End of an ice age, Part 1: Is youth hockey dying?

ANALYSIS: The sport is on the wane in Toronto, and the city intends to close arenas in the coming decades. What happened to Canada’s game?
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 07, 2020
Mayor John Tory skates at an outdoor rink in Trinity Bellwoods Park following an announcement in Toronto in February 2015. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

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This is Part 1 of a three-part series on the state and future of youth hockey. Watch for Part 2 on Wednesday.

You might have heard the expression “The plural of anecdote is not data.” It’s an interesting expression, especially since it originated in a completely reversed context — American political scientist Raymond Wolfinger coined the phrase “The plural of anecdote is data” back in the late 1960s. You more commonly hear the new version, with the opposite meaning, as a caution against making assumptions based on low-hanging observational fruit. “The plural of anecdote is not data,” in other words, warns us that a series of anecdotes does not equal good researched statistics. Sometimes, it’s just a bunch of small little daily-life experiences that, in combination, suggest a pattern. That pattern might be true in your life — your work, your family, your neighbourhood, the collective sum of your lived experience. But the observed reality may not have any validity out of your immediate line of sight.

This is an important thing for journalists to learn (and the learning does not always come easy). Whenever possible, find the data — whatever is available, ideally from a neutral source, and use that to confirm hunches and observations. This might not be the first rule of reporting, but it’s one of the big ones. Still, there are times when the data clashes so radically with our lived experience that it’s hard to accept what we’re being told. Especially when you’re standing in a freezing hockey rink at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning, chilled to the bone and still half-asleep, grateful only that your child didn’t get assigned to the even earlier house-league hockey program. Those kids hit the ice at 7 a.m. each Saturday.

That’s the anecdote — well, more broadly, the anecdote is that ice time remains such a valuable commodity in the GTA that leagues operate from the crack of dawn (or earlier) late into the evening so that everyone’s kid (or the adults, for other leagues) gets their hour on the ice. In my neighbourhood, ice time is rarer than diamonds. Teams are sent onto and off the ice with quite literally clockwork precision. The arena is indisputably one of the hubs of local community life. Getting in and out of the parking lot despite the oddly timed traffic signals is a source of constant low-level commuter anxiety. It’s constantly jammed with families coming and going.

But a report by the City of Toronto, written up in a fascinating news story by the Toronto Star this fall, suggests that my anecdote does not match the city’s data. Hockey in Toronto is waning, the report says, as other sports boom. Over the next several decades, in fact, Toronto intends to close hockey arenas and convert the facilities to other purposes.

I’ll delve into the report in just a moment, but first, another anecdote (the one that set this series in motion). In the fall, I was chatting with an old friend, texting him from the rink on Saturday morning while watching the children do their hockey drills. When I told him where I was so early on a Saturday morning, he sent condolences. But he also mentioned that, at work, he’d recently had a meeting with real-estate developers who were planning a series of large residential-tower developments in southern Ontario, with a focus on the booming GTA market. And residents commonly request community sports facilities — especially hockey rinks. Rinks have considerable capital costs in terms of square footage and the necessary equipment, plus the ongoing operating costs. But companies are still at least considering including them in their proposals (as private facilities or through some sort of operating arrangement with the local municipality). Although the costs of constructing and operating a rink are considerable, they know there is public interest.

So that’s the second anecdote. But let’s turn to the data.

The data is found in the “Implementation Strategy for the Parks and Recreation Facilities Master Plan 2019-2038,” which was adopted by Toronto city council in October. The implementation plan is a follow-up to a 2017 report. The 2017 report focused on Toronto’s demographics and the usage profiles for its many and assorted recreational facilities, including parks and playgrounds, community centres with gymnasiums and meeting rooms, indoor and outdoor pools and, yes, of course, ice rinks. Some of the city’s ice surfaces are seasonal — outdoor rinks established when and where needed to meet demand in the winter. Fifty-one are indoor facilities, open year-round. Most are single-pad arenas, but since some of them involve multiple rinks inside one arena complex, the city operates 65 separate hockey rinks across its 51 arena facilities. There are also three curling rinks.

And this, according to the city, is too much.

Not by much — we’re not talking about a massive culling of the faceoff circles here. The 2017 report agrees that the existing facilities are generally well-used in prime hours, though off-peak usage is low, so low that Toronto calculates that the total unused hours equals six full rinks’ worth of ice time each year. So as part of the long-term plan, the number of rinks operated by Toronto will slightly drop.

Toronto sets a target of one indoor rink per 50,000 residents and also aims to distribute those rinks geographically in line with local population density, so that the nearest available rink is never too far away. The city’s plan forecasts needs out as far as 20 years, but in the short term — the next 10 years — Toronto is aiming for a net reduction in indoor ice rinks. This will involve replacing one single-rink arena in Don Mills with a two-rink facility (for a gain of one) but also the repurposing of three existing single-rink facilities to other recreational uses. The latter half of the 20-year window is less specific, but it calls for a net reduction of two additional rinks via conversion to other purposes (meanwhile, two single-rink arenas would be consolidated into a new two-rink facility somewhere in the late 2030s). Although Toronto’s population is expected to grow by 500,000 by 2041, the city forecasts that these moves would still leave Toronto with sufficient indoor ice rinks to maintain the identified ratio of one per 50,000 residents.

The details of all this planning are more complicated than one would first expect. There’s more to this than a simple narrative of Canada’s national pastime being in crisis — though that is a factor, and we’ll discuss that in depth later. But, even setting that much bigger topic aside, there are some very pragmatic reasons for changing Toronto’s rink holdings. First of all, as noted above with reference to my friend and real-estate development, there is a thriving industry in Toronto and the broader GTA that offers privately owned rinks for rent. These facilities host everything from adult beer leagues to youth learn-to-play programs. Much of the city’s hockey life has migrated to these private and often far more comfortable facilities.

There is a related issue Toronto faces: many of its rinks are obsolete and aging rapidly. The city’s rinks and indoor pools have an average age of around 50 years, notes the 2019 report. Almost a full quarter of city-owned rinks have ice surfaces that are not full-NHL-regulation size (the facilities plan notes that city-owned rinks that are indeed full-regulation size are the most in demand). Also, as noted above, most of the city’s rinks are in single-rink facilities — the building is a hockey rink, full stop. These decades-old facilities reflect the planning of an earlier era. In today’s Toronto, the preference is to group recreational facilities together in multi-use hubs, and ice pads together in multi-rink arenas within these hubs.

These various factors mean that much of Toronto’s rink capacity is in the form the city least desires: the modern optimum is multiple full-regulation-size rinks inside full-offering community hubs, but the city operates dozens of aging sole-purpose single-rink facilities, of which almost a quarter are non-regulation size. Even setting aside the declining demand for city-owned rinks, and the access to modern full-regulation-size rinks in privately owned multi-rink facilities, the desire to optimize and replace aging, obsolete arenas with more modern community assets is understandable.

Better facilities, even if slightly fewer in number, augmented by expanded outdoor skating trails and rinks, is how Toronto plans to meet demand for hockey and skating through to 2040. It’s a reasonable, comfortable explanation — but for those of us who love Canada’s game, it still is worrying. The city has concluded that, even as Toronto grows by 500,000 people, it can make do with generally the same amount of ice — a little less, actually, to adequately serve many more people. And all the talk about modernizing facilities and state-of-good-repair budgets can’t hide the uncomfortable fact that, if hockey were as popular as it was 20 years ago, we’d be having a very different conservation.

The City of Toronto is responding to something broader in our society. And that’s where we’ll pick up in Part 2.

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