It’s a well-known tradition among hockey fans that Canada always plays its first game of the World Junior Hockey Championship on Boxing Day. It’s also a tradition for Active for Life to take this moment to reflect on the state of hockey in Canada.
We began in 2014 when we applauded Brent Sutter, who had just coached the Canadian team to a disappointing fourth-place finish, when he spoke his mind that Canadian hockey needed a makeover. He said that our development system had to prioritize more speed, skills, and fun. We called it the “new normal” in hockey.
Where are we eight years later?
We see three trends that could greatly affect Canadian hockey: the first trend is positive, the second one is a good first step but needs a lot more work, and the third trend could kill Canadian hockey as we know it.
Trend #1: The culture at the grassroots of hockey is evolving for the better
The culture of minor hockey has evolved for the best. The new norm for the majority of parents and minor hockey coaches is to respect the fact that kids are kids. Although you still find a few dinosaurs in the stands or behind the bench, most stakeholders are respectful and understand that development programs must emphasize skills and fun for all kids in minor hockey.
An example of how this shift has taken place was when Hockey Canada mandated smaller ice surfaces for kids in 2017. This was a very controversial move. Vocal traditionalists opposed the change, but the smaller and age-appropriate ice surfaces proved to maximize fun and development for kids and are now the norm.
As it stands, we don’t see how this positive trend can be reversed.
Trend #2: Hockey is on the path to become a safe and welcoming environment for all
2019 marked a key shift in Canadian hockey. In a period of a few weeks, long-time TV hockey commentator Don Cherry was fired for delivering racist rants on air. As well, two coaches of Canadian NHL franchises—Bill Peters (Calgary) and Mike Babcock (Toronto)—were fired for allegedly abusing players mentally and physically.
These were some of the first concrete actions that supported the rhetoric that the National Hockey League was serious about creating a more inclusive and safer environment for all.
“Hockey Canada believes in hockey opportunities for all people regardless of age, gender, colour, race, ethnic origin, religion, sexual orientation or socio-economic status…”
-Hockey Canada’s 2019-20 annual report [PDF]
In 2021 the movement to inclusivity and safety continues as demonstrated by the huge amount of support that Luke Prokop received as the first NHL player under contract to come out as gay.
As well, the ad below from Scotiabank’s “Hockey for All” campaign captures the challenge: that we must eliminate racist, sexist, and misogynistic comments and behaviour from the game.
Sadly, recent events like the 16-year-old goalie who faced racial slurs both on and off the ice during a tournament tells us that there is still a lot of work to be done. But hockey has set out on the right path and we believe momentum will grow.
Trend #3: The rising cost of hockey is keeping kids out of the game at the grassroots level and killing the dream of many to play for Canada
Someone once told me, “There might never be another Gordie Howe,” and the statement wasn’t about Howe’s extraordinary hockey skills, but that he was born to a lower-income working-class family.
Rising costs are affecting hockey in two ways.
First, it’s deterring families from joining minor hockey. According to a study by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University published on Money.com, minor hockey is the most expensive sport for children in the United States. And if you ask Canadian hockey parents, it’s pretty much the same situation in Canada.
The high cost of joining hockey—registration, equipment, travel—seems to scare families away or pushes them to register kids in other sports and it’s affecting registrations. According to Hockey Canada [PDF], the number of registered players slipped from about 644,000 in 2018-19 to 606,000 in 2019-20.
It is almost certain that the pandemic played a role in this drop. But the question is: how many families who lived without the high cost of hockey during COVID-19 will choose to pay to get their kids back in the game? The early signs seem to point to not many. In its 2021 annual report, the International Ice Hockey Federation lists the number of registered players in Canada [PDF] at approximately 345,000 for the 2020-21 season.
Second, it’s making the elite levels impossible for middle- and lower- income families.
Across the country, thousands of boys and girls dream of making it to the highest level of the game and this goal pushes them to work hard and persevere through an incredibly challenging progression from initiation hockey to the elite. For boys, representing Canada at the World Juniors is one of those dreams. And the same for thousands of girls who dream of wearing the maple leaf at the Olympics.
Everyone knows that this dream is elusive because of the large number of quality hockey players in Canada. But now, cost is making this dream impossible for kids of lower and middle income families.
A conservative estimate puts the cost of playing U18 AAA hockey—the elite level below junior hockey—upwards of $10,000 when you include registration, equipment, and travel costs. This is the kind of cost that many families can’t afford or afford only after making great sacrifices.
But if you take a closer look at the Canadian roster for the 2022 World Juniors, you realize that 10 of the 25 players attended a hockey academy in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL).
The CSSHL is an elite league that keeps expanding across the country. And judging by the fact that 40% of this year’s top juniors played in the CSSHL, it seems to offer what’s required to make it to the elite level of hockey. But the cost to play in the CSSHL is even higher than playing U18 AAA. The tuition for some of the academies attended by some of the Canadian junior players range from $18,000 to $22,000, and upwards.
There’s nothing wrong with a family choosing to send an aspiring hockey player to a private hockey academy, but the challenge is that it sets a pattern that might never be reversed: If you want your kid to play at the highest levels of hockey, it will be very expensive. This shuts the door to many families who can’t afford to get their kid into minor hockey, and let alone into the elite levels.
We honestly don’t see how the rising costs of hockey in Canada can be turned back to affordability. The train has left the station, as they say.
What does the future hold for Canadian hockey?
When you combine these three trends, it points to Canada developing even more of its fair share of the best players in the world, ensuring ongoing success in international competitions and in the NHL. It also points to players evolving in a more inclusive, accepting, and safe environment leading to a more positive hockey experience. Sadly though, it also points to a game that will be impossible to afford for many more families.
In short, better hockey, played in a safer and more inclusive environment, but for fewer players.
What are your thoughts on the future of Canadian hockey?