Hockey Canada aims to make minor hockey more accessible

Cost. Safety. Demographics.

Hockey Canada is at a crossroads as it faces new challenges for recruiting a new generation of players. With the stated intention of making minor hockey "more affordable and accessible", Hockey Canada CEO Bob Nicholson introduced Friday afternoon in Toronto a new rewards and loyalty program called Club Hockey Canada.

A late 2011 survey from the Royal Bank of Canada suggested that the average parent spends an average of $1,500 a year on hockey costs, which range from equipment to gas to meals on the road, while it isn't unheard of for families to spend well over $5,000.

"Hockey is starting in this country, and hockey is on time," Nicholson said to a crowd of dignitaries and media, being sure to mention that while the National Hockey League may be locked out to start the fall, minor and junior hockey programs across Canada will go ahead as planned. He then spoke to some of the challenges facing the game. "Recruitment and retention is the number one priority of Hockey Canada and its branches. The demographics in this country are changing right in front of us."

The release sent out by Hockey Canada suggested that purchases from leading club sponsors will be able to be redeemed in "Puck Bucks" account for "gas and grocery gift cards, sporting equipment, and Hockey Canada merchandise".

Speaking afterwards to a small scrum, Nicholson discussed other challenges facing the game other than cost. While minor hockey numbers have risen and dipped over the last few years, he suggested that they have plateaued.

"Enrolment hasn't really gone down. It's had its spikes," he said. "We are concerned about demographics. There's less kids in Canada, and when you look at the number of kids, there's a lot more immigrants in this country. We now have to get in front of families and young boys and girls and show them all the great values that hockey has."

Safety has also been a hot-button issue in Canada recently. Nicholson clarified the organization's stance on head hits ("zero tolerance") and Hockey Canada will introduce a new concussion education program toward the end of the month.

"We're having good discussions on body checking. I go back to the key on this and we've been working on this for a number of years. Checking should be introduced as soon as they start, in that the first steps of checking are skating backwards, turning, containment, body contact. The issue becomes when do you go from contact to checking."

The party-line stance on introducing checking earlier in minor hockey contradicts a study this summer done by Andrew Harris at the University of Alberta that suggested otherwise, that there was no correlation between the age a player learns to hit and the safety of the hit.

In an analysis of emergency room visits by Edmonton-area hockey players, the researchers showed that the group who started bodychecking as young as 10 were just as likely to suffer fractures, concussions and other serious head and neck injuries as those who started checking one year later.

After receiving the new study, Hockey Edmonton general manager Dean Hengel said the association would not be increasing its bodychecking age-limit from the peewee level, (11 and 12).

"Our programs are running in compliance with the Hockey Canada bylaws, and the rules of hockey as defined and accepted by Hockey Canada. As it sits today, we will have bodychecking in peewee hockey," he said. [Globe and Mail]

"There's been so many different studies on checking I haven't gone through that in detail. Paul Carson (Hockey Canada's vice-president of hockey development) has. If you look at all those studies that have been done—many many of them have been done—it goes back to 'how do you teach checking the proper way?'"

Nicholson stressed that safety was one issue of recruitment. Cost is another. A third, as Nicholson pointed out, was the changing demographic. The birth rate in Canada has declined, and children under the age of 15 has more or less stayed static since 1981. Meanwhile, Canada's foreign-born population jumped by 13.6 per cent between 2001 and 2006 and a greater percentage of Canadians (19.8) were born outside Canada than in 2001.

"I think when a lot of families come to Canada, they're not even sure what hockey is," said Nicholson. This can be a challenge to recruit players and first-generation Canadians from ethnic backgrounds.''

Immigration data from the 2011 census will be released mid-September. Unfamiliarity with the game, as well as language, were the highlighted challenges with recruitment in that area.

Hockey Canada, however, advertised "more than 550,000 players" enrolled for the upcoming season, which could suggest a drop from last season's reported total of 572,411. The RBC survey from last season that losing interest in the sport represented the second biggest reason for a drop in enrolment, at 33.3 per cent, which is in the neighbourhood of high costs, 38.1 per cent. Player safety is much lower on the list.

RBC stepped up last season as a corporate sponsor, and Nicholson and the rest of the executive called on more corporate support. While the message was simple, that the game is growing, that the game is at its strongest, the introduction of this program shows that Hockey Canada has caught on to the fact that declining minor hockey enrollment rates is a problem that needs fixing and exposure.

"I'm proud of what we're doing, but you can always do more. For Canada to be really healthy, hockey has to be healthy."