Sunday, 4 August 2013

Hockey Canada working to make hockey accessible to all, Part 2

Great discussion on the Hockey Canada story.

One thing I notice out here in BC is that for the most part, the climate doesn't lend itself to outdoor rinks, so most of the hockey is played at the arena.  That's a barrier to entry in itself.  Having to go to a building that you've never been to before, it's alien, there's a cost, you might never do it unless a friend takes you.  In the rest of Canada, and certainly in my youth when winters weren't as mild as they are today, there are outdoor rinks that people can just walk to and put on some skates and hop on, and play some shinny at, maybe even some organized games, so that makes the sport accessible.  As a kid, I played my league games on Sundays, but Saturdays were free, so I'd spend all afternoon on an outdoor rink playing shinny with a dogpile of other kids.  You had to learn to stickhandle and be quick, or you never had the puck.

Whistler has a large transient population, young people come here from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and parts unknown to work for a winter in a ski resort, and they love it, they're up for anything.  Most of them embrace the hockey, they know that's part of Canadian life, and they all try to make a trip to Vancouver to catch a Canucks game, they'll go to the rink to watch some rec league or men's league hockey.  Women's hockey is very popular, the dudes go watch their girlfriends play, so co-workers get brought along and watch the games.

The thing is though, few of them ever get a chance to try hockey, it's not that accessible.  Well, it is, there's public skate sessions every day for a minimal cost, and regularly a portion of the ice is fenced off for beginner shinny.  There's also drop-in hockey, and a couple of shops will rent and outfit you with the basics, so you can as a beginner play some, it's certainly cheaper than going snowboarding or skiing for the day.  But for whatever reason, hockey is more the domain of people who have played as kids, few adults pick it up, I can think of very few people who have.

One exception is how every year we have a Snowboard Instructors game, Blackcomb against Whistler, and all the kids are so into it.  All the Aussies and the Brits and the Japanese kids know about the game, we talk it up, we say that everyone is welcome, and they take it seriously, they show up to public skate a few times to 'practice', some go as far as to show up for a novice drop-in hockey session or two.  The game itself is a riot, everyone has a great time, laughing the whole way, and the stands are packed with fans and actual cheerleaders, the Whistler vs. Blackcomb 'rivalry' being evident.  Actually, it's not much of a rivalry, Whistler has never beaten us, not even close, but it's all for fun.  Who keeps score?  (We do, and it's never pretty.)

The big takeaway though is how much pure fun hockey is, the speed of the game, the sensation of flying on the ice.  That gets lost sometimes, we talk about soccer taking over, it's cheaper, it's worldwide, it's a better workout, blah blah blah.  I've played a bit of league soccer as a kid, and lots more when I lived abroad, or just in gym class or recreationally, and sure it's fun in a way, but in another more accurate way, it isn't fun.  It's a slog and it's slow and for most people running isn't fun.

Hockey is instant fun.  All the snowboard instructors crave that gliding sensation, that feeling of speed, and they get it with hockey, and they're hooked, they want more once they try it.

About once every three years or so, we get a winter that sets up properly, when the lakes aren't frozen yet, and then we get a weeklong cold snap with no snow, and all of a sudden we have some amazing ice to skate on.  It used to be phone and word of mouth, but nowadays it's email and facebook, and when the ice is ready to skate on it's on, you get some of the most awesome hockey ever, on a sheet of ice that goes forever, you can deke and skate away from anyone, there's always more room.  You're surrounded by snowcapped mountains, in the fresh air, all your friends are there, you see the same faces with some newcomers, everyone smiling.

The game itself is magic, it's fun in terms of the sport, but the actual sensation of skating appeals to us on an instinctive, emotional level, and none of the grass sports can match that.  Hockey has that huge competitive advantage that other sports don't have.

So Hockey Canada has a lot of work to do to address the injury and concussion fear, and the costs and the inconvenience, but I don't agree that it isn't fun, that it's not enjoyable.  That survey shows that some people have never tried hockey themselves.  Maybe the politics and sitting in the stands isn't fun, but the actual game is nothing but fun.  If Hockey Canada wants to sell the game, all it has to do is get people skating, and they'll be hooked.

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