2018 - 2019 Tiering System - An explanation of the changes this season


The 2018-2019 hockey season has seen a number of changes to the rules around team formation and tiering.  Being past the halfway mark of the season, we are seeing a number of the results (both positive and negative).  This has raised many questions and has identified some misunderstandings in our hockey community as to why things were done the way they were, who is making the decisions on how things will operate, and to what end.  We hope this communication will address many of these questions.

Governance in Hockey:
To start with, one needs to understand the governance of hockey in our community.  For players in community hockey in SW Zone a rule, process, or procedure may be a result of a decision by any one of the following bodies:

  • Hockey Canada
  • Hockey Alberta
  • Hockey Edmonton
  • Edmonton Federation Hockey League, and finally
  • Southwest Zone Hockey (or its operating areas, SWAT & Confederation Hockey).

It’s best to explain this as a hierarchy.  If a governing body above has a rule, it trumps all below it.  Lower organizations may add detail and specifics to a rule, but it can’t modify the intent of the overriding rule.  Often, rules well established in a lower organization become superseded because of a new rule from a higher body.  This is well evidenced this year with tiering when Hockey Alberta announced new tiering rules that replaced long-standing rules previously developed by Hockey Edmonton and implemented across all age divisions within the Edmonton Federation Hockey League.

Background on tiering:
Historically, leagues in Alberta were able to establish their own tiering grid and decide how many tiers they would have.  Looking back a few years, Edmonton operated with tiers 1 to 8 with many of them having “a”, ”b” and possibly “c” sub-tiers.  This has resulted in as many as 15 tiers when all were counted.  More recently, there were 6 tiers, some still with sub-tiers.
Anyone looking for tournaments for their team will have seen that most of the province worked on an A, B, C, D grid.  Calgary had yet a different system.

Background on team placement:
Districts like SW Zone (and its operating areas SWAT and Confed) would form teams based on the skill level of the pool of players the organization believed it had at the start of the year.  This would determine how many teams went into any tier, as well as what tiers the zone or operating area would place teams.

One result of this flexible approach was claims that some organizations were consistently “sand bagging” - deliberately placing their teams in a tier below the appropriate skill level (so that they would dominate play and always win) or that they would “stack” a team so it would dominate.

SW Zone’s philosophy is to find the appropriate the level of play for each of its teams, while still giving players an opportunity to develop at the highest available level based on their skills relative to other players in our program.  Winning is not the priority, rather player development is at the forefront of these decisions while ensuring that each of our teams remain sufficiently competitive to enable a positive, enjoyable hockey experience.  With as many as 15 tiers to work within the previous system, SW Zone was able to place players of similar skill together and place teams in tiers where they were most likely to be competitive.  This previous system worked fine if all districts played the same way . . . but this did not appear to always be the case.

Need for standardization:
In reviewing the matter, Hockey Alberta determined that there were too many differences in how this was being handled across the province and felt changes were needed for the following reasons:

  • To improve competitiveness in hockey programs, avoiding the subjective manipulation of team formation and placement.
  • To improve the alignment of teams in the province (for tournaments, provincial championships, etc.) by having all operate in a similar fashion.
  • To ultimately be able to standardize rules such as body checking in Bantam & Midget across the province (currently body checking rules are determined at the league level, not provincially).

Alberta One Standardized Tiering Model:
Hockey Alberta developed and implemented for the 2018-2019 season, the Alberta One Standardized Tiering Model across the province.  Because this is a Hockey Alberta rule, it automatically replaces what Hockey Edmonton had been doing for years.  Details of the new rules are available on the Hockey Alberta website, but are summarized as follows:

  • There will be 6 tiers, with no sub-tiers allowed.
  • The number of teams placed in each tier is based on the number of teams the club/district is placing into the age category.
  • If multiple teams are being placed in a single tier by a district or operating area, those teams are expected to be equally blended and balanced in regards to player skill and ability.

Direct effect on Hockey Edmonton/SW Zone:
The implementation of this model has seen the following result:

  • Hockey Edmonton was effectively reduced from having 12-15 tiers in years past to 6 this year.
  • The number of teams in a tier has drastically increased, resulting in a greater skill disparity between top-of-tier and bottom-of-tier teams.
  • Districts/operating areas were mandated how many teams they must put in each tier at the start of the season, allowing for no discretion based on perceived skill or competitiveness.
  • Larger districts/operating areas with multiple teams mandated at each tier had to lend a wider range of player skill on to each of the “balanced” teams as compared to past years where less-blended teams could be placed in an “a” or “b” sub-tier.
  • In categories with body checking (Bantam & Midget), the number of body checking teams (tiers 1 to 3) is determined not by the number of available players with the skills to play at this level.  Rather, the number of teams is determined by total registrations in the district or operating area, and those teams are then filled with the best available players who have elected to play in a full contact environment.

Case study – Peewee Tier 1
SW Zone fields teams in the Peewee AA and Tier 1 programs.  The number of Peewee AA teams is governed by a different set of Hockey Alberta rules.  The number of Peewee Tier 1 teams are determined by the combined team count of SW Zone (Tier 1) and Confederation Hockey and SWAT (Tiers 2 to 6).  The result of this was as follows:

  • SW Zone coordinated with both Confederation and SWAT to determine the number of teams in Peewee with the objective of minimizing the team count.
  • Because of total registrations, the combined team count was one team higher than the threshold so SW Zone was mandated to field 4 Peewee 1 teams.
  • SW Zone appealed to Hockey Edmonton based on the fact that this was asking the organization to go from two teams in the prior year to four teams in the current year.  The appeal was denied as exemptions from the new Hockey Alberta tiering model would not be granted.

With more than half of the season behind us, we find all but one of our Peewee 1 teams in competitive positions.  Looking down the category, the Tier 2 teams in both Confederation and SWAT are in the lower rankings of their tiers.  If winning is the priority, then the system has worked against us.  If development is the goal, the system has allowed 17 additional players/goalies to play in a more competitive program.  We are witnessing the same thing at Bantam and Midget.  Finding the correct competitive balance is difficult when any flexibility is removed by rules.  SW Zone will continue to review the results of this new system and provide feedback to Hockey Edmonton as the rules are being reviewed.

Southwest Zone wants to remind its families that most of the decisions around team formation and placement has been removed from our domain, and replaced by these standardized rules.  Where SW Zone agrees with the spirit and intent of the rules, we are identifying some of the operating challenges that have resulted and are working with our governing bodies to make improvements for the future.  As by far the largest district within the Edmonton Federation Hockey League, SW Zone believes the new rules have a disproportionate impact on our ability to field competitive teams at each tier and to effectively group players with similar skill levels into teams.  As always, we welcome your questions and comments so that we can help to dispel any misunderstandings and take your valuable ideas forward.