Earlier this month I happened to be in a hockey rink in a small northern town when kids were signing up for minor hockey.
No, that's not quite accurate – their parents were doing the signing up, and also signing the cheques. Parents of youngsters immediately heading out onto the ice for their first practice were also usually the ones carrying the equipment. In most cases, both parents were along to help dress the player, tie the skates and watch.
How times have changed.
In another small northern town many years ago – back when horse pucks were shot with tree branches and Jacques Cartier's kids were also signing up – there were no parents involved at all. You showed up with your birth certificate and a two-dollar bill (the one with the bucolic farm scene on the back, before the robin) and you signed yourself up, carried your own equipment and tied your own skates.
You were automatically on a house league team and, if you were good enough and cared enough, you'd be put on an all-star team and sent about the district to play other all-star teams from other towns. Parents might come to home games but the sight of one at a practice was as rare as encountering an eastern mountain lion in the parking lot. There was no such thing as paying for extra ice time. Two bucks and that was it for the year.
Someone with what seemed like a good idea at the time came up with a slogan – "Don't send your boy to play hockey, take him!" – and, from that point on, minor hockey has never been the same.
It was both a curse and a blessing, as even those who were involved with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association at the time would later concede. Parents meant more volunteers, which was good, but parents also meant parental ambitions, both for the child and for themselves.
Minor hockey, in too many instances, became families' social lives, status relating to the level of the team – AAA parents often more competitive than AAA players – with tournaments, equipment, registration, extra ice time all adding up to a sum that turned the two-dollar bill into the equivalent of a new car.
The mass registrations of the boom years have somewhat dwindled, though there are surely far more rinks, especially in urban and suburban areas of the country.
Though women's hockey has grown wonderfully, registration among boys is such that it is estimated 85 per cent of boys between ages five and 19 now do not play. That, unfortunately, is a bit misleading, as it really means are not officially registered. It does not count the kids in the streets, the driveways, the winter tennis courts and, where still possible, the outdoor rinks.
But ever since "signing up" became far more the prerogative of the parent than the child, other considerations apart from learning to skate and chase a puck around have steadily risen. It is, first and foremost, expensive. It can mean early winter mornings that some would prefer spent in bed. It can, unfortunately, mean injury, though much is being done, and can still be done, to eliminate that possibility in hockey as well as other team sports.
So it isn't so much kids not signing up as parents not signing up.
Bauer Hockey recently launched an ambitious plan with Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to double the number of new players entering the game over the next decade.
Bauer and other manufacturers, of course, are the ones who turned minor hockey from a largely hand-me-down and secondhand world to one where young players insist on, and usually receive, composite sticks and skates that cost as much as or more than registration itself.
Still, any initiative that can get more children – in particular the children of new Canadians – into exercise and activity and a "team" experience should be warmly welcomed in this era of helicopter parenting and lonely video obsession.
What is needed is not more players and parents at the competitive levels, but more youngsters at the least-expensive and least-intrusive levels of the game.
"So what is the answer?" columnist Ken Campbell asked in a recent issue of The Hockey News.
Campbell has a good one, as befits a lifelong hockey journalist who will shortly have a book out called Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and their Kids are Paying the Price for Our National Obsession.
"It's playing house league hockey," he writes, "the haven for what some who would turn their nose up to it is played by the unwashed masses. But if you think about it, while elite AAA leagues and hockey academies are busy producing the next crop of pros, house leagues are producing the next generation of beer-league players, people for whom the game remains a passion. Without them, the NHL would probably collapse due to a lack of interest."
Well said, sir.
And we can only hope well heard.