Hockey has long been Canada’s most beloved sport. Across the country, kids who lace-up their skates and compete on the ice develop a deep love and passion for the game. But the ever-increasing time commitments and high costs of the game are putting a big burden on parents and resulting in declining participation rates.
Tyler Drader has a keen interest over those participation rates. He’s been involved in hockey since he was a kid. He played at high levels growing up and continues to play in rec leagues today. His 18-year coaching resume includes a long list of top-tier teams at a variety of age groups. Nowadays, he leads the SAIT Trojans as head coach, giving him a deep understanding of Canada’s relationship with hockey.
“Hockey is more than just a game for most Canadians,” Drader says. “It’s more of a way a life and part of our culture. Millions are a part of it whether it’s raising a hockey player or they’re involved in the game in some way. It’s definitely a huge part of life for Canadians.”
It’s not difficult to see where the obsession for the game comes from. The sport dominates television viewership, is printed on currency and is played on outdoor rinks from coast to coast. From early ages, kids develop a passion for hockey. And that’s what convinces parents to continue signing their kids up to play.
One of those parents is Carla Hicks, a credit specialist with two children in the Indus Minor Hockey Association. Her daughter Liz plays ringette and her son Jay plays hockey. She says that both kids love the sport.
“Since they both started, they’ve jumped in with both feet to hockey and ringette,” says Hicks. “My son is now obsessed with hockey. He plays road hockey, indoor hockey, mini sticks in the house, [watches] YouTube videos, and [plays] hockey video games. Anything to do with hockey, he is now in love with. He wants to show up early and it’s hard to peel him off the ice.”
Another parent with a child obsessed with the game is CJ Murphy, a furnace technician with a 15-year-old son playing in the Midget Okotoks Oilers league.
“Blake loves the game, it’s simple as that,” Murphy says. “Everything is hockey for him. He never complains [and] it’s hard to get him off the ice. As challenging as it is, I’m glad to keep him in it because of how much joy the sport brings him.”
Nor are Murphy and Hicks’s children alone. This year, according to Hockey Canada, more than 500,000 were registered in minor and junior hockey leagues. But high involvement means hockey has become extremely competitive and the sport now demands more from parents starting at young ages.
The first challenge parents face is the high cost of the game. Even at a more recreational level, Murphy says he’s felt the financial strain of being a hockey parent.
“Fees are over $1,200 just to play a normal season,” he says. “Then there is travel and gas because we’re in Okotoks. I spend between $2,000 and $2,500 just to keep him in the sport.”
He says he no longer thinks about hockey costs as extras.
“Hockey is part of my family’s finances,” he explains. “I have other kids in other sports and I don’t really have to worry about them too much, but the cost of hockey is part of my finances just like heating my home and paying other bills.”
But, at the top levels, those bills get bigger. Drader has two boys playing Novice and Atom division one hockey at a cost of over $2,000 in league fees alone. There’s also usually a cash-call for another $300 to $500.
As a coach at the Midget AA and AAA level, Drader has also seen parents spend around $5,000 and $10,000 respectively. Add the cost of equipment and parents can sink tens of thousands to keep their kids competing at the highest levels.
And that figure may not even include the costs of the off-ice sessions many kids at higher levels take to improve their game - something that Drader says wasn’t the case when he was a kid.
“I remember as a kid we used to practice on the outdoor rinks, which was free and you would just meet up and play hockey,” he recalls. “The climate has definitely changed here. Right now, there are all these extra skill sessions, power skating coaches, and shooting coaches.”
“For example, my Atom team that I assistant coach and help out at hired a power skating coach to come in and teach the team and all of that stuff costs money,” he says. “We have five to 10 dryland sessions scheduled for seven and eight-year-old kids.”
Hicks’ own children have also been approached about joining those kinds of extra off-ice programs to improve their play. They have been offered power skating classes, skill development classes and dryland training sessions, each costing a few hundred dollars. It’s a lot of extra training for a nine-year-old in ringette and a six-year-old just starting off in hockey.
Another financial obstacle for parents to overcome is the cost of tournaments. Drader says with two kids, there are weekends when both compete in different places.
“One of the biggest problems for cost is tournaments,” he says. “Coming up right away, I’ll have one kid in Golden for a tournament and another kid in Lethbridge. So you’re spending a few hundred [dollars] on a hotel for both places, add gas and food and they haven’t even stepped on the ice yet. Then the cost of the tournament as well. So it certainly adds up.”
Hicks runs into similar challenges. She says managing her children’s education and sport schedules can be tricky.
“We have to pull kids out of school early on Fridays and leave work early to get to a tournament which sometimes wrap-up late Sunday nights and you drive through the night,” Hicks explains.
That adding up has meant that, according to a Hockey Survey Report by Scotiabank, 86 per cent of parents are concerned about the impact hockey has on their finances. Nevertheless, 35 per cent of parents are willing to take on more personal debt to keep their kids playing.
As such, it’s clear at least some parents are willing to take on the financial stresses of hockey. But that’s not the only sacrifice they’re willing to make to keep their kids on the ice. According to the same survey, 70 percent take fewer vacations as a result of hockey. And Hicks has personally seen how it’s affected her own life schedule.
For Hicks, a typical month includes 20 to 25 ice times for both kids. With her and her husband working full-time jobs and their children in school, the Hicks family schedule is both unpredictable and jam-packed.
“I don’t really have a story to describe where the sport has changed my life because hockey has become my life. Our weekends revolve around it. There’s no more sleeping in. Vacations or weekends away don’t really happen,” she says.
And that’s causing frustration for some.
“People don’t want to spend the time,” Drader says. “They don’t want to drive around. People don’t want to have that burden of having that regimented of a schedule. Cost is definitely one thing but I think schedule is the number one driver to that.”
Murphy’s concerned this has made the once beautiful game of hockey not a game for everyone.
“This sport isn’t for everybody,” he says. “You want everyone to play it, but not everyone can afford it.”
At a community level, according to Hockey Canada, the country’s hockey participation numbers have been sluggish. In 2013/14, Canada had 639,510 registered ice hockey players.
In 2018/19, the number was 643,958. The statistics get worse when you consider that Canada’s population has increased during that same period.
For Drader, one of the main concerns surrounding these statistics is that parents need to spend more time gauging what they want their children to get out of hockey.
“For me, my goals of having kids in sport is more around what are they going to learn about commitment, teamwork, dedication, work ethic, overcoming adversity, understanding self-esteem, how to deal with a bully, how to rally around teammates, how to put team first and everything else on the laundry list of reasons why we spend the money we do to play a game,” he says.
Along with making sure that the kids and parents are united with goals Drader says there are cost-effective solutions for families.
“There are rec leagues out there and they’re good for kids that’s aren’t necessarily as competitive,” he says. “They just want to play the game and have fun. There is the opportunity to play the game at a lower cost.”
Drader recommends parents find creative ways to lower equipment costs as well.
“You can buy skates for $1,000 or for $200,” he says. “There’s also ways to get second-hand gear. I phone around to my buddies for skates and sticks that their kids used and grew out of.”
Drader, who also notes carpooling lowers travel times and gas costs, says there are ways to have kids improve off-the-ice that don’t require spending a lot of money.
“Ultimately if the kid wants to get good at the game he can do it without sinking a bunch of money into it,” he says. “You can find YouTube videos or go to a field and they can do drills where they don’t even have to be on the ice”.
Nevertheless, a look ahead to a future in the sport of hockey still concerns Hicks.
“As a mother, I’m thankful for what hockey has brought my family but at the same time, I am also worried about the future. I don’t think I should have to worry that my son is going to love the game so much or get too good that I can no longer afford to keep him in it.”
- By Rod Neyra