Keeping hockey competitive, on and off the ice, is a challenge

While minor hockey has struggled in general, interest in girls’ hockey has skyrocketed in recent years. Pictured, the Woolwich Wild PeeWee BB were practicing at the McLeod Arena Tuesday evening. The same team last year took gold at the OWHA provincials, while several of the younger recruits are joining from last year’s Atom BB, which won gold in the Lower Lakes Female Hockey League. [Faisal Ali / The Observer]

Every country has one. For the Americans, it’s baseball. For the Brits, soccer. But for Canadians, there’s no game that quite electrifies the national spirit and captures the public’s imagination like hockey. It’s the quintessentially Canadian sport.

But while hockey may hold the undisputed title of the country’s favourite pastime, how that translates to young players on the ice is another matter. Numbers released by the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) show that enrollments in the sport amongst the province’s youth have plateaued in recent years, dropping slightly between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

For Ian Taylor, executive director of the OMHA, the trend marks some interesting, but surmountable, challenges for the sport.

“I think there’s definitely that romantic way that we look at [hockey], and we take a lot of our identity from it, and a lot pride in it, which I think is all fantastic,” said Taylor. “But I will say, I don’t think that it’s an automatic. And by that I just simply mean that there are options.”

Kids today have more options in sports and extracurricular activities than ever before, he notes, and that means that hockey has to stay competitive and accessible to kids.

“We recognize that hockey isn’t necessarily the sport of choice, automatic, for kids in Canada anymore, whereas maybe one time it was,” said Taylor. “I think there’s just more competition for peopl’s time, and money too.”

According to the statistics compiled by the OMHA, the number of kids enrolled into OMHA clubs dropped a slim one per cent the past year, from 91,000 in 2016-17 to 90,000.

However, at the same time, there was a large jump in the number of initiation, tyke and novice players (ages 5-8), with initiation recruits jumping 35 per cent in the same year – or about 4,000 players.

“It’s interesting,” said Taylor. “So growth has been flat or maybe down a little bit over the last three years. But we have seen some positive growth in the younger age groups, which is really interesting based on just people looking at it as a sport of choice or an activity of choice.”

To a certain extent, the challenges facing minor hockey are being felt across the board in youth sports. Hockey, however, does have the added challenge of being costlier than many other games, which Taylor says is something they’ve been keen to address.

“Certainly there is cost. There’s cost to equipment, and there’s cost to, I think anytime you go indoors, and that can be whether it’s an ice rink or a gymnasium, the costs go up,” he notes.

“I think there’s a couple of things we’ve been focusing on. One is just the overall price structure. I know a lot of associations have either kept their costs consistent … [or] in a lot of places they’ve also lowered the registration fees for some of their younger age groups, making it a little easier to join.”

The introduction of split seasons, where younger players can commit to only half of a season, are other ways hockey associations have been working to keep the costs down.

Local organizations, like the Woolwich-based Friends of Hockey, also act through equipment swaps and donations to keep the costs manageable for parents.

While the OMHA has seen numbers remain steady for the past few years, that is only part of the equation, however, as the number of girls joining the sport has increased, notes Taylor. The OMHA caters to both boys and girls in the sport, but the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA) has taken the lead on exclusively female hockey, from the minor to senior leagues.

It’s in those leagues that enrollment has jumped.

“We’re still at a vertical as far as girls’ hockey goes,” said Kevin Schmitt, president of the Woolwich Wild girls’ league.

“Typically, we’re still seeing close to double-digit growth every year, which is phenomenal. This year I believe we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of about 260-270 registrants. So we’ve been growing every year; there hasn’t been a year we’ve seen a decrease or a plateau, which is great.”

For the Wild, Schmitt notes that the biggest expense facing them is the facility costs.

“We do try to keep our costs down as much as possible,” he said, noting the organization will do things like shared practices to save on facility rentals.

“Because, again, the costs of the facilities keeps going up. There’s not a lot we can do about that – those are our biggest costs. So we have to come up with new ways and new ideas of how to keep those costs down, and I think we’re doing a very good job of it.”

Ultimately, Taylor continues to see the game being taken up by future generations – though adds that it’s an outlook that can’t be taken for granted.

“We obviously think hockey is a great sport. Being part of a team and the many life lessons that go along with that: cooperation, and working towards a common goal and overcoming adversity together, those are all great things that will apply to kids in sport and outside of sport,” he said.

“But I don’t think it’s an automatic, and I think we’ve got to be really aware of that. We can’t take that for granted. So we’ve got to make sure we’re providing a great experience.”

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