Queen’s professor breaks down the advantage of small towns over bigger cities for producing athletic talent

Dr Jean Côté discusses research featured in documentary The Hockey Miracle in the Middle of Nowhere

According to Dr. Côté, big cities are less likely to produce professional athletes than small towns.

For boys in youth hockey, the chances of playing in an NHL game are one in 1000. If you were born and raised in a small town rather than a big city, however, these defying odds could waver in your favour.

Jean Côté, a Queen’s Kinesiology professor, can explain why. 

If you were born in a U.S town of 50,000 to 100,000 people, you are 18 times more likely to become an NHL player than those born in a city of 500,000 people. This statistic appears in the documentary “The Hockey Miracle in the Middle of Nowhere,” an Apple TV film by Rasmus Ankerson.

The film tells the story of Herning, Denmark: a small town with a population of 50,000 that has remarkably produced five NHL players in the past nine years.

Compare this to Detroit, the hockey capital of America, which has only produced four NHLers over the same period.

Throughout the film, Ankerson enlists in the help of Côté to explain the phenomenon. Ankerson visited Queen’s campus to interview the professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, where Côté explained why athletes from small towns are at a greater advantage for succeeding in professional sport.   

The sports psychology professor sat down with The Journal to discuss the role of his research in explaining the Herning miracle, and how his work applies to youth sport programming
and early specialization. 

“I think the film does a very nice job of displaying all the different probabilities. It’s not one thing, it’s probably a mix of a lot of different things that makes Herning what it is,” Côté explained.

Côté became interested in the relationships between birthplace and professional sport achievement after observing that many Canadian NHL players come from rural areas in northern Quebec, northern Ontario, and Saskatchewan rather than large cities like Toronto and Montreal.

He discussed his observations in a 2006 paper published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. 

Evidence from the analysis of athlete’s birthplaces in professional sports leagues introduced the “Birthplace Effect”—that growing up in certain environments matters a lot when developing talent. 

This paper was revived in Ankerson’s film to explain why Herning became an NHL hotbed.

According to Côté, the Birthplace Effect has little to do with the numbers, and everything to do with the environment.

“It’s not about size. It’s about—and I think the film does a nice job with it—it’s about what [small towns] create, and the social relationship that it creates, and the role modeling,” he said.

The organization of youth sport in small towns is
less divisional—there is more opportunity to play, self-esteem is more readily built, and there is less comparison with others compared to bigger cities.

“Maybe you’re not very good, but you think you’re good and you keep practicing, versus [if] you’re in Toronto, and then at seven and eight years old, you’re going to go to a training camp, and they’re going to tell you right away if you’re good or not,” Côté said.

Cities provide funnels for kids as young as seven years old to specialize in a single sport early on, with opportunities for travel teams, selection camps, academies, and year-round play.

“The selection at an early age and telling kids if they’re good or not at an early age does not lead to talent, and we know that. It’s impossible to identify talent at seven and eight years old.”

In small towns, however, early specialization and hyper competitive environments are much less common. Kids have more opportunity to improve their game and reach their potential later in life.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that it’s not too late in most sports. At 14, 15, 16 years old, you can start investing.”

Côté iterated his point with Herning native Frederik Anderson, an NHL goaltender who was widely regarded as one of the best goalies in Toronto Maple Leaf franchise history during his five season run with the team from 2016-2020.

Back in Herning, Anderson was not considered a good hockey player at 12-13 years old. In fact, he only reached NHL-calibre skill when he was in his twenties.

“[Anderson] is one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. If he had lived in Toronto […] he would have never made it, because they would have told him at a very young age that he was not good,” Côté remarked.

For Côté, it’s important that the impact of less competitive psychosocial environments for youth sport participation reaches sport organizations, coaches, and parents.

“I think that coming up with ways of making sure that kids are enjoying what they're doing when they're kids and [that] they're playing [are important]. Once they're ready, they can invest a little bit more, but it should come from them. It should come from their own decisions.”

Sport isn’t just about skill—it’s also about motivation and personal development, which are important determinants of going pro.

These attributes are what small towns like Herning develop in youth sport. Role models are accessible and close by, everyone gets to play and has ample opportunity to improve, and kids can feel like they’re part of something bigger.

“That's the one message that needs to go out there. Sport is not only about building sports skills, it's about building life skills that are applied in sport,” Côté said.

“I think this work should go to sport organizations, coaches, and parents. Hopefully it is going to be translated and used in some policies to structure sport the right way.”

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