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Hard to believe that the 2012-13 hockey "season" would have billionaires and millionaires and parents talking about exactly the same thing:


In the case of the ridiculously rich, however, it's all about dividing up more cash than any child's game should ever be worth; for the parents, it's about divvying up limited disposable income to pay for a child's game that too many are deciding just isn't worth it.

It is a refrain heard again and again across this country, which worships hockey as its national game. Minor hockey, most especially at the competitive level, is fast becoming an elitist sport rather than, as it once was, the winter game of the masses.

"It's a serious problem," says Murray Costello, retired president of Hockey Canada (Canadian Amateur Hockey Association), Canadian representative on the International Ice Hockey Federation and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"It may well be the game's biggest problem, overall. Hockey is becoming an opportunity only for the people who can pay their way in."

The cost of kids' hockey is of growing national concern, from the outdoor community rink to the offices of Hockey Canada. Registration has slipped in recent years and one estimate claims barely 10 per cent of Canadian youngsters aged 5-19 are playing organized hockey.

Canada still has more registered players (approximately 550,000) than any other country, but the United States is fast catching up, having reached the half-million mark recently. Sustaining enrolment remains a challenge in Canada, where demographic shifts and various parental concerns have kept registration numbers flat, at best.

While concern over injury understandably gets most of the attention, cost is actually a much greater worry to parents, according to a survey conducted last year by RBC. It found that the average hockey family spends $1,500 a year to be in the game. Nearly 40 per cent of those asked identified "cost" as the No.1 reason for the static state of enrolment.

"Our concern is increasingly that we are an elite sport," says Costello, who himself came from a poor background in the Northern Ontario mining community of South Porcupine to play in the NHL.

Such concern has led to various efforts to get more players signed up and even charitable assistance to offset costs for those shying away for financial reasons.

Hockey Canada itself has introduced a program this fall called Club Hockey Canada that is a sort of rewards program assigning Puck Bucks to purchases made from certain sponsors. Those Puck Bucks can then be used to partially offset the extra costs that invariably arise from having a child in minor hockey.

As well, Bauer Hockey, one of the giants of the hockey equipment industry, recently announced an ambitious plan to double the number of new players entering the game by 2022. Bauer obviously has a vested interest in more Canadians playing – perhaps for life – but it is still an admirable goal. While minor hockey does have its many issues – costs, player safety, time and travel commitment among them – it also has its many positives, as the millions of Canadian men and women who played the game will readily attest.

There is no doubt that costs – even before registration – can be high. Given the choice between outfitting a kid for soccer rather than hockey can be equal roughly to the choice between walking to the corner store and chartering a helicopter to pick up the milk.

There is unfortunately a significant Apple Effect in minor hockey: youngsters successfully pressuring parents to buy top brands even when the equipment is far beyond the level being played.

The idea of parents willingly paying so their child can boast top-of-the-line skates and stick flabbergasts Costello.

"All of our equipment in the formative years was hand-me-downs," he says, "to the point where if someone showed up with any new equipment he would be singled out and become the focal point of snide dressing-room 'shots' until the equipment was broken in and looked more like the old stuff everyone else had."

No more: today's dressing-room ridicule is directed at the cheap and the old.

The notion of a house-league player heading out to play with a new $300 composite stick is particularly grating. Costello says that within Hockey Canada circles there have been suggestions that all minor hockey should return to the significantly-less-expensive wooden sticks.

"There's merit in it," he says, "but it's never going to get much traction.

"I'm not even sure anyone out there is still manufacturing wooden sticks."

The uncertainty of the NHL makes this a perfect time for The Globe and Mail to look at other aspects of the national (and now clearly international) game. In this series, called Our Game, Roy MacGregor examines the sport periodically throughout 2012-13, from house league to world juniors to the women's world championship.

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