Canadian youth no longer playing ice hockey as participation declines

BRAMPTON, Ontario (AP) — The four ice rinks at the Susan Fennell Sportsplex are packed with action this winter Saturday morning; The air is filled with the sound of hockey skates on the ice and pucks hitting the glass.

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

Behind the scenes of the goals and celebrations is an alarming trend: Youth hockey participation in the birthplace of the sport has declined by nearly a third over the past decade and a half, a decline that began long before the pandemic from a peak of more From the half. one million children participated in 2010.

Due to the rising costs of everything from equipment and ice time to specialized training 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 made it a popular and vibrant sport that is seeing growth elsewhere, including the United States.

“It makes me sad,” said Alex Klimsiak, who coaches two teams in Brampton as a way to give back to the game he still plays recreationally in the Toronto suburbs at the age of 44. “Enrollment has probably been declining for the last five, six years. Definitely before the pandemic you could see it. “A pandemic just put a magnifying glass on it and intensified it.”

In 2022, about two months after Canada held what was then its 18th world junior hockey championship, hockey equipment giant Bauer CEO Ed Kinnaly stated: “The number of kids getting involved in hockey in Canada it is spiraling down… but no one is talking. about it.”

At the time, Hockey Canada reported that 340,365 youth under the age of 18 were participating in the sport, a 35% drop from 523,785 just 13 years earlier. That figure recovered slightly in 2023 to 360,031, but is still about 15% below pre-pandemic levels, even as soccer and tennis numbers in Canada have already recovered.

“I’m worried, but not panicked,” Kinnaly told The Associated Press earlier this year. “Obviously I am concerned about what the numbers say. I’m not panicking because I believe the sport is evolving. I think the right people (the National Hockey League, USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, private corporations) are starting to have an honest dialogue with each other, which is: A, we have to stop talking about what’s wrong and, B, “We have to start investing in changes for the good of the sport.”

Options beyond hockey

Few things are more associated with Canada than hockey, a place where children and adults alike look forward to winter and the lakes and ponds freeze over so they can lace up their skates, get out a net and play a little. When Canada faced the United States in the 2010 Olympic final in Vancouver, half of the country’s entire population watched Sidney Crosby score the “golden goal,” etched in national lore. Millions of people are watching Edmonton this spring as the Oilers try to end the country’s 31-year Stanley Cup championship drought.

However, this sport may no longer be the favorite of children in Canada. According to the Canadian Youth Sports Report released last summer by Solutions Research Group, soccer is the top choice at 16%, followed by swimming, hockey and basketball. Raw sports participation figures are not comparable given differences in registration requirements between different governing bodies.

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

“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’s a time-consuming type of sport.”

It is time-consuming largely due to limited ice availability that causes practices and games to take place very early in the morning or late at night. Many youth programs train nine months or more a year, on the ice three to five times a week along with off-ice workouts.

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

“Getting someone into hockey is not as simple as getting someone into soccer, where you just need a soccer ball,” Amit Kwatra said. “Hockey, the amount of equipment required to start the game is a lot, and I think that’s the biggest barrier for a lot of people introducing their kids to hockey.”

Other sports may also seem like a safer option than hockey with its speed, hitting, and sharp skates. Gianfranco Talarico is the founder of Daredevil Hockey, which has been making cut-proof equipment for over a decade. He said feedback and surveys from his company have shown that safety and cost are the main factors hindering faster growth of the sport.

“It’s very woven into the fabric of Canadians,” he said. “If we do not collectively focus on making hockey a safer sport, the potential value of the overall hockey brand 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 wearing their first gear provided by Bauer as part of NHL/NHLPA First Shift, one of many efforts to learn to play. he intended to keep hockey in Canada’s lineage.

“It’s a low-cost entry point and obviously it can accelerate growth because it provides opportunities,” 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 it used to be a pastime. … It was everyone’s first choice, and now there are all these different options and we have to make sure we remain everyone’s first choice.”

Herr and others know that equipment costs are potentially becoming a barrier. The quality of sticks, helmets and pads has increased considerably thanks to technological advances, but with that comes higher prices, and with that comes the risk of leaving out low-income families eager to try hockey, especially now that Higher levels of this sport are practiced almost all year round.

Rachael Bishop, for her 2017 honors thesis at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, found a huge gap between the income of families who play hockey compared to other sports, an indication of the means needed to afford it.

“I think it’s more of a cost factor, and we’re seeing it now become prohibitively expensive,” Bishop told the AP. “You see the professionalization of hockey: it’s now a year-round sport: you have to join summer leagues, you want to get the best team. Then there are always roller skating classes and summer camps, so I think a lot of that costs more than anything else.”

Klimsiak, the Brampton coach, estimated the cost of being on a competitive team (those that travel to tournaments and have multiple set practice schedules as opposed to recreational teams) starts at $4,000, with some teams charging $10,000 or more. He said some Toronto hockey organizations are combining resources because there aren’t enough players to go around.

“The cost of the game has gone up,” said Klimsiak, who has three sons playing, one of them on his team, for which he has trouble finding goalkeepers. “Referee costs have increased. It’s hard. It is proportional. “It’s like the cost of living, so everything has gone up and now, unfortunately, parents have to pay more.”

The cost is something that Professor Simon Darnell of the University of Toronto is well aware of. Father of a 9-year-old boy who plays competitive hockey, the sports culture and sociology expert calls costs one of the “exclusionary practices in hockey that go back a long time,” along with winning culture and obsession for climbing. to the next team.

Darnell, acknowledging the willingness to shell out money for ice and other expenses, also understands that the fact that hockey takes place early in the morning and almost year-round is one of the factors keeping some out.

“It’s like if you don’t want to participate in hockey on those terms, then I think there’s not as much room for you as there should be,” Darnell said. “If you don’t want to play by those rules, then there’s no room for you and then you go and play a different sport.”

Stopping the slide

Another concern: Are there enough ice rinks to accommodate hockey as a source of fun and character development for children? Canada’s population, now nearly 40 million, has doubled in 50 years, and the International Ice Hockey Federation reports that there are still only 2,860 indoor ice rinks across the sprawling country. Renting ice can cost hundreds of dollars just for 1 or 2 hours.

Kinnaly pointed to a 2019 Ontario Parks and Recreation plan to invest $2 billion over the next two decades on 45 new soccer fields, 30 basketball courts, 18 indoor pools and a single hockey rink as another cause for concern. .

“The number of rinks that are in disrepair or have closed further compresses the availability of ice time,” Kinnaly said. “If there are no places for people to play, it will continue to be a headwind, a real challenge.”

Programs like Scotiabank’s First Shift and Hockey For All are among the measures being taken to stem the decline. Kinnaly said Bauer’s program has been “immensely successful” in not only getting kids into hockey but also keeping them, with a retention rate of about 60 per cent, and has discussed ways to introduce new Canadians to hockey. in-game, such as the team being part of the welcome package upon signing. for a checking account.

But there are still systemic problems, from crumbling infrastructure and a lack of new runways to inflationary pressure on prices.

The problems are not seen at the NHL level, where revenue continues to rise and fan interest is growing. In the United States, participation in youth hockey has slowly grown to nearly 400,000 registered players, surpassing Canada in 2021.

Instead, the existential crisis of the home of hockey exists in places like the Brampton rink, where the players and fans of tomorrow are developed. There are encouraging signs, such as hockey remaining the sport of choice for First Nations youth and almost 40 per cent of First Round participants being girls as women’s sport receives more attention, but the overall trend has been a painful question that must be answered.

“I don’t think hockey can rest on its feet like it used to, and there’s a part of me that’s okay with that,” said Darnell, the Toronto professor. “I think it makes sense that if we’re going to invest in hockey in Canada as something representative of Canadian culture, we really have to think about what Canadian culture is like and how it’s reflected in hockey. Because right now it is not.”

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