Bob Nicholson didn’t need a poll or a one-hour TV special on concussions to tell him more and more parents are concerned about their kids’ safety on the ice.
The president of Hockey Canada has already seen minor hockey’s registration numbers decline two years in a row and is well aware the rise in head-shots and concussions in the NHL could help drive his numbers lower.
“It’s not just an NHL problem. It’s a hockey problem — it’s there in the game,” said Nicholson of the staggering rise in brain bruising Canadians are talking about.
“We have to attract kids to the game, but these type of hits don’t do that.”
In the fallout from the broken vertebrae suffered by Max Pacioretty, a recent Angus-Reid poll revealed one-third of Canadians would consider encouraging their children to avoid playing hockey while two-thirds believe the sport is more violent than five years ago.
And while cost, time commitment and various other factors have plenty to do with declining numbers, the NHL’s increased violence certainly won’t help moving forward, which is why Hockey Canada is now working hard on battling the notion the game isn’t as safe as in previous years.
“We want to attract kids to the game, and, obviously, if there’s a perception out there hockey is violent, that can’t help the game. We want to address that and make sure we put out the positives, and this is what we’re doing to make the game safe,” said Paul Carson, VP Development for Hockey Canada.
“We have all kinds of programs out there aimed at making the game as safe as possible. We need to enhance those rules through education and getting players to respect themselves and the other players. Parents also have to assist in creating that respectful environment. Safety is always top of the agenda.”
Obviously with the increased awareness of concussions and their dangers, reported head injuries are indeed up in all minor sports. Prime Minister Stephen Harper said as much. With almost one in seven NHLers suffering from concussions this season, it’s no wonder parents are wondering if it is prudent to expose their son or daughter to a potentially life-altering injury. Especially since they aren’t being paid to play the game.
“The NHL does so many great things for the game, but we also need to make sure we are differentiating the game they see on TV to the game they play at the rink,” said Dean McIntosh, Hockey Canada’s director of marketing services and events.
“Our goal is to have a message about what the game is about at our level of hockey. How do we make the game friendly for all Canadians even if mom and dad haven’t experienced it?”
As part of that education process, Hockey Canada is working with citizenship and immigration officials and have decided this year to have their annual mail-out to 235,000 kids printed in 12 different languages. The best chance for growing registration numbers is by connecting with new Canadians from around the world who represent the nation’s only real population growth. (In short, second- and third-generation Canadians are having fewer kids).
Just over 569,000 kids are playing this year, down from 576,000 last year. That’s less than 10% of Canadian kids.
“As we project forward with less kids playing sports and being active and the growth rate declining, it has the potential to decrease more than that the next five to 10 years,”
said McIntosh whose organization is concerned as many as 200,000 fewer kids will be playing the game 10 years from now.
“How do we make sure the kids that enter as five to 10-year-olds stay in the game longer? How do we retain them or bring them back to the game?”
Well, you can start by hoping the evening highlights they watch don’t continue to include as many ugly incidents.
“Look at Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts – all they show is big hits in their intro,” said Nicholson who confirmed concussions and head-shots will be at the top of the agenda for Hockey Canada’s annual meetings in May.
“It’s part of our culture we have to change. We have to attract kids to the game, but these type of hits don’t attract kids to the game.”
Eric Francis appears regularly as a panellist on The Hotstove on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada