End of an ice age, Part 2: How youth hockey became so expensive — and such a drag

ANALYSIS: Those in the hockey world may think it’s thriving. But outside the community, the sport is on the decline
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 08, 2020
The professionalization of youth hockey has driven up the cost of participation significantly. (iStock.com/gilaxia)

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This is Part 2 of a three-part series on the state and future of youth hockey. You can read Part 1 here. Watch for Part 3 on Thursday.

The City of Toronto, like any large government, owns a massive variety of facilities, buildings, and properties. Many are essential. Millions of Torontonians would notice awfully quickly if the city’s water-pumping stations were to suddenly vanish, for instance. But some exist to improve the quality of life, not simply to sustain life itself. In Toronto, that includes $1.2 billion worth of recreational assets. It’s a huge portfolio and includes everything from city parks to large community-centre complexes. Managing these assets, and keeping them all in a state of good repair, is a constant challenge (one Toronto is currently unable to meet; $160 million in needed repairs are unfunded). In 2017, the city prepared a forward-looking report that forecast the city’s needs out to the late 2030s and recommended how city resources should be invested. This report was followed last fall by another, focused on implementation.

And it drew the public’s attention because it came to a conclusion many found startling: Toronto has too many ice rinks.

Canada’s largest city has too many places to play hockey? The reports tell a fuller, more complicated story. Many of Toronto’s rinks are in aging, obsolete facilities with single non-regulation ice surfaces, and the city plans to consolidate some of them into modern multi-use recreational hubs, each with multiple regulation-sized ice pads. Toronto feels that it can provide comparable service with fewer, newer rinks; it will operate more seasonal skating trails and outdoor rinks during the winter months. The 2019 report also notes that the city has a large private-sector supply of ice rinks and that much of the city’s hockey life has migrated there.

Still, there is another story below the surface. Participation in hockey is declining in Canada. Toronto’s long-term facilities plan is simply adjusting to meet this declining demand.

Sean Fitz-Gerald is a journalist and author. He’s currently the senior national writer for The Athletic, a sports-journalism enterprise. (He’s also a friend; we worked together at the National Post for years.) His book Before the Lights Go Out: A Season Inside a Game on the Brink, was published in the fall. It’s partly the story of a tough season for the Peterborough Petes, a junior team in the Ontario Hockey League. But it’s also a broader look at the state of the game — a game that’s rapidly contracting, which is why Toronto has concluded it has too much indoor ice.

In a recent interview, I told Fitz-Gerald that, early in his book, he perfectly describes the sense of shock I felt when I learned that hockey is struggling. Fitz-Gerald wrote that the hockey community in Canada is akin to a walled city. Inside the walls, it’s business as usual. Hockey is thriving. It’s the hub of community life. Parents spend a ton of their waking hours at rinks (Fitz-Gerald and I are both fathers of young sons who have fallen completely in love with the game). Lifelong friendships are formed among both players and their families.

But outside the walls, as the number of Canadians actually participating in hockey stagnates or declines, the very concept of Canadian recreation is evolving. Although Toronto is set to grow by 500,000 people between now and 2041, it will need fewer rinks. It will need a lot more places to play soccer, basketball, and cricket.

I decided to ask Fitz-Gerald the big question first: What the hell happened? How did we find ourselves here?

“The core of this, the start, is the professionalization of youth hockey,” he explained. “That has driven up the cost, which raises barriers to entry for new players. Any level above, say, house league, where you play every Saturday morning, an hour on the ice — four or five hours a month — and you start drinking from a firehose. You can be on the ice multiple hours each week. You can play for more than one team. You can play in more than one league, all year round. You can have skills-development coaches working with the kids. Our son is nine years old and plays at a competitive level. Wednesday is our skills-development practice day. And we have two paid development coaches. These aren’t volunteers — they’re paid. On top of that, there’s hockey camps, and now new things like a skating treadmill. That’s where a child goes and works with a professional skating coach in a controlled environment to study the nuances of their skating stride. That’s $45 to $50 an hour.”

He laughed. “It’s not news that there’s a big startup capital cost when your kid joins hockey. You need to register them in a league and get them a full set of equipment. That’s not new. But this stuff is new. And there’s also the soft costs. Maybe you can afford all this. The fees, the skates, the sticks, the coaches. But what about the soft costs? Do you want to spend hours of your life in rinks or stuck in traffic between rinks? Do you have the flexibility to take a day off work for a tournament? Do you have a car, because there’s no way you’re riding transit with a hockey bag 250 times a year? Are you willing to give up every weekend and miss out on other stuff, like visiting grandma and grandpa?”

Fitz-Gerald paused here to make a key point. This kind of commitment isn’t unique to hockey. Youth sports, particularly at a competitive level, are a huge time suck and can be hideously expensive. Dancing, swimming, tennis — all can be as consuming. But, he said, “We only put one of these sports on the back of our money.” What makes hockey unique isn’t the costs, hard or soft — it’s the place it holds (held?) in our national consciousness.

But the idealized version of hockey — happy kids passing a puck back and forth on a frozen snow-dusted pond — isn’t remotely like how Canadian children are experiencing the game today. “It’s regimented,” Fitz-Gerald declared. “It’s disciplined. It’s expensive. And it’s not fun anymore. Kids are dropping out faster than they’re signing up.” The stats back this up — even as girls’ hockey has grown, overall youth participation in hockey is down by roughly half over the last generation. “We’re making it too expensive to join and not enough fun to stay in if you do,” Fitz-Gerald lamented, noting that, even in wealthy areas, hockey participation is stagnant or dropping.

“Youth sports overall are facing a challenge,” he said. “Kids aren’t playing any sport at the rates they once did. But for those who are going to play a sport, going to join a league, hockey has more competition. There’s more options, and it’s easier to join and stick with many of the other ones.”

Another issue that looms large in this discussion is the demographic change underway in Canada. Many Canadians were either born in other countries or are the children of new Canadians. Not all that long ago, Fitz-Gerald says, the immigrant experience often meant a hard break from your old habits and customs. But with the ubiquity of instantaneous global communications, one link back to the old country that was once hard to maintain — sports — is enduring among new Canadian communities. They can follow their (ex-) hometown soccer team from thousands of kilometres away and pass that passion on to the next generation, while paying little heed to local sports. He recounted one anecdote, the story of a woman he got to know while writing his book. She is an immigrant, married to a small-town Ontario boy who grew up loving hockey. Their children now play, too, but she can still watch the nightly news from her home country online.

“Imagine you’re a new Canadian,” Fitz-Gerald said, using this woman as a hypothetical example. “You’ve moved from Budapest to Norwood, Ontario. You can still watch the nightly news in Hungarian, but you want to learn more about Canada. So you check out hockey, the local pastime. And the images are of the famous ‘Bobby Clark smile’ — young men with all their teeth knocked out. That’s a celebrated part of Canadiana. But can you blame someone for looking at that and thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, how many sets of teeth are my kids going to grow? No thanks.’”

“There is grace and beauty in hockey,” Fitz-Gerald continued, “but the brand of hockey in Canada is stuck in the 1970s — it’s a tough sport for tough men. Don Cherry kept ‘the code’ for hockey for generations, and that code didn’t speak to a lot of people. When he talked about good Canadian boys, a lot of people knew who he wasn’t talking about. And they never signed their kids up for hockey.”

Fitz-Gerald and I are both inside the walled city of Canadian hockey. But millions of our fellow Canadians aren’t. How can we address this? Indeed, does it matter if we don’t? Stay tuned for Part 3.

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