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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?”

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.

“There’s a dropoff,” Nicholson says. “There’s a concern there. It used to be 15-16 and our numbers are showing it’s younger now. We don’t have the stats. I don’t think anyone has the true stats of what that is. Everyone can speculate what they are but we’re still trying to figure that one out.

“No question cost is one. Ice time is one. You get to be 13 or so and you have a choice: do you want to be on the ice at 7 a.m. or do you want to be doing some other activity. And then there’s the bodychecking debate. Do you teach bodychecking as a skill? When should it be introduced?

“And then there’s also the streamlining. So many kids from a very young age dream about putting on the Team Canada jersey and playing in the Olympic Games or for the Toronto Maple Leafs. And now they’re not making the AAA teams, so they go off into another sport.”

Both men say it is important not to react too quickly on matters that are raised. Study is essential, then analysis, recommendation – Hockey Canada can only recommend to its branches – and, after that, results, which aren’t always as anticipated, as in the case of the introduction of the facial cage.

“We are not perfect,” Nicholson says. “We still have a lot more to do. The key for us is to say, hey, we are trying to make the game safer, which I really think we are, and trying to reduce costs.

“You’re not going to make everyone happy in this game. But we’ve got to make sure that we feel comfortable, that we’re trying to be the guardianship of the game and I can go to sleep at night and say ‘You know what? We’re doing the best we can.’”

Carson says: “I do not believe that the responsibility of Hockey Canada is to produce the next generation of professional hockey players. I believe that our responsibility is to produce the next generation of citizens.”

Adds Nicholson: “We want people to play for a lifetime.”

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