Canadians aren’t playing hockey as they used to and some are sounding the alarm bells.
Hockey is linked to Canadian identity and many will go on the defensive when someone even vaguely criticizes it. But the fact is, as Canada’s population increases, hockey participation numbers are on the decline.
“When you’re in the bubble, it feels just like a Tim Hortons commercial,” said Sean Fitz-Gerald, a senior national writer for The Athletic and author of Before the Lights Go Out: A Season Inside A Game Worth Saving. “It feels like you spend all your weekends at the rink, you know, the kids are talking hockey, trading hockey cards, talking about hockey highlights.”
“The challenge is that fewer and fewer people are in that bubble. And I think that minor hockey executives really do understand that now because they can see it in the raw data. More kids are dropping out every year than signing up for hockey.”
If your child is playing house league, you’ll pay anywhere from $300 to $500 in Ontario for registration. If they’re good enough to play AAA hockey in the province, you’re looking at around $5,000. That’s before equipment costs, travel expenses, and additional conditioning and training programs. Parents with children in the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) can pay up to $15,000 a year. That’s not including the invaluable cost of time, as kids can spend up to 7 days a week on the ice or dry training, year-round.
If your child doesn’t get burned out and continues to play through their early youth and into their mid-teens, you’ll be “investing” six-figures into their hockey careers. And that’s assuming you only have one child playing. It’s also assuming you’re an upper-middle-class family making more than the median household income of $62,000 in Ontario.
In 2016, The Hamilton Spectator’s Teri Pecoskie obtained the postal codes of Ontario Hockey League players and cross-referenced them with demographic data. It revealed, “a highly significant number of the OHL’s Ontario-raised players come from a small and exclusive sliver of society where incomes, housing values and post-secondary education rates are abnormally high and poverty levels are extremely low”.
While there are many “affordable” hockey programs aimed at introducing families to the game, those can cost up to $400 — more than three times the cost of house league soccer registration.
Ice is expensive and hockey equipment is expensive, but it doesn’t paint the entire picture of the sport’s stagnant participation rate.
“Take a look at Brampton Ontario, which is one of Canada’s largest cities now,” Fitz-Gerald continued. “You know, the population there skyrocketed over the last 20 years but the registration numbers have fallen dramatically and you know that by taking a look at real estate prices in Brampton, money is not the issue there.”
The only thing more Canadian than hockey is multi-culturalism and a growingly diverse population of immigrants. It’s a group the sport just hasn’t made feel welcome.
“I’m not laying the blame here at the minor hockey administrators at your local rink,” said Fitz-Gerald, who is the father of a bi-racial child who is enrolled in minor hockey in east-Toronto. “They’re volunteers who give their time for the love of the game, but they might not be equipped to reach out to people who aren’t already in the arena.”
“They might not be equipped to reach out to the new communities that have formed within their region. I’m talking broadly.”
Fitz-Gerald used Canada’s loudest and most divisive hockey voice as an example of how the game can be marketed to only a certain segment of the population.
“Who had the biggest stage within Hockey Night in Canada for 30 years? It was a gentleman by the name of Don Cherry.”
In case you forgot, Grapes was canned after one prejudice Coaches Corner comment too many when he took an obvious swipe at Canadian newcomers. Cherry blamed them for an alleged lack of poppy-wearing during the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day. The reference to “you people” was treated as a rallying cry for his like-minded fanbase, which now ironically becomes irate when commentators don’t “stick to sports” during their support of the Black Lives Matter movement — but I digress.
“Don Cherry was from a certain era, and you can talk to a lot of Canadians who might have watched Hockey Night in Canada, and, you know, slowly came to the realization that when Don Cherry was talking about ‘good Canadians’ — he didn’t necessarily have them in mind,” said Fitz-Gerald.
Don Cherry isn’t mainly to blame for hockey’s lack of reach in Canada. But whether you’re indigenous, french, LGBTQ+, or a female journalist — hockey’s loudest and most influential ambassador made it clear for several decades that the sport wasn’t for you.
“From the grassroots to the culture, it starts with the messaging,” said Fitz-Gerald. “And Don Cherry had a massive platform for years and reinforced a lot of the things we’re seeing in the rink.”
Black Lives Matter?
Even when the NHL thinks it’s sending a message to the broader community, it typically falls flat. Like its attempt to join other major sports leagues in a call to action for social reform in 2020.
When the NHL returned from its COVID-19 hiatus, it displayed “Black Lives Matter” banners inside its bubble rinks. It also initiated social media campaigns featuring Black NHLers calling for racial equality.
While the efforts were an okay start, Fitz-Gerald says the NHL came across like “an awkward teenage boy at a school dance”.
“Or maybe it’s that person in math class that doesn’t really get long division and just prays that the teacher doesn’t call on them,” Fitz-Gerald continued. “[The NHL] was called upon, and they have taken steps in the direction, but no… no, they haven’t made a substantial change.”
It takes a village
Sean Fitz-Gerald’s book, Before the Lights Go Out delves into the stagnant youth hockey registration numbers and the sports’ efforts to appeal to new Canadians, but it also takes a deep look at the Peterborough Petes, “a storied OHL team far from its former glory in a once-emblematic Canadian city that is finding itself on the wrong side of the country’s changing demographics”.
After publishing the book, Fitz-Gerald says the Petes continued their work to try and reach new audiences within Peterborough.
“It’s a retirement community with a lot of white people, but there are other communities that are growing,” said Fitz-Gerald. “Shelbi Kilcollins who works for the Petes is very young, energetic, and smart — and she needs to be all of those things to pull it off.”
“She arranged a partnership with the New Canadians Centre… asking them to message their clients and ask them if they’ve ever been curious about trying hockey.”
Fitz-Gerald says the new Canadians were invited to go to Peterborough Memorial Centre where they would receive tickets to a Petes home game and get the opportunity to go for a skate.
“[Shelbi] went around and raided the Petes storage room for extra skates, gloves, helmets, sticks… she went to the local arenas and to the lost and founds and grabbed all the equipment she could find,” Fitz-Gerald continued.
“Then she arranged it so Tim Hortons would supply coffee, hot chocolate, donuts, and bagels… and then she also had the AA girls hockey team that she coaches come out and basically serve as an arm that people could hold on to.”
Fitz-Gerald says it will take similar efforts around the country to fill the gaps.
“That’s a way you can do it at the grassroots level. If you have passion for this, you can volunteer and you can start making a difference at the local level.”
Sharing the spotlight
Hockey’s loss has been basketball, soccer, and tennis’ gain.
The Vince Carter-effect ushered in a new era of NBA calibre basketball talent. And the recent success and surging popularity of the Toronto Raptors ensures that Canada’s pool of hoops talent will only grow from here.
Imagine that, even five years ago, someone would have told you that the Raptors would be the most talked-about team in Toronto — not the Maple Leafs. Well, here we are. Aided by basketball’s ability to appeal to people across all cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds.
According to a report in the New York Times, registration for youth basketball increased by more than 6 percent from 2017-18 to 2018-19 in Ontario.
The report also states that “Tennis Canada reported a 32 percent increase from 2016 to 2018 of children under 12 who played at least once a week during an eight-week period”. The trend certain aligns with Canada’s golden era of young tennis talent currently playing on the ATP and WTA tours.
You can also take a look at the phenomenal young Canadian talent playing professional soccer overseas, along with the inception of the Canadian Premier League and the popularity of Toronto FC. The future of the Canadian pitch has never been brighter.
Does it matter?
So if hockey in Canada is in a crisis, should we even care? After all, the country will still be competitive on the international stage despite fewer Canadians being drafted to the NHL. So if it means Canada can once again qualify for the FIFA World Cup, that the Canadian men’s basketball team can compete against the USA, and that Denis Shapovalov and Bianca Andreescu can both take Wimbledon, isn’t it a fair trade-off?
If not, then Canadian hockey better stop dragging its skates. Even the most staunch hockey purist is at a crossroads. You may not like the NHL taking, what you would probably call, a “political stance” when it comes to diversity and inclusivity. But if you want Team Canada to continually reign over its international rivals, “you people” better start embracing a wider audience.