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Hockey Canada admits that costs have risen to a point where organized hockey is largely seen as an urban activity of the well off. It’s expensive, many feel far too expensive in an era when having a child in a top competitive league can cost as much as an Ivy League college education. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)
Hockey Canada admits that costs have risen to a point where organized hockey is largely seen as an urban activity of the well off. It’s expensive, many feel far too expensive in an era when having a child in a top competitive league can cost as much as an Ivy League college education. (JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail)

Roy MacGregor

Canadians care about hockey, but do they care enough? Add to ...

It is an impressive sight.

Looming high above the fabulous $225-million Winsport Complex that houses the new offices of Hockey Canada is an Olympic ski jump.

Perhaps, however, a lightning rod would be more in keeping.

It is here, after all, where the national angst over the national game lands daily. It is here where, no matter what they say or do – or do not do – the reaction is always predictable. Some people like it, some people hate it. And do so with passion.

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“I always say to our staff,” says Bob Nicholson, Hockey Canada’s president and chief executive officer, “that if you monitor things after, say, we name our junior team for the world championship” – as happened here Thursday – “there will be as much negative reaction as positive. And yet we’ve just named 23 of the greatest kids to play for our country.

“I tell them, ‘Absorb that. They’re giving it to you because they care. And it’s the same if there’s an incident with a concussion or a high stick, because they care.’

“The day we should be concerned is if we do something and no one says anything because we’ve lost the passion.”

Nicholson, a 59-year-old former junior and college player, is used to controversial issues. “There are a few things in Hockey Canada that are ‘Wow, boom!’ They hit you and you have to react to it. We shouldn’t be afraid of it.”

When Nicholson took over his post in 1998, concussions were known but never the issue they have become. Nor was bodychecking much of a hot button. Nor cost. Nor, of all things, declining registration in a game that supposedly defines the country.

Nicholson says there are three main issues that concern Hockey Canada these days: the costs, player safety, “keeping fun in the game.” Deal with those three, and registration will take care of itself.

Costs, he readily admits, have risen to a point where organized hockey is largely seen as an urban activity of the well off. It’s expensive, many feel far too expensive in an era when having a child in a top competitive league can cost as much as an Ivy League college education.

Paul Carson, Hockey Canada’s vice-president of hockey development, says there are fixed costs – ice time, equipment, registration – that are knowns, and variables that are unknown.

“It’s the variables we have to control,” he says.

By “variable,” Carson means everything from unnecessary road trips to find competition that is just as good next door, families tying their social lives to team tournaments, and parents purchasing elite equipment far superior to what their child requires.

“There’s a ‘bragging-complaint’ with many parents,” Carson says. “They go on endlessly about how much it’s costing them, yet they are the ones buying the best stick for their kid and talking about it so much.

“While I’m complaining about the price of hockey, I’m actually letting everyone know that my child is entitled, that he has the best stick and the best skates and the best helmet. The people who hear this around the water cooler are saying, ‘Ah, I’m not sure I want my youngster to play this game.’

“I worry people look at hockey and see it as fairly inexpensive at the five, six-year-old level, but if I let my child get hooked on the game at that age, how do I tell him ‘no’ at 13-14 because it’s too expensive for the family?”

The national organization is attempting to address costs in a variety of ways, from setting up a foundation loyalty program that returns “Puck Bucks” to parents and organizations, to looking at ways of spreading used equipment around more effectively.

“There’s a lot of equipment in basements,” Nicholson says, “but how do you get it out? How do you collect it? How do you get the kids who need it to the location to get the equipment?”

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