Last winter, Hockey Canada and Bauer Hockey Inc. commissioned an independent survey to better understand the challenges facing non hockey-playing families.
That's because according to the two organizations, approximately 90 per cent of Canadian families choose to not have their kids play hockey. So a survey of 875 non hockey-playing families in Ontario and Nova Scotia was conducted to better understand why they don't play the game and the top four reasons given were a) it wasn't fun b) was too time consuming c) safety concerns d) and affordability.
The good news is 73 per cent of those surveyed also said they'd consider putting their kids in the game in future while 40 per cent said they'd definitely consider it.
Hockey Canada and Bauer Canada unveiled pilot programs Thursday at Mattamy Athletic Centre (formerly Maple Leaf Gardens) for launch in Ontario and Nova Scotia this fall to address the survey findings. It's the next phase in Grow The Game, an initiative launched last year to add one million new players by 2022.
"What this does is (set off) that little bell," said Paul Carson, Hockey Canada's vice-president of hockey development. "It's a reminder that you've got promote the game in a way people understand the fun and positive experiences youngsters have in the sport."
Former NHL star Mark Messier is assisting Bauer and Hockey Canada in their quest to get more players in the game. The six-time Stanley Cup champion says there's more to hockey in Canada than making it to the NHL, winning gold medals on the world stage and playing at the highest rep level.
"That is a great part of our game, we all know that, I mean I lived it, so many Canadians have lived it and fans live it," Messier said. "But hockey is so much more than that for our children and that's the idea we're trying to get across that it doesn't have to be that.
"I'm in no way demeaning those programs because there's a need for that and there's kids who are ready for that. But it's the other kids we need to pay attention to and there's a lot of those kids who are kind of getting bypassed right now."
Six-week pilot programs will be launched this fall and next spring in Hamilton, the Toronto neighbourhood of Scarborough, Halifax and East Hants, N.S. Bauer, Hockey Canada and local governing bodies will host fun days for parents and children while also providing information on hockey safety and educating on proper equipment fit, among other subjects. As well, enrolment and equipment will be bundled together at $100.
Once the programs are launched, they will be re-evaluated and expanded into other regions.
Kevin Davis, the president and chief executive officer of Bauer, said addressing the issue of hockey affordability was important.
"We just want to completely remove that from being a barrier and it's a compelling offer relative to other sports," he said. "Again, it's a pilot program and we're going to roll this out and see what kind of success (we have) and my guess is we're going to learn some stuff as we go.
"We have a responsibility to our shareholders to grow the company but we have a responsibility to the sport. This is the heart of hockey here in Canada . . . we're committed to getting more kids on the ice."
Messier, for one, was stunned by the survey results.
"I think it comes to a shock to everybody," he said. "We like to consider ourselves at the top of the pyramid in hockey around the world and if we're going to stay there . . . we have to continue to develop our talent pool.
"In order to do that we have to continue to introduce the game to more kids, get more kids playing and keep those kids that do try it in the game. This is one way, hopefully, we can start to do that. We're trying to send the message now that hockey is for everybody and there's a place for everybody if you want to play hockey."
Messier said it's important for kids to have alternate places to play other than rep or travel leagues.
"We don't want to make our kids feel like they're failures because that (rep, AAA)isn't for them or they're not ready for that," he said. "Right now there's not a real soft place for them to land if they don't make that but still love the game.
"If they're not in the game they can't make it so we're going to keep the kids in the game, they're going to more fun and they're going to be passionate about it. If they do develop and get that keen sense of passion that you need to play at that intense level, I think we're going to have more kids who are funnelling through that, it just might take them a little longer."