For the first time, minor hockey in Winnipeg will provide a "no bodychecking" option for 13- and 14-year-olds, coming to an arena near you.
Hockey Winnipeg plans to begin registration Monday for a pilot project to set up a city-wide bantam league where bodychecking will be penalized.
"There's still going to be contact; rubbing players out and competing for the puck," said Monte Miller, executive director of Hockey Winnipeg. "But going into the corner and getting a glass-rattling bodycheck, that won't be part of the program."
Hockey Winnipeg is capping the number of participants at 200 through their website hockeywinnipeg.ca. The program will include 10 teams, with players divided between four quadrants in the city (SW, NW, SE, NE), like the AAA model.
Each team will be made up of players from any existing level (AA to A3) and the intention is to divide players of different skill levels equally within each quadrant to balance teams, Miller said. The total cost of the program is anticipated to be $800 for the year, based on a 24-26 week schedule. The program will start in the fall and end in mid-March and for the 2014-15 season.
"Although there's no body contact, there's still a skill and development component," Miller said. "You don't want to have kids get a thumping every Saturday. We're going to try to have some parity so everybody has a good time."
The city's minor hockey organization sent out 1,700 surveys to parents of players between the ages of 13 and 17 in February to gauge interest in a league where bodychecking was forbidden. There were about 300 responses, mostly from parents/players in the 13-to-14 year age group.
There was not enough interest shown in the 14-to-17 age group to justify a similar program.
"But who knows?" Miller added. "Maybe this thing takes off at 13 and 14... and we start to get that bubble that moves up (age groups). Are we going to grab kids from other programs? I don't know. Time will tell."
The age of allowing bodychecking in minor hockey has long been a hot-button issue. It was just a couple years ago Hockey Canada banned bodychecking up to the age of 12.
In recent years, both Calgary and Toronto minor hockey have introduced program options for 13- and 14-year-olds that also ban bodychecking. The reason, in most cases, is the potential disparity in size of players in that age group, which can cause smaller players to opt out of hockey entirely.
There are currently 9,587 players registered in Hockey Winnipeg, including approximately 1,500 in the 13-to-14 age group.
Meanwhile, Hockey Winnipeg is also eliminating the minor midget (15-year-old) category in A and Double A hockey due to falling registration numbers across the 15-to-17 age groups.
"It's a numbers game," Miller said. "Kids are working, they're playing high school hockey, they've got girlfriends... " In fact, the number of teams in minor midget dropped from 20 to 16 last year.
At the same time, the number of midget teams in Winnipeg dropped from 20 to 14 -- a loss of 10 teams in the combined age groups over just one season.
"That's why we're putting them together, to keep the program viable," Miller said.