For those of you who live amongst society (read: non-bloggers), you know that the world is getting a little strapped for money. Literally everywhere. Globally, we’re in the worst economic situation since the 1930s according to a bevvy of economists. Locally — wherever that may be for you — many people are struggling, still, to grasp the situation, let alone cope with it.
My “world is falling” lede isn’t meant to send you spiraling into a deep depression, but rather to contextualize a much less important issue in the grand scheme of life. In Canada, hockey enrollment has been steadily declining for several years now. In fact, according to a story from James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail, just 10% of Canadian males between the ages of five and 19 are signed up to play hockey.
That’s a rather small number and no matter how some may try to spin it, the reason behind it is hockey is just getting too expensive for 90% of households.
Mr. Mirtle‘s piece centers around how Bauer hockey is looking into ways they can help alleviate the hockey decline and ensure that they get kids in the game who remain “hockey players for life.” While this is certainly a worthy endeavor — especially given the numerous social and personal benefits that come with playing sports from a young age — there isn’t any rocket science to be done here. It’s simply too expensive.
I’ll grant that many moms and dads are apprehensive about putting their kid in such a physical sport. The injury concerns are obviously quite apparent and many parents would put their little angel in bubble wrap if it were legal in most provinces or states. But, I firmly believe that 99% of kids who desperately want to play hockey will overcome their parents’ inhibitions. Anyone who has lobbied to play football can attest to this and, realistically, injuries are a concern with any sport. At some point, you have to cut the umbilical cord.
As far as sports go, it doesn’t get much more expensive than hockey. Off the top of my head, the only sport more expensive has to be Polo because owning a horse is rather pricey. I couldn’t procure Polo Canada enrollment numbers, I can only assume that it’s drastically less than 10% of the 5-19 demographic.
Nevertheless, Bauer is on the case, as they told Mr. Mirtle:
“We’re going to invest some time and energy in looking at what the challenges are and what the barriers to entry are for non-hockey families,” Bauer chief executive officer Kevin Davis said. “We know that when we can get kids into the sport and they have a positive first experience, they remain hockey players for life. … We’re going to put the resources into this and make sure it can happen.”
But the people have spoken, and they simply cannot make the commitment necessary to raise a modern day hockey player. From the same article…:
“It’s become a sport that is too much for a middle class family to handle,” said Mark Hoffberg, a graphic designer from Brampton, Ont., who doesn’t plan to put his young children in hockey.
“Weekends at tournaments, league games every week,” added Dan Christensen, who pointed out that challenges exist even in rural areas such as his hometown of Wynyard, Sask. “With four kids, how do you justify that for only one of your children?”
The expenses of hockey, while not always visible from the surface, go well beyond the simply signing up. There’s ice time costs, equipment, travel and many leagues charge admission for parents to watch games. There are many more things that cost money which aren’t listed here, and there is also the cost of your sanity, which is often plucked from your heart when sitting in a rink filled with hockey parents.
Hockey families are inundated with monetary and emotional expenses and we’ve hit a point where it makes more sense to go elsewhere for the vast majority of the population. The cost now outweighs the benefit.
Out of curiosity, I hopped over to Pro Hockey Life’s online store and tried to figure out how much it would cost me to outfit a kid — I looked at ‘Jr.’ sizes — with essential equipment. For the purposes of the experiment, I only looked at Bauer equipment because they are the company tackling this issue. I also didn’t look into any clearance sales, because that’s a retailer issue, not a manufacturer one. Like any items, there are deals to be had.
If you were looking to outfit a player with a pair of Skates ($60), Shin Guards ($25), Pants ($45), Shoulder Pads ($25), Elbow Pads (20$), Gloves ($25), a Helmet ($40) and a Cage ($28), and a Stick ($22), you’re looking at a cool, crisp $290 in just equipment. Keep in mind this is pretty bare bones stuff, and a real player would need much more. For example, a hockey bag to carry it all, a neckguard, a mouthguard, etc., depending on the requirements of your league. A minimum $300+ expenditure before taxes, any league fees, and assuming that the child fits said Jr. sizes is no small commitment.
If I were to use myself as the paradigm for how a kid grows up, I know I got bigger every year, which means every year requires new stuff. Sure, selling old equipment can cut down the expense, but bigger means more cost, and these aren’t small dollars to begin with. Let’s also not forget that these figures are Canadian. Hockey equipment is typically more expensive in the United States and abroad. While this piece deals with declining Canadian hockey enrollment, the problem of cost extends well beyond Canada and could easily hinder the game worldwide.
The problem of cost is the key concept here. Some have used immigration as a convenient excuse to cover the numbers, but that line of reasoning puts us down a dangerous path.
“For the most part, immigration isn’t coming from countries that are historically hockey rich or have a strong hockey base,” McIntosh said. “So we’re introducing the game to people who have never experienced it. That’s been a change over the last 20 or 25 years, but we’re focusing on it much more.”
Looking back on the history of Canadian immigration, you will surely notice that where new Canadians are coming from has changed regionally. I would argue, however, that this shouldn’t impact hockey in any way.
To say that Canada is drawing from countries that do not have hockey traditions and this is consequently tied to the decline in numbers implies that there was a time when they did. Suggesting that Canadian immigrants used to come from hockey countries and don’t anymore is categorically false.
In 1966 the three biggest nations to contribute to Canada’s immigrant population were Great Britain, Italy and the United States. For a frame of reference on that, at the 1966 World Hockey Championships, Great Britain went 0-6-1 and boasted a 12-2 loss to Norway en route to a last place finish, Italy went undefeated in Group C thanks to wins over Denmark and South Africa, while the United States went 2-5-0 with a sparkling -21 goal differential.
Surely it’s easy to see how Canada flourished into the hockey power it is. Look at all that talent they plucked from other countries. The top five nations outside of North America at that tournament were the USSR, Czechoslovakia, East Germany (who fall under the USSR), Sweden, and Finland. Combined they had a whopping 1,472 nationals head to Canada out of an immigration pool of 194,743. Staggering.
By blaming modern immigration, you run the risk of using an underlying racial argument to account for a decline in hockey players. The top three countries to send newcomers to Canada in 2011 were The Phillipines, India and China. While these countries are admittedly non-hockey nations, they’re hardly far from the precedent set 45 years ago. Pragmatically speaking the difference, of course, is that it was much easier for people to afford the game of hockey back then, particularly when dealing with financial uncertainty after settling down in a new country.
Let’s not blame national traditions for why new Canadians are choosing soccer or basketball over hockey. Let’s acknowledge that they’re choosing these sports because they can and there aren’t legitimate avenues for them to pursue Canada’s national sport. There are plenty of hockey players of Asian descent across North America and the odds are overwhelmingly strong that their families have built up the wealth necessary to put their kids in the game after settling long ago. The number of people playing in their motherland has no relevance. This applies equally to ex-pat Brits, Italians or other countries that have long-standing immigration ties to North America.
Before we can fix declining hockey enrollment in any country, we need to address the problem of cost. Only diminished price tags will get people interested now. Until hockey equipment can be produced and sold for drastically less, ice time becomes cheaper, or a harsh economy turns itself around, the downward trend is just getting started.
For those of you interested, feel free to pick up a basketball or soccer ball for $20 or less at your neighborhood sporting goods store and head over to your local YMCA or field. If the simplicity doesn’t strike you, perhaps the price tag of a pair of skates will.