March 18, 2014 3:34 pm
Updated: March 18, 2014 5:05 pm

Canada’s game? Hockey losing ground among cash-strapped families

More than third of parents polled by Scotiabank say the costs of hockey have become unaffordable -- posing a risk to already flat growth among younger players.

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In the past six years, the population of Canada has grown by more than two million people.

The total growth in the number of new novice hockey players within the country’s four biggest hockey-playing provinces over that time?

Zero.

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In fact, there’s 16 fewer kids in that young age group (8 years old) across Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and B.C. hockey leagues than the number who were playing in 2008, according to Hockey Canada’s annual registration reports (see chart below).

That drop off in growth is a major red flag for concerned hockey organizers. And while sports such as soccer and cricket may be more important to many newer Canadians than hockey, among those who want to play the game, its rising costs that are the main drag on the game’s growth, most suggest.

A new poll published by Scotiabank Tuesday reveals more than a third of parents with kids currently playing hockey say it’s become unaffordable – a risk to already worrisome numbers for organizers.

“It’s costs,” says Kevin Murray, general manager of the minor hockey system in Brantford, Ont. – birthplace to none other than game’s greatest player, Wayne Gretzky.

“The costs are huge, and that’s why it’s hard to get kids to play. It’s slowly getting more difficult,” he said. “Referee costs go up, ice costs go up, insurance costs go up.”

Flat numbers

The Minor Hockey Alliance of Ontario, the regional organization of which Brantford is a member of and includes bigger centres like London, Ont. and Hamilton, reported a net loss of 400 registrations last year, something that’s become a pattern for the southern Ontario region.

“We’ve seen small drops each year,” Murray said.

No. of novice hockey players (BC, Alta, Ont, Que) »

No. of novice hockey players (BC, Alta, Ont, Que)

The number of 8-year-olds playing organized hockey hasn't budged in six years across the country's biggest hockey-playing provinces. In that time, Canada's population has grown by two million.

In B.C. and Alberta, more favourable economic trends are lifting general registration numbers. But only ever so slightly — and well below the general rise in population numbers.

“The challenge is our registration isn’t keeping pace,” Kevin Kobelka, executive director of Hockey Calgary, which oversees 13,500 minor players playing in Alberta’s biggest, and booming, city.

“While our registration is holding flat or growing slightly, it’s not keeping pace with demographic growth in Calgary,” he said.

Scotia’s poll suggests parents are spending on average $849 minimum on their kids’ season – and that’s down from north of $1,000 a few years ago, the bank said.

In southern Ontario, which has been hit harder in recent years by the decline in manufacturing jobs and the impact on the broader economy, that figure is about the price of admission for a rep team player excluding tournament and travel costs.

In Calgary, the price of basic registration is about 30 per cent more expensive, with the youngest age bracket – ‘Timbit’ – costing $600.

The two league executives and the poll respondents say costs escalate sharply as kids get older. Equipment costs also rise, registration fees go up and in the case of travelling teams, tournament locations are held farther afield.

Murray in Brantford said he sees many parents resort to paying for the additional costs through things like credit cards.

“The amount of people who pay by credit is phenomenonal. You don’t know how many are running up their cards because they want their kid to play hockey,” he said.

Kobelka said that Hockey Alberta began last summer exploring ideas like introducing shorter seasons for different teams to lower costs and ultimately open the game up to more potential players.

“We need to change the model, to make sure people are trying the game,” he said. “Right now there are some barriers to entry and we need to change that.”

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