Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Toews literally born to be great

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Jonathan Toews' father tells a story about something that happened when his son was a little boy that suggests why he, unlike thousands of other Winnipeg kids, went on to play professional hockey.

Jonathan was on a team of seven-year-olds who lost a tournament game to a team of eight-year-olds.

His father, Bryan Toews, still vividly recalls how his son reacted.

"He was crying after the game," Bryan told Free Press columnist Randy Turner. "Not a whining cry, but because he was angry. He was so upset. I tried to explain that the other team was all older boys, but he didn't accept that. He wanted to beat them."

That drive to win and be better than the rest is an obvious reason why today, at age 21, the St. Vital-raised Toews is wearing an Olympic gold medal with the rest of Team Canada, and why he was voted the best forward at a tournament that showcased the best players in the world.

Jonathan was a natural-born hockey player.

He still had to work at it, of course.

But "making it" in hockey -- or in life -- isn't necessarily about wanting something more, or even working harder and being more talented than the other guy.

The mix of ingredients that contribute to success are often less apparent.

And less fair.

In his international bestselling book called Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell begins by offering an example of that unfairness by showing how Canada develops its hockey players. He acknowledges boys who make the jump to junior hockey and the pros are gifted, but he also makes the case that they get a big head start and an opportunity that they neither deserve nor earn.

It's the accident of birth.

Not so much the accident of being born to relative privilege -- Toews' father was a maintenance electrician at the University of Manitoba -- although being able to afford to play hockey is a factor. No, it's the accident of when they were born that matters.

It turns out most major junior and NHL players are born early in the year, in January, February, March and April. Toews was born in April.

What drives the over-representation of players born early in the year is the cut-off for age-class hockey.

It's Jan. 1.

"A boy who turns 10 on January 2, then," Gladwell writes, "could be playing alongside someone who doesn't turn 10 until the end of the year -- and that age, in preadolescence, a 12-month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity."

Witness Jonathan Toews as a seven-year-old boy, who matured into the captain of the Chicago Blackhawks, weeping after losing to a team of eight-year-olds. Why the maturity gap matters so much early on is the comparative strength and co-ordination of the older boys makes it appear they have more ability. That gets them noticed and eventually channelled onto elite teams where they play more games with more competitive kids and receive more intense coaching.

Gladwell argues we could help more kids realize their dreams in hockey by creating two or three hockey leagues using different cut-off dates, January to April, for example, May to August and so on.

But hockey is just one example of how success can be stymied simply by confusing maturity for ability. The same kind of age-by-months bias happens in early education with similar results for younger students who can get left behind.

"We prematurely write off people as failures," Gladwell contends. "We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. We overlook just how large a role we all play -- and by 'we' I mean society -- in determining who makes it and who doesn't."

There is someone else who grew up in Winnipeg, and became an Olympic hero, who exemplifies people who are prematurely written off.

Clara Hughes almost wrote herself off. The woman who carried Canada's flag during the opening ceremonies was a troubled teen who was into booze and soft drugs. Until, fatefully, she exchanged one slippery course in life for another. Clara was inspired to take up speedskating after seeing the Winter Olympics on TV.

Which is why, two decades later at the Vancouver Olympics -- as a gesture of appreciation for how her life was changed -- Clara Hughes took the $10,000 bonus she received for her bronze medal and gave it to a program for at-risk kids.

I suppose you could say it was her way of trying to level the playing field of life.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2010 B1

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