Yes, cost is a significant factor in making hockey accessible to more people, but more focus is also needed on making it less competitive, and less strenuous at the grass-roots level.
It’s great that a luminary such as Mark Messier wants to see more kids playing hockey in Canada, even if it’s part of a greater goal of helping Bauer and Canadian Tire sell more hockey equipment. It might come as a surprise to some people, but the kids who don’t play organized hockey in this country outnumber those who do by a considerable margin.
As Messier pointed out recently, cost is a significant factor in that equation. That’s not just a problem in Canada. While in Pittsburgh for the Eastern Conference final last week, I saw an ad on local television where a hockey mom talked about selling her old jewelry to pay for the ridiculous costs it took to keep her kid in hockey. It was a fictional account, but you get the idea. Even if playing hockey for kids is not the money pit that many think it is – in fact, competitive dance, skiing, golf or just about anything are just as expensive – that’s the narrative that’s out there.
Cost is not the only problem, either. The fact remains that hockey is and always will be a costly venture. But cost is also relative. If you limit your kid’s participation to house league hockey, it is a venture that falls nicely into the budget of most middle-class households and is not near as frantic and crazy an endeavor for parents as it’s made out to be. Hockey can quite easily be a part of a child’s experience with lots of time remaining to ski, play piano, do homework and just be a kid.
Like many observers, Messier ties this all into elite hockey, being quoted as saying that, “If Canada is to maintain its superiority – or perceived superiority – at the international level, at the Olympic level, we have to somehow figure out (how) to maximize our talent pool in the country. The bigger vision is how does Canada stay at that elite level? And by creating more talent, introducing more kids (to hockey), I think is one way of doing it.”
Perhaps, but I would argue that’s not the point. Canada is never going to have to worry about its place on the world stage. There are too many players and too many resources devoted to the game for Canada to lag behind. The sport already attracts a lot of the best natural athletes. And, most importantly, there is not shortage of families that will do whatever it takes – pay any price, make any sacrifice, go through any hardship – to help make their sons and daughters elite hockey players. Ask almost any parent whose child plays hockey all year and he/she will probably tell you the greatest fear is that his/her child will be left behind. There’s too much money in this game and too many people willing to help people part with it in the name of hockey development for Canada to stop producing boatloads of elite players.
That’s not where the crisis is in minor hockey today. Go to any city in Canada and watch the kids who play at the most elite levels. Chances are, your jaw will drop at some of the things these kids can do.
No, the problem in Canada is in mass participation. And I would argue that part of the reason why so many kids don’t pursue hockey is that it’s an exclusive club that shuts them out at too young an age. USA Hockey recently announced that it had once again broken a record for 8-and-under participation with almost 116,000 kids playing in that category. At that age group, the vast majority of the kids play cross-ice games where they get more touches, more opportunity and less of a hyper-competitive atmosphere. It’s a model that Hockey Canada is following and mandated. In Sweden, kids play cross-ice games where there are no standings or statistics kept until the age of 12. In Canada, if you’re not playing AAA hockey by the time you’re 10 and getting off-ice instruction and playing in the off-season, you’re at risk of being left behind.
You want more kids playing the game? How about not setting up the system for failure? How about not having AAA teams for eight-year-old kids? How about not having summer tournaments such as the Brick Tournament in Edmonton, where 10-year-old kids form super-elite teams and fly in from around the world to play? How about doing something about spring and summer hockey, which is nothing more than a ploy by private rink operators to keep their rinks running 12 months a year so they can make more money? How about not having bantam and midget teams that are on the ice more often than most NHL teams?
And maybe, just maybe, playing the national winter sport could be seen as a health and welfare issue. Getting people active requires up-to-date facilities that are publicly funded. The vast majority of arenas that are built now are done so privately, meaning the cost of ice time has skyrocketed in many places. With the billions of dollars of infrastructure money promised in the last election, some places might want to use it to build arenas that won’t suck huge operating costs out of their budgets. And while we’re at it, those rinks don’t even have to be indoors. Outdoor ice pads cost a fraction to build and maintain.
Cost is undoubtedly one barrier to playing hockey for a lot of people. And cheers to Messier and the private sector for recognizing that. But it’s going to take a lot more than easing peoples’ pocketbooks to increase participation in what was once such a large part of Canada’s national identity.