonton Minor Hockey Association.  

Once a hockey parent, always a hockey parent. I was an active hockey dad from 1992 to 2005 as my only child rose through CanSkate to Tom Thumb, Novice, Atom, Peewee, Bantam and all three years of Midget hockey. Some years when we didn't have enough volunteers I was an emergency assistant coach, others just a (mostly) supportive parent hollering from the cheap seats. Cheap but not free: there were casinos and bingos and silent auctions and various fundraisers along the way, not the least being the old chequebook itself.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Would I do it again? In a Canadian minute. Would I change a few things? Let's talk about that.

My son has a mid-December birthday, and throughout his minor hockey career alternated between being the youngest and in the middle age tier of his teams. He was physically big but emotionally immature, and was treated by coaches and teammates alike as a follower, never a leader. He was always one school grade behind some of his teammates, oftentimes two years behind. For a dozen years from Tom Thumb through third year midget it was ever thus. It came up at a couple of Hockey Canada/EMHA workshops I attended and lip service was paid to rotating the cutoff date through the calendar but nothing ever happened. I am convinced my kid was seriously disadvantaged by it, and he was far from the only one.

Back in September I brought up here on the Copper & Blue, the subject of birthdate effects on hockey opportunity. This was superficially based on a simple roster sheet indicating an unusual distribution of birthdates among hockey players playing advanced level hockey (entry level professionals on one side of the ice, a CIS dynasty on the other).  That single example of not-so-random distribution seemed to confirm the continuation of the Birthday Bias I had long noticed in minor hockey, that kids with birthdates early in the calendar year had a distinct advantage and those born late in the year a serious disadvantage, in physical and emotional development, in maturity, and most certainly in opportunity. Coaches in higher tiers would tend to draft the older kids to fill out their teams, and even in the lower tiers it would be the older kids who were looked on as team leaders.

This is hardly just a casual observation by me, nor is it a new thing. A couple of commenters on my September post pointed me towards research claimed by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the book "Outliers", as described in this interview at ESPN.go.com. In a sidebar, the interviewer, Jeff Merron, conducted a study of NHL players by birthdate which confirmed the bias is widespread and significant. 

On further investigation it turns out that the Birthday Bias was identified more than a quarter of a century ago, in research conducted right here in Edmonton and published the year my son was born. The authors studied birthdate data in the Edmonton Minor Hockey Association in the 1983-84 season. The evidence was stark, and convincing. Here is one example of their findings:

Birthdate_medium 

Figure from "Birthdate and success in minor hockey: The key to the NHL" (1987) 
by R. H. BARNSLEY, Faculty of Education, Saint Mary's University
and A. H. THOMPSON, Alberta Mental Health Services

The Birthday Bias is observable but relatively minor in the lowest tiers -- poor players are poor players no matter when they are born. However in the top tiers the bias is extreme, where older kids are more likely to get the opportunity to fill out the roster and get exposed to better competition. The authors then go on to establish that the birthday bias continues into junior hockey and on to the NHL.

While there have been some adjustments to the ages of the various divisions since then, one thing that has never changed is that the birthday cutoff for every division is December 31. Suggestions to institute a rolling cycle of cutoff dates that would change a few times over the course of an individual player's minor career have received lip service but no action. The proposal is apt to cause adminstrative headaches, and inertia is what it is.

So let's take a new approach to rolling birthdates. Rather than an ongoing series of changes, let's make a single change to the entire system which should balance the scales for the foreseeable future. The concept is simply to establish different cut-off dates for each level of minor hockey. Here's one suggestion as to how this could be done:

  • Tom Thumb: Kids under 7 on December 31
  • Mite: Kids under 9 on October 31
  • Novice: Kids under 11 on August 31
  • Atom: Kids under 13 on June 30
  • Peewee**: Kids under 14 on June 30
  • Bantam: Kids under 16 on April 30
  • Midget: Kids under 18 on February 28/29
  • Junior: Kids under 20 on December 31

What will happen under such a system is a kid with any birthday will at some point get an extra year at some level or other, and will at that point switch from being near the young end of the pool to among the oldest. e.g. a kid with a birthday of, say, July 15, would get a third year of Atom; a kid with a birthdate on December 15 will get an extra year of Mite. Each level with the single exception of Peewee would have an age window of 26 months instead of the established 24. But the administrative headaches would be greatly reduced because those dates at each level would never need to change.

**Note the double exception I have made for Peewee: only one year instead of two, and no advance of the cutoff birthdate from the prior level. This is the level that bodychecking is introduced. While the other categories would have a 26-month window, in my perfect world Peewee would be a strict 12 months meaning no second- (or heaven forbid, third-) year kids beating up on the kids who have just made it to that level. All Peewees would be 13, and all would be learning bodychecking at the same time. (Further note: This could also work at age 11 or whatever age is decided appropriate for introducing the physical game. The principle would be the same, that this element should be introduced in a single year where a major focus of all teams and all players would be learning how to give and take a check.)

This proposal passes Bruce's first test of being a workable theory: it's simple to the point of elegance. I am convinced that implementation of a system like this would result in near elimination of the Birthday Bias and would provide every kid entering minor hockey something approaching an equal opportunity.

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