Hockey Canada is far from sounding the alarm, but a presentation by chief operating officer Scott Smith at the World Hockey Summit Thursday indicated the organization is looking long and hard at how to get more Canadian kids playing the national game.
One of the more thought-provoking statistics Smith offered in his speech was that 9.1 per cent of Canadian males between 5 and 19 are playing hockey, a figure he said in an interview has likely flat-lined in recent years.
Smith said his goal at the summit was "to provoke a little bit of new thinking" among what has generally been a traditional group running the game at the developmental level.
"It's clear, if you look at our statistics today and you look at trends over the next 10 to 20 years, we need to start addressing some of these issues," Smith said.
"We should dive into this issue and start to build some long-term plans as to how we're attracting kids to the game, what type of messages that we're giving people who are in the game but also outside the game so that we make it more appealing to more people."
While in-depth data weren't made available as to how that 9.1-per-cent figure has changed over time, Smith said the general trend has been toward growth in women's hockey and little to no improvement in the number of boys and men playing the game.
According to Hockey Canada's website, there were 21,907 more male hockey players registered this season than 10 years earlier, an increase of 4.7 per cent. Women's registration has jumped by 34,519 over that time, a 67.6-per-cent jump.
Canada's population in that period has increased by roughly 10 per cent, but Smith said the country's demographics have shifted - with a higher foreign-born population and more people moving into cities rather than small towns - and the organization wants to remain proactive in keeping hockey participation high.
Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said the goal will be to find a way to increase that 9.1-per-cent figure.
"But it's going to take a lot of work and we really have to look at how we try to recruit new young boys and girls into the game of hockey," Nicholson said.
"We have to work with all of our partners, whether it is government or corporate, to try to make sure we get equipment on young kids that is affordable. Those are huge challenges, but we have to try to do those one step at a time. … There are certain costs there that are never going to go away."
Other panelists on the topic of "growing participation in hockey" were from USA Hockey, Sweden and Finland, as well as NHL presidents Cyril Leeder of the Ottawa Senators and John McDonough of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Finland's director of women's hockey, Arto Sieppi, pointed out that of 33,000 boys born in his country every year, only 3,000 become registered players (roughly on par with Canada's percentage) and that only three move on to play at the Olympic level.
Sweden's director of hockey development, Tommy Boustedt, said his organization focuses on building the brand of hockey in that country, Tre Kronor, and ties youth programs into schools to get kids interested early on.
USA Hockey's Pat Kelleher, who fills a newly created role as assistant executive director of membership development, said his organization had learned a significant number of players in the U.S. were dropping out of the game entirely by age 9 and that they were working to combat the issue.
Smith said Hockey Canada would take a lot away from the summit in terms of looking at what other countries are doing and adopting it for their needs. The organization's board of directors are meeting in Toronto Friday to discuss what they learned and help implement some of that "new thinking" into their game plan.
It may involve more of a tactical, business-oriented approach than Hockey Canada has taken in the past, but Smith said being proactive will pay off.
"[This type of analysis of registration data]is definitely new to national sport organizations, but think about any corporation that wants to have a good relationship with their customers and wants to engage more customers," Smith said. "They seek information. They ask what they like and what they don't like. They try to tailor programs so they can not only keep customers, but grow their base."
He concluded his presentation by calling for those involved in the game in Canada to embrace new ideas when it comes to making playing hockey attractive to a wider audience.
"I think it's clear based on some information from today's presentation that our population in this country is going to change," Smith said. "I think it's clear that the interest [level]and some of the distractions for 5 to 19 year old participants have changed.
"Are we willing to change?"