End of an ice age, Part 3: Why youth hockey can still be saved

ANALYSIS: Fewer young Canadians are playing the sport. Here’s what we can do to turn things around
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 09, 2020
The OHL’s Peterborough Petes collected hockey equipment to distribute to new Canadians interested in trying out the sport. (facebook.com/PetesOHLhockey)

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This is the final instalment in a three-part series on the state and future of youth hockey. You can read Part 1 here and read Part 2 here.

“It’s not fun anymore. Kids are dropping out faster than they’re signing up.”

That was Sean Fitz-Gerald, a sports journalist, author of Before the Lights Go Out: A Season Inside a Game on the Brink, and my old friend. In Part 2 of this series, I asked him why hockey in Canada was struggling, with youth enrolment in hockey associations dropping by half in recent decades and TV ratings stagnant or worse. Even a national pastime should be fun, he replied. For a sport like hockey, where costs are inevitably going to be high — all that equipment and those specialized rink facilities aren’t cheap — it must be fun, or what’s the point?

It still can be fun. Thousands of Canadian kids relish their house-league game each week. Thousands of adults love their beer leagues. But participating in youth hockey, Fitz-Gerald says, is now like trying to drink from a firehose. At any level above house league, children can suddenly find themselves playing many hours a week, all year long. Parents essentially live in arenas, shelling out huge sums of money for extra coaching, specialized training, and tournaments.

In Part 1 of this series, TVO.org explored one of the consequences of this contraction of Canada’s pastime: in a long-term plan, the City of Toronto has identified what its recreational needs will be from today until the end of the 2030s. In part because of the decline in participation in hockey, and in part because much of the remaining demand is served by private-sector rinks, it will slightly reduce the number of city-owned or -operated rinks — even as its population grows. What, I asked Fitz-Gerald, can be done to turn this around?

He gave two immediate suggestions. The first: stop taking for granted that Canadians will be naturally drawn to hockey. Hockey has become a big commitment, and Fitz-Gerald noted that not everyone grew up with it the way he (or I) did. This is especially true for new Canadians, or first-generation Canadians, with no family ties to hockey. Hockey needs to win people over.

Fitz-Gerald cited the Peterborough Petes, the Ontario Hockey League team he wrote about in his book, as a great example of how this can be done: Petes staff raided every lost-and-found bin they could find for discarded gear, and called in favours from all their friends, to get some skates, gloves, sticks, and pads. And they issued an invitation to local associations and groups that worked with new Canadians: We’ve got the skates, the pads, the sticks, and the ice. Come try Canada’s game. A local girls’ hockey team offered its players as on-ice volunteers to help. Ninety came out to try. Everyone got a hot chocolate, a stick, some gloves, an hour on the ice, and tickets (with food vouchers) to a Petes game.

Second, Fitz-Gerald said, make hockey easy and fun for kids and families. Studies have shown, he said, that kids just starting to learn report higher satisfaction when an arena is broken into smaller areas for games — instead of spending their shift shuffling back and forth on a full-size rink, they can get three games going at once and play sideways across the ice.

“The goalies save more shots,” Fitz-Gerald explained. “Everyone takes more shots. The kids touch the puck more. No score is kept, but everyone — kids and parents — has fun. No one is pounding on the glass, yelling.” As their skills develop, they’ll start playing length-wise games across half the ice, finally graduating to full-size games. This tweak was bitterly resisted by some hockey associations before Hockey Canada, the parent association, mandated it.

And hockey associations need to help parents feel comfortable, too. That includes helping them master the hockey learning curve, Fitz-Gerald said — knowing in what order the equipment goes on is a huge source of anxiety for new hockey parents. Keeping it fun, stress-free, and welcoming to all is essential to hockey’s future. And there’s some cause for optimism that we’re starting to get this, Fitz-Gerald said.

But there’s an equally valid way of looking at this: Who cares if hockey is struggling?

This may seem an odd question to ask this deep into a series on the state of hockey. But the City of Toronto report on the future of recreation notes that other sports are surging even as hockey wanes. Is that a bad thing? The most important thing is to get kids doing something, anything, physical. Childhood obesity rates have risen sharply over the last generation: in 2017, 30 per cent of Canadian children were overweight or obese. Barely a third of children are getting the recommended daily level of exercise. Hockey is expensive. Won’t the kids be as well off if we get them playing basketball? All the cardio at a fraction of the cost?

Janie Romoff, the City of Toronto’s general manager of parks, forestry, and recreation, said that her department — and she herself — is still bullish on hockey. “Girls are joining up in large numbers,” she noted, saying that the city has great relationships with the leagues operating in Toronto and the surrounding area. Toronto is not giving up on hockey at all, she stressed — and it is looking to add capacity for recreational skating, too.

But it’s true that most of the demand Toronto has identified for sports going forward is off the ice — soccer, basketball, and cricket being three sports she noted had unmet demand in Toronto.

How is the demand determined, I asked? With ice rinks, it’s easy enough for the city to track how many hours rinks sit unused and to adjust the inventory accordingly. How do you gauge what demand will be for other sports 20 years from now?

Some of it is formulaic, she explained — outside experts were asked to determine the appropriate number of soccer fields and basketball courts per capita, and Toronto then applied that to its population forecasts to see where there were shortfalls. But her department also looks at enrolment in city programs — long waiting lists obviously show insufficient supply. (Indoor pools, she noted, are an area where the city is chronically short capacity.)

Her department also works closely with the sports associations. “We consult with hockey,” Romoff said. “We consult with cricket. We consult with basketball and soccer. We talk with the community-led sports associations. We get a sense of the community demands that aren’t being met.” Toronto is a special case, she granted, given its size and diversity, but there are still lessons that can be drawn from the experiences of other jurisdictions in Canada. Many of the trends in youth sports hold true nation-wide, and that gives Toronto the ability to learn from the experiences of others. “Toronto is not in isolation,” Romoff said. “But the diversity and growth in Toronto — the pace of growth — is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. We’re hearing from communities in the city we’ve never heard from before.”

“We put it all together,” Romoff said. “It shows us where the demand is and where community expectations aren’t being met. Our plans are longitudinal; they don’t unfold over a single year. But we do our best to be flexible and respond — and that would include with hockey, if we start seeing a surge in enrolment.”

In the meantime, flexibility means looking at what Toronto already has and figuring out how best to use it. Some of Toronto’s rink facilities are old and in suboptimal condition: those are best replaced with new facilities. Others may be easily converted into new community recreation hubs, or perhaps simply augmented; new community spaces can be added to existing rink facilities. When a rink isn’t needed but the facility is still in usable condition, she noted, it can be adapted — putting in a turf field on the former ice surface opens up new recreational options.

I asked her, with all this growth and change, did anything surprise her? Romoff laughed. “I’ve been doing this a while,” she assured me. “And Toronto isn’t the only place I’ve worked. So most of it was in line with what we expected or could see happening. There’s maybe one exception: cricket. The demand for that is huge and growing. And not just with kids. It’s adults, too.”

But Toronto is her home, Romoff said, and she is thrilled by what she sees. “It’s classic induced demand,” she said. She spoke of a new facility she had recently visited. “We were there with the mayor, and we looked in and said, wow. Where did all these people come from? The building was packed.”

“We need a huge diversity of capabilities to meet the needs of a huge, diverse city,” she said. “But when we open these facilities, we see them become hubs of neighbourhood life and participation. You see this in hockey. You still do. But we’re seeing it in other sports and recreational activities, too.”

Toronto has a plan to meet the city’s future recreational needs. Canadian hockey associations have a plan to save and grow the game they love. Time will tell whether the success of the latter will compel changes to the former.

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