Special DElivery: Is it time to reassess the structure of midget hockey?

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By Darren Eliot - 

When I was growing up playing youth hockey, there was a category called “Juvenile”, which in and of itself brings to mind how hockey age groups ever got their names in the first place. I mean, when you think about it, Mite, Squirt, Peewee, Bantam and Midget (throw in Atom and Novice from across the river) are all descriptive terms, true, but they sound like they come from another era…because they really do. Yet, these designations have survived the test of time and are just another quirk to love about the game we all love. 16U and 18U may be more accurate and birth years more precise, but both descriptive methods lack the flavor of Midget Minor and Midget Major.

Anyway, Juvenile was the age group after Midget Major if you grew up in Ontario. It was somewhere for players to keep playing outside the Junior A, B, C designations at the time. There were few high school options – even with Grade 13 as part of the high school experience – so, it was still technically youth hockey. Today we’d call it 20U. Most likely, though, it is the entry level to the beer leagues these days, since Juvenile has long since vanished, replaced by any number of Tiered/Lettered/Numbered “junior leagues”.

Today, even though there are many more options for players, I get the sense that after 18 years of age, options dwindle in a hurry. Part of it, as was the case years ago in the Juvenile scenario, is as it has ever been. More to the point, though, it seems as if commitment to younger players is all the rage – to the point that it is compromising Midget Major Hockey. I spoke with several scouts during the Compuware/Honeybaked Invitational held over the final weekend in September, and while there was a large gathering of representatives from the OHL, USHL, NCAA, and NAHL, most were more interested in the Midget Minor teams than the Majors.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. The NHL has seen more 18-year-olds crack their ranks than ever before. Colleges commit to rising sophomores. High school hockey continues to attract more and more upper classmen. And the USHL expanded its “tender rule” for 16-year-olds over the past two years. No wonder, then, that the Midget Minor games draw attention – everything is trending younger. Here in Michigan – unlike our neighbors in Canada – we combine our teams after Bantam Major into a 16U configuration. 15U doesn’t exist. That pushing up of prospects potentially pushes players out – especially when you carry that through the Major teams.

Is there a better option? I can certainly see the benefit of “slowing the flow” at Midget, whereby the 15-year-olds play as Midget Minors and the 16-year-olds as Midget Majors. Sure, some top kids would move up, but that is no different than at any age group. Potentially, though, it would spread out the development process for the players and keep more kids in the game. In some areas around the country, 16U makes sense because of numbers – they don’t have enough players to split the age groups and remain competitive at the highest levels. That isn’t our situation here in Michigan. And as far as playing tournaments, I’m sure some top Midget Minor teams could play in Major events. That way, parents who would view this as “holding their player back” could take solace in the fact that they competed against “the big teams”.

Beyond that, the 18U age division should be able to keep more 18-year-olds in the mix. Surely the bulk of many rosters would be 17-year-olds, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Organizations would have to decide what development path they want for their respective clubs – load up with older players, or really put an emphasis on those players moving up out of Midget Major. Come to think of it, if we truly split out first and second year Midgets into Minors and Majors, what do we call the next level? 18U would still apply. But, I hear Juvenile is still available after all these years.