Thursday, 1 August 2013

Hockey Canada working to make hockey accessible to all

Interesting article on TSN regarding Hockey Canada's attempts to increase participation in hockey.  A study was conducted in Ontario and Nova Scotia to understand the issues.  This is what they found are the main obstacles:
...the top four reasons given were a) it wasn't fun b) was too time consuming c) safety concerns d) and affordability.
 A surprising number to me is that "approximately 90 per cent of Canadian families choose to not have their kids play hockey".  Growing up in Charlemagne, my dim memory is that in Grade 1-3, about half the boys in my class would play minor-league hockey, or at least on the outdoor ice in the school yard.  I can't remember exactly how that was run, except that I often played hockey outdoors, with a tuque under my helmet and wool gloves under my hockey gloves, but it was real hockey, not shinny.  If I'm not mistaken, we played some of our minor hockey games outdoors, and all 'school league' games there.  We had coaches and jerseys and everything, and we'd shovel the snow between periods with scrapers.  My father would leave the house as we were getting ready to go to bed to go flood the ice, probably not every night, but often.

Anyway, we were a hockey family, but so were most of the families on my street or at school.  I remember asking some other kids why they didn't play hockey, some would just look at me blankly and shrug, some would say they skied as a family, and went away on weekends.  But I always found the guys who didn't play hockey kind of odd.  They were the exception.

Now the thing is, I don't remember making the conscious decision to play hockey.  I never realized it was a choice.  Some of my earliest memories were of Jean Béliveau winning a Stanley Cup, not sure if it was the '69 or the '71 win, and in there is mixed my amazement at seeing hockey on colour television, instead of just black and white.  My father played rec league hockey, and I'd go to the arena with my family to watch him play, then at some point I started playing.  I remember all the dads outfitting their kids in the dressing room, we did that for a couple of years I think until we were on our own.  And when I started playing, then my whole family would watch me play, we'd drive to games and back, that's what we did on weekends.  My older sister hated wasting her time in the arena, my parents bought her off with french fries and lots of vinegar.  Eventually, it was just my father, and later, when we moved and the drive was longer, we had a carpool system, where on a rotating basis one dad would pick up five kids and drive from St-Thomas to Berthierville, home of Gilles Villeneuve, where the rink was and we played our games.  Every dad had to have a large car with a big trunk for everyone, none of those ridiculous new compacts would have worked.

I remember my shock when I finished midget hockey and was told that I wouldn't play Juvénile the next season, hockey was over.  I was curious, knew that some kids played past that, but somehow my parents told me that it was a different system or program, and I was done.  I vaguely understood there was a cost issue there, but I wasn't a rebellious kid, I accepted it and didn't play hockey again for five years or so, in  the Inter-Hotel league in Montréal, a rec league for hotel employees.  My skating suffered, but the years of organized hockey showed, I knew how to play positionally, I understood the game.  I wasn't the best player on the ice or on my team, not by a long shot, but I was doing better than a lot of the other guys, who'd maybe picked up the game as adults.

We saw again at the draft what a profound influence parents have on their kid's hockey careers, how the time and money they spend on hockey, the dedicated weekends, the hockey schools in the summers, the sticks nowadays, I used to get two per season, and it was clear that if I broke them I'd be out of luck, so I wasn't the guy who'd whack his stick on the goal post in frustration, that was what rich kids did.  Anyway, those kind of sacrifices are made by parents whose parents made the same ones for them.  And even then that's not guaranteed.  My older sister never put her two sons in hockey, she was abrasive and defensive when I brought it up.  No way was she wasting any more time in an arena, her weekends and evening were too precious.  My younger sister did the same, her boy is a great kid, but he just did taekwon-do lessons twice a week, and played soccer in the summer.  The cost was minimal, only had to buy some cleats and a water bottle, and he'd walk to the field for his games.

One of the guys I worked with had a similar story.  He stood 6'6", weighed as much as 275 lbs when we were hitting the gym fanatically, was a dead ringer for Dolph Lundgren, anyway, he wasted his athletic talent on basketball.  He grew up in Northern B.C., and his high school had a basketball program so that's what he played.  Later on, when he realized his options were very limited in that regard, but a couple of his friends were getting scholarship offers to play NCAA hockey, he asked his dad why he never put him in hockey.  His dad replied: "You never asked me."  Which is unreal, how does a kid at five years old know he wants to play hockey?  In his case, even if he'd been at a high school with a football program, he'd at least have received a scholarship to play defensive end somewhere, some coach would have taken one look at him and signed him up, then coached him into something.

When I see guys like Keegan Kanzig getting drafted, I know my buddy with his athleticism would at least have been able to play that role, go to Junior and overwhelm a couple of guys with his size and strength, then go to minor pro and see what transpires.

I'm sure there are lots of similar stories, there are 30 million people in Canada, but how many live close enough to an arena to make hockey feasible for the kids?  How many Joe Juneaus are out there preaching the game, recruiting kids?  How many immigrant parents, with no grounding in Canadian culture and pre-occupied with working hard at multiple jobs to keep a roof over their family's head, are likely to sign up their kids for minor hockey?  How many kids, girls and boys, are falling through the very big cracks in the system?

So anything Hockey Canada can come up with to introduce the game to more people, and to make it more accessible, will be welcome and probably effective.  You don't miss out on 90% of your target clientele and pat yourself on the back, thinking you're doing a good job.

I don't know what the solutions are, but having intra-mural programs at school might work.  Also, cheap skate rentals on outdoor ice, along with stick and glove and shin pads for drop-in shinny could work.  Lots of roller hockey, ball hockey programs.  Targeted programs to address kids who are interested, but whose parents can't afford the costs.  We have drop-in soccer, basketball, volleyball, etc, drop-in hockey has to be made accessible to neophytes, young adults who've always wanted to try but don't know how.  If they can, they're much more likely to sign their kids up for minor hockey when the time comes.

Really, with these numbers and that study commissioned by Hockey Canada, it's evident there are a great number of low hanging fruits.  Hockey Canada does a great job with its elite development program, it's high time they focus on growing the base too.

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