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Do small towns produce the biggest athletic talent?

Queen’s research featured in new Apple TV documentary assesses whether an athlete’s birthplace has a big impact on their likelihood of making the big leagues.

When you talk about a favourite hockey player in Canada, one of the first things that comes up is their hometown. And by this measure, the small city of Kingston, Ontario, has been getting more than its fair share of mentions over the years.

Kingston, (which is also home to Queen’s University), has a reputation for producing some of the world’s best hockey players, including Kirk Muller, Doug Gilmour, Jayna Hefford, and Mike Smith. Kingston has produced 70 National Hockey League (NHL) players, including five who scored Stanley Cup-winning goals. This is a hometown hockey record that still stands today.

But Kingston isn’t the only small city that’s been highlighted as a real hockey hotspot. Across the ocean, a small town in Denmark, has also achieved an impressive hockey-related feat. In just nine years, the city of Herning, with a population of 50,000, has produced five NHL players, including Frederik Andersen, Frans Nielsen, Oliver Bjorkstrand and former NHL forward Peter Regin and Nicklas Jensen. What makes this even more interesting, is that Denmark is a country with very little hockey tradition. It’s a phenomenon that has inspired a new Apple TV documentary, The Hockey Miracle in the Middle of No Where, and research led by Queen’s professor Jean Côté (Kinesiology and Health Studies) takes centre ice in helping to explain it all.

facing off in a game of ice hockey“The filmmaker Rasmus Ankersen and a small crew came to Queen’s four years ago to learn more about our research, which received a lot of press when it was published in 2006,” says Dr. Côté. “The filmmaker then wrote popular books about talent development in sport and our research was central to his story line that focused on the trajectory of these five NHL players that grew up in Herning.”

Research by Dr. Côté and collaborators that suggested small places are better than big cities at developing talent made media waves when it was published in the Journal of Sport Sciences in the mid-2000s.

“After studying professional athletes born in different cities in the USA and Canada, we found cities with populations between 50,000 and 100,000 present the best odds of producing elite athletes in hockey, basketball, baseball, and golf,” says Dr. Côté. “There are some things in the social and physical environment in small towns that are more efficient.”

The researchers found that the effect could be mainly due to factors related to the interaction of quality relationships, activities, and competitive settings that are favorable to young athlete development. For example, smaller cities present fewer safety concerns, better access to open spaces, and less competing sources of leisure time use by children.

Small cities might also present more opportunities for the type of developmental experiences and practices known to be associated with expert performance.

The Canadian data gathered for his research also suggests that rural areas with populations of less than 1,000 produced significantly less professional players than expected. This points to a lack of infrastructure that are usually common to a city, which may result in fewer opportunities to invest in physical activities and sports.

“I did talk at Kingston City Hall around a decade ago on the topic, and Kirk Muller responded to my presentation, discussing his upbringing in Kingston,” says Dr. Côté. “A lot of characteristics of Herning were shared in Muller’s story.”

The Hockey Miracle in the Middle of No Where is now available on Apple TV for subscribers. Dr. Côté and his team have a prominent role in the 45-minute film, which also includes scenic panoramas of Springer Market Square and the Queen’s campus. For a preview of the documentary, visit the website.