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Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers argued that extraordinary success requires hard work, talent, ambition - and being born at the right time. His favourite example is hockey.

In minor hockey, children are grouped by birth year. This year, any player born in 1995 is a "minor midget."

But January-born minor midgets are, on average, bigger and taller than December-born players. Gladwell argues that this head start gives players born in the first months of the year a life-long advantage: they are more likely to be chosen for top tier competitive teams, they get more ice time and better coaching.

The result, Gladwell says, is "an iron law of Canadian hockey: in any elite group of hockey players - the very best of the best - 40 per cent of the players will have been born between January and March." Those born in the last quarter of the year might as well just "give up on hockey."

Serious hockey fans have long been skeptical -- Mario Lemieux was born on Oct. 5, Eric Staal on Oct. 29. A recent article by Benjamin Gibbs, Mikaela Dufur, Shawn Meiners and David Jeter of Brigham Young University suggests the skeptics are right.

The authors examine the birth dates of the 1,177 Canadian-born players who competed in the NHL between 2000 and 2010. Twenty-nine per cent were born in the first quarter of the year.

Is 29 per cent high or low? If births were spread evenly throughout the year, 25 per cent of NHLers would be born between January and March. Twenty-nine per cent early birthdays would be over the odds. But some ambitious parents try for a January baby to give their child a head start over his peers. Without knowing more about the timing of births in the hockey heartland - where parents drive minivans and natural ice is abundant - we can't tell if first quarter babies have a better chance of making it.

Gladwell got it wrong because he looked at Major Junior (CHL) teams, like the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Vancouver Giants. At 15 and 16, when players are drafted into Major Junior, players born in the first quarter of the year enjoy a size advantage, so CHL rosters are filled with early-born players. Yet making it into the NHL requires such extraordinary talent that those with the necessary skills will make it onto a Junior roster, even if they are born in December.

During their time in Juniors, younger players grow and catch up with the older ones. Indeed, because the NHL draft has a September cut-off, October-born players are actually older than January ones when the draft happens.

If 40 per cent of Major Junior players are born in the first quarter, but only about 30 per cent of Canadian-born NHLers are, then January-born major junior players must, on average, have a lower chance of making into the NHL than December-born players. They are the ones who lose out from the current system - risking injury and concussion for a small chance of a big pay-off.

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