For many, hockey and Canadian identity are synonymous.

In fact, according to a 2013 Statistics Canada survey, 77 per cent of Canadians consider hockey an important national symbol. However, playing the sport is not cheap and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for families to afford the financial burden.

Evan Black is a 14-year-old defenseman playing on a scholarship for the Edge School for Athletes on the western outskirts of Calgary. His parents, Jim and Kim Black, have done everything they can to keep him playing the game he loves.

There are two fees associated with the Edge, the hockey fee and the school fee. Evan Black’s scholarship negates the school fees but still requires him to pay hockey fees.

According to the Edge website, school fees for grades seven-12 are $17,400. Their hockey team programs fees range from $9000-$16,500 so while the scholarship helps, the school is still a significant expense. However to Evan Black’s father, Jim Black, it’s definitely worth it.

“He’s getting a private school education to play hockey, which is amazing,” says Jim Black.

Breaking down the cost

Hockey comes with some unique problems compared to other sports. The high cost of equipment and registration is one potential problem for families.

The price of a stick at Sportchek can cost anywhere from $15.99 Reebok Crosby SC87 1 Gen II Youth Hockey Stick to $339.99 for Bauer Vapor 1X Griptac Gen II senior stick – and that’s only one piece of a whole body’s worth of equipment.

Registration fees are usually more than $1,000, but fluctuate across the city with set amounts per age group. The youngest age groups like Tyke, Half Pint and Novice are usually below $1,000.

An extra expense that families are facing is cash calls. Essentially, after all fees have been paid, teams ask for additional funds. Cash calls are usually used to pay for extra practices, tournaments and buses for travel.

Jim Black, who has two kids playing the good ol’ game, said at the community level the $100 fee once or twice a year wasn’t too bad, but it got substantially higher at the quadrant level, increasing to $1,600 last year.

The total cost for 2016 – including fees and equipment for both Evan Black and his 17-year-old brother was $17,400 – according to Jim Black.

“Your fees just keep going up and up and up,” says Jim Black.

The Blacks are a single income family, with Kim Black working as an account manager for an insurance company while Jim Black has been on disability.

For families struggling to meet the demanding financial cost of hockey, there are options. In previous years, the Blacks were able to do fundraising.

They’ve asked friends and family to donate bottles, which they use to cover the equipment costs. Kim Black says this covers the cost of equipment. She says that budgeting tightly and holding back on any extra expenses like cutting down on internet and cable also helps.

How is hockey holding up in Calgary?

According to Kevin Kobelka, executive director of Hockey Calgary, the sport has seen flat registration numbers the last few years. In 2015, across all ages and genders, there were 14,335 players. That number only increased by 64 players in 2016.

According to Kobelka, one of the reasons why people might still be playing hockey despite the cost is the variety of programs available. In addition to quadrant hockey, there’s now a level called the recreational league.

“Ten years ago we started our rec program. [This program is] more at the bantam and midget level, [and] is basically a beer league for kids (without the drinking, of course),” says Kobelka. “No practices. Games two days a week on set days.

“That enabled those kids that had other interests, whether it’s volleyball, basketball, a job, or homework or whatever in that 13-17 age bracket (to) play.”

Last year a regional house league also started to provide a lower cost and lower time commitment for players. Kobelka calls it the bare bones league, as it offered only games and no practices, or other costs like team jackets or tournaments.

“That appealed to those people who wanted to do other things. That had huge growth – it went from 300 [players] to 800-900 last year,” says Kobelka.

School vs. athletics

Evan Black had been playing quadrant hockey, which divides the city up into different quadrants in hopes of reducing players’ travel time. Despite these efforts, the times of practices and games had the Blacks spending a lot of time in traffic.

“Another barrier for parents is the school that’s missed,” says Kim Black.

Jim Black says they would have to pick Evan Black up at 2:30 p.m., navigate rush hour traffic to make it to the rink for 4 p.m. practice and wouldn’t get home until 8:30-9 p.m after post-practice dryland training.

The Blacks were able to split these driving duties with another parent, which is a common theme amongst hockey parents. They had four practices and two games a week. Wednesday was their only off day.

“You are looking at minimum 20 hours per week,” says Jim Black.

Evan Black would have to miss one class at the end of the school day to make his practices on time. However, since going to the Edge, Evan Black’s grades have gone up.

“Already we are seeing a really good improvement, smaller class sizes,” says Kim Black. “They get it with these student-athletes.”

If athlete’s grades fall, they don’t get to participate in their sport until they get their grades back up.

“It’s student-athlete. In that order and that’s the way it should be,” says Jim Black.

Available help

For lower income families, there are organizations out there to provide support.

The Comrie Sport Equipment Bank is an organization that created their Calgary branch in 2014 with a mandate to provide equipment to those who can’t afford it. It was started by Bill Comrie – the founder of the Brick.

“A kid comes in and we sit him down out front and just start bringing them out gear,” says Russell Gillespie, General Manager of the Calgary branch. “Some of the stuff that comes in is brand new.”

According to Comrie Sport Equipment Bank they have equipped 4,862 hockey players with equipment since August 2014. They have also provided goalie equipment to 24 players.

“This is a clear sign that the people that are still doing good and have equipment are willing to donate to the people that might be needy, even if it’s only short term,” says Gillespie. “In the economic downturn, it’s good to see that we are still getting flooded with goods.”

What does the future hold?

For some, the cost and time of playing hockey is becoming too much of a burden on families despite its ties to Canadian culture. But for others, like the Black family, hockey isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. They’re going to make it work.

“He loves it, so we are willing to make the sacrifices,” says Kim Black.