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Canadian minor hockey risks stalling as boys' enrolment sinks, costs rise

Ben Hopper of Vancouver Thunderbirds Atom A2 looks on as members of Richmond Seafair A2 celebrate a goal during their game in Richmond, British Columbia on Sept. 29, 2011.

Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail/jeff vinnick The Globe and Mail

An overwhelming number of Canadians involved in hockey believes that corporate Canada must do more to help the sport's grassroots programs, according to results of a new survey being released Tuesday.

RBC surveyed 1,006 parents and volunteers across Canada last month from varying levels of minor hockey and found that only 46.2 per cent felt their league is sufficiently funded, while 82 per cent felt corporate Canada should offer more support.

The average Canadian hockey household spends approximately $1,500 on hockey-related costs, according to their results. About 5.4 per cent said they spend more than $5,000 a year.

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Respondents said the single greatest issues facing their hockey communities were increasing ice costs (35.7 per cent), and a lack of sufficient business support (22.0 per cent).

The survey included participants who have been involved in hockey in the past two years. Of the parents who didn't register their kids this year, 38 per cent said it was because it was too expensive. Despite the increased spotlight on concussions in the sport, just 4.8 per cent said it was because the game was too violent.

According to Hockey Canada's registration numbers, total enrolment has dropped to 572,411 players last season from 584,679 in the 2008-09 season. Male registration dropped during that time while female registration increased slightly. Numbers for the current season won't be ready until February.

"In Canada, our demographics are changing, and ice prices have gone up dramatically at municipal rinks," said Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada. "More people are moving to larger cities, so there is a rink shortage in the big cities when people move. In small-town Canada, there is excess ice because people have moved away."

In Canada, minor hockey is run mostly by volunteers and played at municipal arenas, with a few private rinks and companies starting leagues. But in the United States, minor hockey associations are largely run by corporations, such as the Little Caesars Amateur Hockey League in the Midwest, the largest youth hockey league in the United States. USA Hockey had 465,975 registered players in 2008-09 and had grown to 500,579 by last season.

"In many countries around the world, particularly where I live in the U.S., the sport is growing," said Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning and of Canada's 2010 gold-medal Olympic team. "If we want to continue to be successful on the international level, we have to keep up with the growth at the grassroots level that these other countries are seeing. They are catching us."

Hockey Canada and RBC are both working on initiatives to help make the sport more accessible. RBC has awarded 36 $25,000 grants for everything from coaching clinics to street hockey and after-school programs across Canada this season, and will do the same next season.

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"Because of the investment we have made in this hockey marketing program, it's important to do this temperature check and understand what the hockey environment is like in Canada," said Josh Epstein, RBC's senior manager of sports marketing.

"Support in minor hockey needs to be organic, so it's difficult to figure out one corporate magic bullet. We want to support the people who are driving minor hockey who know the unique challenges in their area."

RBC, which is a partner of Hockey Canada and USA Hockey and finances programs in both countries, is looking into conducting a similar survey in the United States next year.

Hockey Canada is establishing more used-equipment programs across the nation. Expensive new technologies and materials that have resulted in exorbitant prices for sticks, so Hockey Canada has encouraged stick manufacturers to put cheaper sticks on the mainstream market. They are also establishing programs to help new Canadians into the game.

The federal Conservative government introduced a children's fitness tax credit in 2007 that allows parents to claim up to $500 in eligible expenses, for a maximum tax rebate of $75. Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised during the 2011 campaign to double the credit once the federal deficit is erased, but the government has since announced that it might not balance the books before the next federal election.

With a report from Bill Curry in Ottawa

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Sports reporter

Based in Toronto, Rachel Brady writes on a number of sports for The Globe and Mail, including football, tennis and women's hockey. More

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