MONTREAL — The IIHF world junior hockey championship has become one of the most popular annual sporting events in this country.
How popular? An average audience of 5.4 million watched the gold-medal game on TSN last year as the United States beat Canada 6-5 in overtime. It was the network’s largest audience ever.
Canada had won five straight world championships before last year’s loss, so as our juniors prepare to kick off this year’s tournament on Sunday against Russia, you would think all is well when it comes to minor hockey in this country.
Well, you might want to think again.
The cover story in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hockey News had the title: “Is Hockey Dying in Canada?” The special report added that by 2016, at least 30,000 fewer Canadian kids will be playing the game, claiming: “A national identity is in peril.”
The article, written by respected hockey writer Ken Campbell, brought up some very interesting points. Campbell wrote that “you might be surprised to learn that only 15.7 per cent — that’s one in every 6.4 boys — actually plays the game in Canada.” Campbell added that Hockey Canada lost almost 8,000 players from 2008-09 to 2009-10, to just more than 577,000.
Three of the biggest obstacles Hockey Canada is facing are cost, a lack of facilities and declining interest from a changing population.
Another issue, I believe, is that a lot of the fun has been sucked out of minor hockey — especially at the youngest levels — as it has become a 12-month-a-year sport.
When I first signed up my son for organized hockey at age 5, I was surprised to learn that practices began in August (before his first day of kindergarten) and that they would be held on Saturday and Sunday mornings. That’s a big commitment for a little kid who might want to spend one morning a week watching cartoons or playing with his toys.
It’s also a big commitment for parents. I still play old-timers hockey twice a week, but my earliest memories of the game were playing only once a week on Saturday mornings (at either 6 or 7 a.m.) — and really looking forward to that one game.
My son completed that first season (including a couple of tournaments), and the next year told me he didn’t want to play hockey anymore. It wasn’t fun, he said. I’ve had some hockey parents tell me they were shocked at the huge commitment of time and money needed to play the sport, even at the lowest novice C level. After paying the initial registration fee, there is then the team “budget,” travel and tournament costs, plus extra ice time for practices, not to mention team jackets. There can also be summer hockey camps, three-on-three leagues, etc., etc.
Some hockey parents love it, others don’t. I imagine it’s the same for the kids.
So it was interesting to read Jason Kay’s Editor’s Notebook in The Hockey News, in which he wrote that neither of his two boys plays hockey.
“Yes, the sons of the editor-in-chief of The Hockey News don’t play the game, at least not the ice version of it,” Kay wrote. He continued: “My story isn’t unique in our office, a workplace that bursts with hockey passion.” Kay added that his two boys, like my son, are huge hockey fans. They just choose not to play the game. Kay’s boys are now into curling.
“Rock on,” he wrote.
My son, who is now nine, played baseball last summer, but the league ran into a bit of a problem during the playoffs in August. A bunch of kids were missing games because hockey practices had already started.
Two years ago, I spoke with Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson about the problem of young hockey players quitting the sport because of burnout.
“It’s a big concern of ours that players aren’t playing soccer, baseball, lacrosse like they used to (in the summer),” he said, adding that playing competitive hockey 12 months a year isn’t a good thing.
“I think a lot of it comes right from the parents,” Nicholson added. “It almost seems like it’s worse now with the nine-, 10- and 11-year-olds. . . . The message doesn’t seem to be getting down to the parents right now.”
Bobby Orr — in my opinion the greatest hockey player who ever lived and my boyhood idol — was in Montreal two months ago as part of the Chevrolet Safe & Fun Hockey program. He also had a message for hockey parents.
“The chances of your son or daughter playing at a higher level are .000017,” Orr said. “Out of all the kids playing our game, that’s how many ever play one game in the NHL. Going in, you have to go in for the right reasons. Work with the kids, make sure they have fun, teach good values.”
Orr also spoke with a group of hockey parents, asking how many of them played old-timers hockey.
“Of course, everybody plays old-timers hockey, right?” Orr said. “I said, ‘Why are you playing?’ Well, we’re playing to have fun, right? Why can’t our kids?
“That’s why our kids are playing . . . to have fun and be with their friends.”
Maybe it’s time to go back to having five-year-olds play once a week.
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