NHL Alumni Mike Gaul (background) listens to instruction as he looks on with the players taking part in a hockey clinic held at the Stirling and District Recreation Centre during Kraft Hockeyville Day in Stirling, Ont. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
It’s understandable why a company such as Bauer would be spearheading an initiative to double the number of hockey players in Canada and bump the worldwide numbers by a million. More players mean more hockey equipment consumers, although theoretically it also means more people to buy equipment produced by Bauer rivals.
Regardless of the motivation, we applaud anyone who takes steps to getting more young people on the ice and playing the best game in the world. It seems preposterous that anyone would have to play up the merits of playing hockey to Canadian kids, since the perception is that when you shake a tree in Canada, hockey players fall out of it.
There were observers who were apoplectic to learn that 90 percent of people between the ages of five and 19 do not play the game in Canada. For boys, the number is closer to 85 percent. This is something THN identified two years ago in a cover story on the state of the game in Canada and, as the story pointed out, with birth rates in Canada dropping from 2.1 million in 2006 to a projected number of just 1.79 million in 2016, it might get worse before it gets better. In fact, if Hockey Canada’s 9.5 percent participation rate continues to hold, we could be looking at 30,000 fewer players in Canada in the most important age group.
The most important thing to note when it comes to minor hockey participation in Canada is that dwindling and smaller numbers will not affect this country’s ability to produce elite players. The hundreds of hockey academies, one-on-one instructors and super elite programs continue to regularly churn out players with mind-boggling talent levels. And as long as Mom and Dad have the bankroll and the willingness to make the sacrifices necessary, there will be no shortage of skill coaches and spring leagues more than happy to take your money.
And there will never be any shortage of people in this country willing to part with it. Certainly there will always be enough to stock the NHL and produce the super elite talent needed to win regularly on the world stage. But in a strange way, it’s that kind of elitism that, in my opinion, is contributing to Canada’s shockingly low numbers of players. It’s almost as though the game has become too important to Canadians, which has in turn made it an all-in or all-out proposition. In other words, why bother continuing to play hockey if you’re going to be weeded out of top competition by the time you’re 10 years old? When the stakes become that high, so does the commitment, and that as much as anything is what drives talented players away from the game and into other pursuits.
What Bauer and Hockey Canada and all the other stakeholders must do is make people realize that the hockey experience in this country is what you make it. Yes, hockey is expensive, ghastly onerous in some cases. But it doesn’t have to be. It requires an enormous commitment on the part of parents and players, but again, only if that is your choice. And yes, it can be terribly dangerous, as evidenced by the fact that literally thousands of young players suffer concussions every year, some of them career-ending. But again, parents can cut down the potential for catastrophic injury exponentially if they don’t make the game so darn important.
So what is the answer? It’s playing house league hockey, the haven for what some who would turn their nose up to it is played by the unwashed masses. But if you think about it, while elite AAA leagues and hockey academies are busy producing the next crop of pros, house leagues are producing the next generation of beer league players, people for whom the game remains a passion. Without them, the NHL would probably collapse due to a lack of interest.
House league is undoubtedly a step down on the hockey food chain, but it also supplies people who don’t see hockey as the be-all and end-all with a place to play. Most house leagues play one game and hold one practice per week – which is hardly a deal breaker for most parents – and those looking for a little more competition can opt to try for the Select program, which is one step up but not on par with more competitive leagues. In fact, the Ted Reeve Hockey Association in Toronto offers one game per week, that’s all. The games are held on Saturday mornings and afternoons, which requires a commitment of, at most, about two hours a week.
And this nonsense of having to wake up at 5 a.m. to drive through snowstorms for a 6 o’clock game? It’s largely a myth as far as I can see. My sons have played house league hockey for the better part of a decade now and the earliest one of them has ever been on the ice is 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
As far as cost is concerned, you’re not going to get away with soccer-type expenses, but again, it may not be as onerous as some think. Most house leagues charge between $300 and $500 for a season including practices. When you put that up against dancing, gymnastics or swimming, you’ll find you’re probably getting a pretty good deal. And as far as hockey equipment goes, the upper end of it is incredibly expensive. But you don’t have to pay $700 for a pair of skates or $300 for the best composite stick. In fact, most people can find a very serviceable pair of skates for less than $100. And unless you need top-of-the-line equipment, there’s nothing wrong with buying used gear for a growing boy or girl – although I’m pretty sure an equipment company won’t be pushing that particular option very aggressively.
With respect to injuries, they’re always bound to occur when players are gliding on one-eighth of an inch of steel on an ice surface with no out-of-bounds areas. But speaking again from personal experience, if your son or daughter plays house league, there is very little chance he or she will be seriously injured or suffer a head injury. In fact, I can say with 100 percent certainty that I have never seen a single one in 10 years at the house league level.
And most of all, house league hockey harkens back to a day when the game was just that. It’s not hyper organized and, for the most part, it’s not viewed as a life-and-death situation. The kids who are there want to be there. It’s not a chore for them. They just don’t want to spend their lives at a rink and a gym. And that’s perfectly fine because the more we cultivate real grassroots hockey in this country, the more players we’re going to have playing.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.