Hockey Canada would like to see a system already running in Edmonton – established by The Brick’s Bill Comrie – spread to other centres, where equipment is collected, culled, cleaned, warehoused and distributed to needy youngsters. The costs and volunteer hours are considerable, but Nicholson and Carson both see opportunity here to involve more players at far less cost than is the norm.
If time is indeed money, then there is the accompanying issue of time commitment, something that increasingly concerns parents and is considered a major impediment to new Canadian families signing up their young boys and girls.
Mention is often made that soccer has far more players registered than hockey – Hockey Canada has 580,000 signed up this year, though millions more play in non-registered situations from school shinny to old-timer beer leagues – and Nicholson says that hockey, rather than resent soccer, should learn from it.
“We shouldn’t be getting down on soccer,” Nicholson says. “I think soccer is great. I want kids to play hockey and soccer. Soccer’s seasons are shorter, some in eight-week segments. There’s spring soccer, summer soccer, fall soccer. A lot of those kids go after school and are home by six, while we’re confined to a rink schedules. We’re trying to pick up a lot of those great ideas.
“We have to look at hockey in a different way today. Now we have hockey registration in September and you play until April. For the Canadian that is second, third, fourth generation, they love the game and they think of it in that way. That brings costs.
“But when we look at new Canadians, we have got to do some things differently. Drop-in hockey? Six-week leagues? Maybe there’s a season September to December, and then they could go skiing and do other things. We have to look at different avenues of getting someone in instead of just registering them in September and playing until April. That’s one thing that can really change the cost.”
Carson has been wondering if hockey cannot also learn from swimming lessons, where there are various programs you can choose from and even just drop in once a week for six weeks. “And all you have to bring is a pair of skates,” he says. “We’ll even have a stick rack where you can pick out a right or a left, because if you’ve never played the game, you might not even know which way you shoot if you go into a store to buy a stick.”
Hockey Canada is increasingly looking at the feasibility of competitive leagues that ban bodychecking. “We’re trying to give kids an option,” Nicholson says. “They can go into a bodychecking or a non-bodychecking league. That’s easy to say in big cities, but in small communities, there is no option. You’ve got 20 kids in that age group and they have to play together or you don’t have a team.”
The greatest safety factor, Carson believes, lies in “managing the game in such a way that says while we see the skill level go through the roof, we still manage to curtail that aggressiveness so it’s more positive, making great plays and going hard to the net as opposed to some of the aggressive, more risk-taking plays that you see.”
Carson says he is besieged with e-mails telling him: “You’ve got to take bodychecking out of peewee because the safety of children is paramount. Well, nobody here is saying that the safety of children is not paramount.”
Better officiating, stronger officiating, clearer officiating, he says, will make the game far safer and Hockey Canada is now as concerned about the development of officials as it is of players.
Even so, young players are still leaving the game. That registration remains flat or dips only slightly over recent years is largely due to the explosion in girls’ and women’s hockey. Boys often quit.