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Youth hockey participation down nearly 1/3 as steady decline continues

Soul-searching underway as how to reconnect Canadians with their sport
Youth hockey players take part in a game at Susan Fennell Sportsplex in Brampton, Ontario, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. Two years ago marked the first time the U.S. had more youth hockey players registered than Canada.(AP Photo/Stephen Whyno)

All four ice rinks at Susan Fennell Sportsplex are full of action on this winter Saturday morning, the air filled with the sound of hockey skates grinding through ice and pucks clanging off the glass.

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

Behind the scenes of the goals and celebrations is an alarming trend: Youth hockey participation in the cradle of the sport has decreased by nearly a third over the past decade and a half, a decline that began well before the pandemic from a peak of over half a million kids taking part as recently as 2010.

Because of growing costs for everything from equipment and ice time to specialized coaching and travel programs, families are choosing other sports like soccer and basketball over hockey. There are concerns about the future of grassroots hockey in the country that has nourished it into the popular, vibrant sport that is seeing growth elsewhere, including the United States.

“It does sadden me,” said Alex Klimsiak, who coaches two teams in Brampton as his way to giving back to the game he still plays recreationally in suburban Toronto at the age of 44. “Enrollment’s probably been declining for the last five, six years. Definitely before the pandemic you could see it. A pandemic just put a magnifying glass and escalated it.”

In 2022, about two months after Canada celebrated what was then its 18th world junior hockey championship, the CEO of hockey equipment giant Bauer, Ed Kinnaly, declared: “The number of kids getting involved in hockey in Canada is spiraling downward … but nobody’s talking about that.”

At the time, Hockey Canada reported 340,365 youths younger than 18 participating in the sport, a 35% drop from 523,785 just 13 years earlier. That number slightly rebounded in 2023 to 360,031, but is still some 15% below pre-pandemic levels even while soccer and tennis numbers in Canada have already recovered.

“I’m concerned but I’m not panicked,” Kinnaly told The Associated Press earlier this year. “I’m concerned obviously at what the numbers say. I’m not panicked because I do believe that the sport is evolving. I do think the right people — the National Hockey League, USA Hockey, Hockey Canada, private corporations — are all starting to have the honest dialogue with each other, which is, A, we’ve got to stop talking about what’s wrong and, B, we’ve got to start investing in change for the sake of the sport.”

Choices beyond hockey

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

Yet the sport may no longer be the go-to for kids 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 participation numbers for the sports are not comparable given differences in registration requirements across various governing bodies.

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

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

Time-consuming in large part because of the limited availability of ice that pushes practices and games to very early in the morning or late at night. Many youth programs train nine months or more per year, on the ice three to five times a week along with off-ice workouts.

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

“Getting someone into hockey, it’s not as simple as getting someone into soccer where you just need a soccer ball,” Amit Kwatra said. “Hockey, the amount of gear that’s required in order to kind of get the game started is a lot, and I think that is the biggest barrier for a lot of people that initiate their kids into hockey.”

Other sports can also feel like a safer choice than hockey with its speed, hits and sharp skates. Gianfranco Talarico is the founder of Daredevil Hockey, which has been making cut-proof gear for more than a decade. He said his company’s feedback and surveys have shown safety and cost are the biggest things hindering a more rapid growth of the sport.

“It’s so intertwined in the fabric of Canadians,” he said. “If we don’t collectively focus on making hockey a safer sport, the potential brand equity of hockey in general will start to diminish.”

‘Professionalization of hockey’

During All-Star Weekend in Toronto, the NHL put on 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 learn-to-play efforts intended to keep hockey in Canada’s bloodlines.

“It’s a low-cost entry point, and then it obviously is able to 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’re competing now where it used to be the pastime. … it was everybody’s first choice, and now there’s all these different choices and we’ve got to make sure we’re still everybody’s first choice.”

Herr and others know the equipment costs are potentially becoming a barrier. The quality of sticks, helmets and pads has increased sharply thanks to technological advances, but with that comes higher pricing — and with that comes the risk of leaving out lower-income families eager to try hockey, especially with higher levels of the sport running nearly year-round.

Rachael Bishop for her 2017 honors thesis at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, found a massive gap between the household incomes of families in hockey compared with other sports, an indication of the means necessary to afford it.

“I do think it’s more so probably a factor of cost, and we’re seeing it become prohibitively expensive now,” Bishop told The AP. “You see the professionalization of hockey: It’s a full-year sport now: You’ve got to join summer leagues, you want to get all the best equipment. Then there’s always like power-skating lessons, summer camps, so I think a lot of it is cost more so than anything.”

Klimsiak, the Brampton coach, estimated that the cost of being on a competitive team — the ones 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 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 on his team, which he has trouble finding goaltenders for. “Referee costs have gone up. It’s tough. It’s proportional. It’s like cost of living, so everything’s gone up and now unfortunately the parents have to pay more.”

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

Darnell, acknowledging the willingness to shell out money for ice and other expenses, also understands the early-morning, nearly year-round aspect of hockey is one of factors keeping some out.

“It’s like if you don’t want to participate in hockey on those terms, then there isn’t as much space for you I think as there should be,” Darnell said. “It’s if you don’t want to play by those rules, then there isn’t space for you and then you go and play a different sport.”

Stopping the slide

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

Kinnaly pointed to a 2019 Parks and Recreation Ontario 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 further 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 aren’t places for people to play, it’s going to continue to be a headwind, a real challenge.”

Programs like First Shift and Scotiabank’s Hockey For All are among the steps being taken to stop the slide. Kinnaly said Bauer’s program has been “immensely successful” at not only getting kids into hockey but keeping them, with a retention rate around 60%, and has discussed ways of introducing new Canadians to the game like equipment being part of the welcome package upon signing up for a checking account.

But there are still systemic issues, from crumbling infastruture and a lack of new rinks to inflationary pressure on pricing.

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

Instead, the existential crisis for the home of hockey exists at places like the Brampton rink, where the players and fans of tomorrow are developed. There are encouraging signs, such as hockey still being the preferred sports for First Nations youth and nearly 40% of First Shift participants being girls as the women’s game gets more attention — but the overall trend has presented a painful question that must be answered.

“I don’t think hockey can rest on its position in a way that it used to, and there’s part of me that’s OK with that,” said Darnell, the Toronto professor. “I think it makes sense if we’re going to invest in hockey in Canada as somehow representative of Canadian culture that we actually need to think about what does Canadian culture look like and is it reflected in hockey? Because right now it’s not.”

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