The Gap Has Closed Between Canada and Other Countries That Participate in Hockey
The women’s hockey rivalry series between the U.S. and Canada shows this, as the U.S. has dominated Canada in women’s hockey for some time now. Looking past that though, Canada has faltered at their own game at numerous events. The under-20 championships, held in Canada this past year, showed that the game may be becoming less popular among Canada’s youths. Canada put up an uncharacteristic performance at the tournament by being ousted in the quarterfinals, a tournament that the Canadians usually play a large role in. The team had a period of dominance from 2005 to 2009, winning all gold medals in that time. So why are participation numbers going down in Canada for hockey?
There Is No Reliable Way to Get an Education and Have A Chance at the NHL in Canada
The two most popular ways for Canadians to make the NHL is either to play in one of three junior leagues in Canada or to go to college in the U.S. The three major junior leagues in Canada are the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League. College hockey in Canada is not an ideal way to make it to the NHL. All of the most skilled players are attracted by junior teams, whether cash is handed under the table or not. While in any of the three junior leagues, school isn’t a priority. If you’re good enough to make any of the three big leagues, you’re more than likely on your way to the NHL, AHL, ECHL, or an overseas league.
Canadians will also move to America and play for various colleges. The U.S. collegiate hockey system is extremely competitive. The NCAA men’s hockey competition is much more fierce than anything that Canada can offer for their league. Most of the best Americans will enter the collegiate portal as well as a multitude of international players coming to get an education and a good chance to make the NHL.
The Equipment is Too Expensive
Hockey is the most expensive sport to play as a youth. Overall, hockey equipment per year can average out to somewhere near $600. The next closest sport is lacrosse, coincidentally another Canadian sport. For most Canadian middle-class families, this isn’t a possibility. A new stick alone can cost you upwards of $300, which you may need 3-4 of per year. Add onto this the price of pads, a helmet, skates and other accessories, you’re looking at $1000 or more for a player that is in the intermediate/senior level of playing.
Websites like SidelineSwap and Kijiji (Canadian Craigslist) promote the reselling of gear at cheaper prices. Play It Again Sports, a company in Canada that sells second-hand gear, is a good alternative to buying new equipment. However, in order to make it to the next level, most youths require the best and most recent gear. In Sweden, it’s normal for older players to hand down equipment to younger friends and family, free of cost. In Canada that doesn’t happen.
While the equipment is too expensive, the interest to play isn’t dying at all in Canada. Youths will find a way to play, whether it be on ponds outside with second-hand equipment or playing road hockey. As someone who grew up in a middle-class family in British Columbia, I would find any excuse to go outside to play. Even with my extremely run-down gear, I didn’t care at all.
Other Sports Are Becoming More Popular
When you think Canada, you think maple syrup, hockey, and the accent, usually the most stereotypical things (which is incorrect, I think maple syrup is just OK). Most don’t know the national sport though is lacrosse. Numbers for lacrosse participation are continually going up among youths. Lacrosse is a much more accessible sport to youths. It doesn’t require cold weather for ponds to be frozen and can be played with minimal equipment. Hockey requires a rink and full equipment. Professional lacrosse teams are also beginning to begin established, with multiple being created in Canada in cities like Montreal and Vancouver.
Other than lacrosse, basketball is becoming extremely popular in Canada. Although basketball was invented in Canada, the sport had a period of dwindling participation numbers until recently. The Toronto Raptors have become Canada’s team since no other city in Canada has an NBA team. Basketball is also a relatively cheap sport that reaches out to all economic levels. Basketball is the third most popular sport in Canada from the ages of 3-17. National viewership in both the U.S. and Canada are up a great deal too due to the amount of star power we see in the NBA. The sport is much easier for casual fans to catch on too also.
Concussions and Hazing Are Becoming An Issue
Moving at speeds upwards of 15 miles per hour and colliding into one another is a good way to get a concussion, even with improved helmet technology. The number of hospital visits for brain injuries due to youth hockey is only increasing in provinces that record that data. Kids are taught how to hit correctly in hockey and smartly deflect hits. Not hitting from behind, saying close to the boards in order to use the boards to absorb shock, and to use your hands and arms as shock absorbents all surely help. However, these are kids we’re talking about. Youth are more than likely going to make a mistake here and there. Along with getting hit in the head with a puck, concussions are becoming more common throughout youth hockey.
First off, youth hazing has no spot in the sport of hockey. For those that don’t know what youth hazing is, it’s the punishment of young rookies on junior teams for being rookies. It’s to put them in their place, but can become extremely toxic. Hazing is extremely popular in all ranks of youth hockey. Kids can become scared to go to the rink and then opt out of hockey. Dan Carcillo, a two-time Stanley Cup Champion, detailed his hazing as a very emotional and traumatic experience. Most Canadian youth players move away from home in order to play in better leagues as most players are from rural areas of Canada. These kids often can feel lonely as they live with a billet family. Living in a foreign province with a family that isn’t your own can leave one lonely and vulnerable.
What Could Be Done?
It’s hard to eliminate concussions or hazing entirely. It’s going to happen at the local level no matter what’s done.
You can try to advertise hockey to youth from areas that hockey isn’t popular in (lower class neighbourhoods) but they still won’t have a reliable way to get equipment. An equipment hand-me-down situation could be created, but it works in Sweden for one reason only. There are only about 10 million people in Sweden. Not all those people need hockey equipment of course, so there isn’t that much demand for recycled equipment due to a much smaller player-base. Canada has upwards of 30 million people and most youths make an attempt at playing hockey. The pace at which new technology and equipment is pumped out is hard to keep up with in a country that has a much larger player base and geographic boundaries.
The collegiate system in Canada would need serious funds pumped into it for more TV rights in order to entice youths. There also isn’t enough colleges to house all the players that the major junior league does.
Although hockey will never die in Canada, something does need to be planned in order to recapture our spot as the number one hockey country.