Hits to growth come from all directions

PAUL FRIESEN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:38 AM ET

There's no fighting in kids' hockey, you say?

Tell that to organizers, who are going at it tooth and nail to attract young Canadians to "Canada's game."

Because while this province's population has been growing at a rate not seen in two decades, the number of kids playing hockey is stagnant.

Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods prefers the term "consisant," but even he acknowledges the number of boys lacing up the skates is in a slight decline.

A bump in girls hockey has offset the overall numbers, but as they say, "If you're not going forward, you're going backward."

"We have our challenges," Woods told the Sun. "The black eyes we have, at times, have a tendency to get magnified. They're mild compared to the benefits."

The way Woods sees it, the risk of getting a black eye -- hockey's sometimes violent reputation -- has left the sport with some image problems.

"If you don't respect the game -- if every time you go to do a layup and a guy punches you in the head, you can't really have a contest, can you?" he said. "It's similar with hockey. It takes away from the attractiveness of the game."

But Woods says there are other issue at play: Families are smaller, and school-age numbers have dropped.

That may be, but as of July 1, 2008, Manitoba's percentage of kids under 14 is the highest in the country, at 19% of the population, according to Stats Canada.

"There's competition for recreational opportunities," Woods continued. "Cost is certainly a factor. Plus, the type of population. If you've got a lot of immigrants moving into Manitoba, hockey might not be their game of choice.

"Our numbers in first-generation Canadians are fairly low."

Usually the kids' parents will make the choice for them, at least initially. Those parents, typically, have no experience with the game.

Go to any rink, and you'll find hockey isn't nearly as multicultural as, say, your local soccer or basketball team.

If new Canadians don't start playing early, they certainly won't make it to the elite levels.

"You don't see a lot of them," Tim Vandale, who's helped coach his 13-year-old to the AAA level, said. "I don't know if that's a product of culture or financial issues. It (money) definitely does restrict a lot of people."

Woods says an estimated 16% of school kids in this province play hockey, about middle of the pack in Canada. Hockey Manitoba would love to actively recruit more new Canadians, but that would tax a volunteer base that's already maxed out.

"That's a goal, and part of our strategic plan," he said. "Any company will tell you it's easier to keep a customer than to recruit a new customer."

Most coaches and organizers we talked to say hockey still rules.

As Woods puts it: "It certainly touches the lives of the masses more than any other sport in Manitoba."

True.

But you have to wonder if Canada's game is changing, and growing, with its people, or whether it's becoming a game for wealthy white kids, only.


Videos

Photos