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Steady decline in youth hockey participation in Canada raises concerns about the future of the sport – Chicago Tribune

Steady decline in youth hockey participation in Canada raises concerns about the future of the sport – Chicago Tribune
Steady decline in youth hockey participation in Canada raises concerns about the future of the sport – Chicago Tribune

 


BRAMPTON, Ontario – All four rinks at Susan Fennell Sportsplex are full of action on this wintry Saturday morning, the air filled with the sounds of hockey skates crunching through the ice and pucks clattering against the glass.

The scene is as familiar as the sunrise at countless ice rinks across Canada. Hockey remains a beloved pastime, a source of pride and joy and something that has bound the vast country together for more than 150 years.

Behind the scenes of the goals and celebrations lies an alarming trend: youth participation in hockey in the birthplace of the sport has fallen by almost a quarter over the past fifteen years, a decline that started well before the pandemic from a peak of more than half. in 2010, one million children participated.

Due to rising costs for everything from equipment and ice time to specialized coaching and travel programs, families are choosing other sports such as football and basketball over hockey. There are concerns about the future of grassroots hockey in the country that has developed it into a popular, vibrant sport that is growing elsewhere, including in the United States.

“It makes me sad,” said Alex Klimsiak, who coaches two teams in Brampton to give back to the game he still plays recreationally at age 44 in suburban Toronto. “Enrollment has probably gone down over the last five or six years. year. You could see it, especially before the pandemic. In a pandemic, a magnifying glass was simply put on it and the situation escalated.”

In 2022, about two months after Canada celebrated what was then the 18th World Junior Hockey Championship, hockey giant Bauer CEO Ed Kinnaly stated: “The number of kids getting involved in hockey in Canada is declining… but no one is talking. about that.”

At the time, Hockey Canada reported that 411,818 youth under the age of 18 were participating in the sport, a 22% decrease from 523,785 just 13 years earlier, not counting an introductory program that has been separated from registration numbers since 2021. That number recovered slightly in 2023. to 436,895, but is still below pre-pandemic levels, even though football and tennis numbers have already recovered in Canada.

“I'm worried, but I'm not panicking,” Kinnaly told The Associated Press. “I'm obviously concerned about what the numbers say. I'm not panicking because I believe the sport is evolving. I really think the right people – the National Hockey League, USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, private companies – are all starting to have an honest dialogue with each other, which means, A, we need to stop talking about what's wrong and, B , we must invest in change in the interest of the sport.”

Choices that go beyond hockey

Few things are more closely associated with Canada than hockey, a place where children and adults alike look forward to winter and lakes and ponds freezing over so they can lace up their skates, spread a net and play a bit. When Canada faced the U.S. on home ice in Vancouver in the 2010 Olympic final, half of the country's entire population watched Sidney Crosby score the “golden goal” that has become etched into national lore. Millions of people will be watching Edmonton this spring as the Oilers try to end their 31-year Stanley Cup championship drought.

Still, the sport may no longer be the sport for kids in Canada. According to the Canadian Youth Sports Report Published last summer by Solutions Research Group, football is the top choice at 16%, followed by swimming, hockey and basketball. The raw participation figures for the sports are not comparable, given the differences in registration requirements between different governing bodies.

Parents cited financial problems as their top concern (58%), followed by family care and youth mental health care, including bullying. There are also some concerns that the time required for training and practice, even at the lower levels of competitive hockey, is part of the problem.

While youth hockey participation in Canada is declining, the U.S. is seeing steady growth

“It's definitely a big commitment,” said Priyanka Kwatra, whose 10-year-old son Shawn has developed a love for the sport and plays in the Toronto suburbs. “It is a very time-consuming sport.”

Time-consuming, largely due to the limited availability of ice, which means that training and competitions take place until very early in the morning or late in the evening. Many youth programs train on the ice for nine months or more per year, three to five times a week, in addition to off-ice training.

When her husband, Amit, first looked at equipment for Shawn, the $1,000 price tag was a shock. Add to that the limitations on ice available for training or fun and games and basketball or football suddenly seem easier.

“Getting someone to play hockey, it's not as easy as getting someone to play football where all you need is a football,” Amit Kwatra said. “Hockey, the amount of equipment it takes to get the game going is a lot, and I think that's the biggest barrier for a lot of people introducing their kids to hockey.”

Other sports can also be a safer choice than hockey with its speed, hitting and sharp skating. Gianfranco Talarico is the founder of Daredevil Hockey, which has been making cut-resistant equipment for more than a decade. He said his company's feedback and research has shown that safety and cost are the biggest factors hindering the sport's faster growth.

“It's so woven into the fabric of Canadians,” he said. “If we don't collectively focus on making hockey a safer sport, the potential brand value of hockey in general will begin to decline.”

'Professionalization of hockey'

During All-Star Weekend in Toronto, the NHL hosted a youth event in nearby York. With daughter Sharon, Priyanka and Amit watched their son on the ice, he and more than 100 other young players all in their first set of gear provided by Bauer as part of NHL/NHLPA First Shift, one of many efforts to learn to play intended to keep hockey in Canada's bloodlines.

“It's a low-cost entry point, and it can obviously accelerate growth because it provides opportunity,” said Matt Herr, a former NHL player who is now the league's senior director of youth hockey and industry growth. “Especially in Canada, we now compete where that used to be the pastime. … it was everyone's first choice, and now there are all these different choices and we have to make sure we're still everyone's first choice.

Mr. and others know that the cost of equipment may be a barrier. The quality of sticks, helmets and pads has increased dramatically thanks to technological advances, but that comes with higher prices – and with it the risk of leaving out lower-income families eager to try hockey, especially as the higher levels of the sport almost all year round.

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Rachael Bishop for her 2017 honors dissertation at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, found a huge gap between the household incomes of families in hockey compared to those in other sports, an indication of the resources needed to pay for it.

“I think it's probably more of a cost factor, and we're seeing it become prohibitively expensive now,” Bishop told The AP. “You see the professionalization of hockey: it is now a sport for the whole year: you have to participate in summer competitions, you want to get the best equipment. Then there's always power skating lessons and summer camps, so I think a lot of it is more expensive than anything else.

Klimsiak, the Brampton coach, estimated that the cost of joining a competitive team — those that travel to tournaments and have multiple set practice times as opposed to recreational teams — starts at $4,000, with some teams charging $10,000 or more. He said some hockey organizations in Toronto are joining forces because there aren't enough players.

“The cost of the game has gone up,” said Klimsiak, who has three sons who play, including one on his team, for which he struggles to find goaltenders. “Referee costs have increased. It is heavy. It's proportional. It's like the cost of living, so everything has gone up and now unfortunately the parents have to pay more.”

The cost is something University of Toronto professor Simon Darnell is all too aware of. The parent of a 9-year-old who plays competitive hockey, the sports culture and sociology expert calls one of the “exclusionary practices in hockey that go back a long time,” along with the culture of winning and the obsession with moving up. to the next team.

Darnell acknowledges the willingness to spend money on ice and other expenses and also understands that early morning hockey, almost year-round, is one of the factors that keeps some out.

“It's like if you don't want to participate in hockey under those conditions, I don't think there's as much room for you as there should be,” Darnell said. “If you don't want to adhere to those rules, there is no room for you and you will practice another sport.”

Stopping the slide

Another concern: Are there enough rinks to enable hockey as a source of fun and character building for children? Canada's population, now nearly 40 million, has doubled in fifty years, and the International Ice Hockey Federation reports there are still only 2,860 indoor rinks in the vast country. Renting ice can cost hundreds of dollars for just 1-2 hours.

Kinnaly pointed to a 2019 plan by Parks and Recreation Ontario to invest $2 billion over the next 20 years in 45 new soccer fields, 30 basketball courts, 18 indoor swimming pools and a single hockey rink as further cause for concern.

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