How Canada’s game has become a playground for the economic elite
Like clockwork, Boxing Day this month for hockey fans will mean the start of IIHF World Junior Championship, prompting fans to get on social media to proclaim, it’s our game.
Lost in the patriotic fervour will be the reality of what it took to grow such elite athletes in Canada. Simply, it required a lot of money, and that path is becoming increasingly more daunting for Canadian hockey families.
“I was told, ‘Look to your left, now look to your right. These are your new friends, this is your new family, and the people who are in your life who aren’t in hockey like this will never get it,’” recalled a Toronto-area teacher and hockey parent of the first team meeting for his then 7-year-old child, six years ago.
The teacher was being introduced to the “lifestyle” requirements for big-league hockey parenting. It comes at a tremendous cost to his time and finances, not to mention occasional bouts with insanity.
“I remember the first year of competitive hockey: We had these parents come up to us and talk about these shakes they were giving their kids. I looked at it and said, ‘This is a full-out protein shake and your kid is 7.’”
“He’s gotta bulk up,” was the offering parent’s response.
Whether a child 36 months removed from watching Caillou needs muscle mass can be left to nutrition experts, but what’s clear on the economic side is that the real bulk required for hockey is in bank accounts.
The teacher told VICE Money he and his wife will have spent nearly $14,000 this season for their teenager to play competitive minor hockey. They asked to remain anonymous, a common thread among parents who fear retribution such as being ostracized from the “hockey family,” or less ice time for kids if coaches are upset with parents.
“I think hockey has a huge issue as it relates to the affordability of the game today,” said John McCauley, a father of two hockey-playing kids in Toronto. The managing director of GJM Media Inc., he has been in the sports business for 15 years and currently provides consulting services to brands in that space. Hockey, McCauley has observed “is pricing itself exclusively into the upper middle class.”
The obsession with creating an NHL or an Olympic player—the latter a more attractive goal for parents with young girls—and the riches that may follow, have spawned an industry far different from the dripping sentimentality of video montages featuring children playing for the love of the game seen during hockey broadcasts.
In the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL), one of the teams candidly declares on its website “fees can range from between $2,200 per year to $3,600 or more,” with openings starting from kids born in 2007. That fee is not including the cost of equipment, which for children as young as nine-years-old will continue to increase as they quickly grow out of their skates and protective gear. Add travel, hotel, team dinners, ice time for practices, fitness camps, matching off-ice outfits, and other inventive necessities to the growing costs associated with participation and the price just keeps rising.
A good pair of hockey skates will start around $300, acceptable sticks are $200 or more, a full complement of equipment to dress a minor hockey player in a competitive league, the teacher estimates, easily runs his family over $1,000 a season.
While competitive hockey may seem out of reach for many parents, there are options to play the game for fun that makes it more accessible.
“There are alternatives,” said Alison Doherty, professor of sport management at Western University in London, Ontario. “What we tend to think of is the rising costs associated with competitive hockey, but that’s not the only game in town.”
Doherty points to Red Circle Hockey Club in her city, which stresses “equal opportunity regardless of ability” on its website, and notes its founding and expansion is based on giving kids a chance to play rather than creating future stars. Early registration rates vary by age from $195 to $390.
Parents can also opt for cheaper sports at levels equivalent to minor hockey. The teacher was once incurring elite soccer costs for his child, which he said ran him only $1,000 annually, a fraction of his estimated hockey commitment this year. Similarly, McCauley’s two kids play summer and winter soccer for roughly $700 each before boots ($90) and shin guards ($20).
Competitive basketball costs parents of better athletes around $3,000 to $5,000 a year all told, depending on level and region. Including cost of uniforms, rep basketball can start at $935 in Toronto, and expenses associated with basketball—like with hockey—can increase greatly if teams must travel far to play stronger opponents.
One danger McCauley sees for hockey’s economic exclusivity is the sport’s ability to sustain its public edge in Canada. Shifting demographics with new Canadians arriving from countries where hockey isn’t a popular sport, along with the enthusiasm for the Toronto Raptors and the NBA in general, and the fact that even Canada’s Major League Soccer teams were enjoying record TV viewership this past season, all may present challenges to hockey’s reach long term, even if millions are still tuning in for staple programs like the World Juniors.
“When price becomes a barrier to youth in any sport, the professional ranks pay attention because that is their future audience,” McCauley warned. “All levels of professional and semi-professional hockey need to treat this problem as critical to their future growth.”
Even parents who have committed to the higher end culture of hockey understand when they’re being exploited, yet can’t bring themselves to pull the plug on their kids’ dreams.
“There’s the tournament costs, day-to-day costs of practices and games, there’s even a charge for tryouts,” the teacher revealed, noting that recruiters will sometimes invite kids to a half dozen evaluations – every single one for a price – before making cuts.
“I know of some families that have taken out a personal loan just to buy hockey equipment, some took night jobs, I teach summer school to pay for my son’s hockey.”
Many parents will be watching World Juniors this winter with their hockey-playing kids, picturing their own lacing up in that youth tournament in a few years. At the very least, maybe their kids will end up in the NHL, making their annual five-figure commitment per child worth the price tag. With steady participation rates (Canada has 639,000 registered players as per IIHF), hockey is not in existential danger. But the barrier to participation is at the highest levels of youth hockey, where our game requires a serious financial commitment that may be out of reach for a growing number of Canadian families, where dishing out thousands of dollars a year on a sport, is frankly, unaffordable.
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