Chris Bourque, Mathieu Perreault, and John Carlson all enjoyed standout training camps with the Washington Capitals this month. Bourque is still enjoying his. To slightly varying degrees, all three enjoyed prodigy player status early on in their hockey careers. On a hunch, I checked their respective birth dates. All three share the birth month of January. What’s the importance of that in a hockey player’s development? To listen to the view of one of hockey’s most learned and thoughtful commentators on the matter, it’s just about everything.
Hall of Fame netminder and celebrated author Ken Dryden, in his superb overview of hockey’s hold in his homeland, Home Game, notes that in Canada, a hockey player’s birthday is virtually determinative of his development:
“The [development] system rewards those parents who are able to time a pregnancy to begin in the spring and come to its happy fruition in the early months of the new year. Hockey registration, you see, goes by the calendar year, and each child born in a given year is considered the same age for purposes of setting age limits. Yet a child born, say, on Wayne Gretzky’s birthday of January 26 is likely to be a better player on the first day of hockey tryouts than a player born on December 25 of the same year. The January child is almost a year older, a year stronger and more mature. At age six or seven this represents an enormous advantage, the January child being nearly one-sixth or one-seventh older . . .
“The older child has the best chance to be the first star of the game, to develop a star’s skills and attitude and expectations of success. The younger child — smaller, weaker — must first learn to cope and later, when the age difference matters less (for example, at fourteen the same January child is only one-fourteenth older), he is often unable to undo his and others’ expectations, reprogram himself, put to one side his coping skills for a star’s skills, and become a star. The same situation and problem exists, of course, in the schools.
“If streaming came at a later age, the effect of birthdates would be largely outgrown. But streaming comes early in hockey.”
And, Dryden claims, streaming in hockey is destiny.
“From age nine onward,” he writes, “better players get streamed into competitive teams, and the competitive teams get the better coaches and more ice time . . . the gap between the mediocre nine-year-old and the gifted nine-year-old begins to widen, and widen fast. In Canadian minor hockey in the late 1980s, if you don’t make it by age nine, you likely won’t make it at all.”
Not quite Darwinian, is it? Or is it? At this point, you’re probably wondering, do Canadian (and Minnesotan) (and Scandinavian) families actually so family plan? Were the question put to Dryden, I’m rather sure he’d answer, “Not if, but in what volume?”
Next I decided to check birthdays for some high profile hockey stars — specifically, those residing in the 500 NHL goals scored club. The results were startling. Limiting my search just to those who’ve scored 500 goals and were born in January and February, these names loom large: Gretz; Bobby Hull; Phil Esposito; Mike Bossy; Mark Messier; Frank Mahovlich; Peter Bondra; Brendan Shanahan; Jeremy Roenick; Lanny McDonald; Joey Mullen; Dino Ciccarelli; Jaromir Jagr.
Blackhawks’ coach Denis Savard hovers just a bit outside of 500 goals scored in his career, but he was born in February. Were I to have broadened my search to include births in the first quarter of the calendar year, the list would have expanded appreciably — Gordie Howe, for instance, was born in the first week of March in 1928.
Now, you don’t want to get carried away with the intriguing pattern of hockey family planning, because in truth studs and stars are born in all 12 months of the calendar. Alexander Ovechkin, for instance, is a September baby. Mario Lemieux was born in October. One of the greatest skaters the game has even seen, Gilbert Perreault, was born in November. Sergei Fedorov arrived as an early delivery from Santa’s sleigh (December).
But Dryden’s observations are so illuminating precisely because hockey streams as it does and because relative to other youth sports, vital skill sets in hockey (including cognitive and emotional accumen) seem to take root in player development so early . . . partly, Dryden would argue (I think), because of the streaming. Baseball and soccer, for instance, hold their respective tryouts in the spring, rendering the calendar inconsequential to the physical and emotional maturity of youth registrants in those sports.
Football, interestingly enough, registers players in the final¬†season of the calendar, like hockey, but perhaps partly because tackle football really is a high school endeavor for most pigskinners, little that is determinative in a player’s development¬†occurs on the gridiron at the age of seven, eight or nine. Or twelve, for that matter: football talent evaluators typically hone in on kids when they’re high school juniors and seniors and have just begun to immerse themselves in the weight room. And really, it’s only after a couple of years of college football that players earn the status of pro prospect.
It’s none of our business, of course, but it is fun to wonder: did Ray and Mrs. Bourque consider father’s own development arc in Canadian minor hockey early on as they started their family, or did they merely get swept up in a particularly schmaltzy movie on Lifetime one chilly March night twenty-some-odd years ago?