Posted on December 31, 2007

Canada’s Changing Identity

Mary Ormsby, Toronto Star, Dec. 8, 2007

Nearly half the population of the GTA is foreign born, which is raising differing views on how effectively Canada’s iconic sport has tried to encourage newcomers to play hockey.

Toronto’s east end is home to many new arrivals from China and the Philippines and where in 2005 the 51-year-old Wexford house league folded, largely from a lack of interest. Another league, the Scarborough Hockey Association, is also on shaky ground with dwindling enrolment.

This poses a question: If hockey is critical to the Canadian identity, then why aren’t young boys and girls being aggressively recruited to fill empty teams?

Ken Jeffers, manager of access and diversity for the city of Toronto’s forestry, parks and rec department, says it’s because hockey has a history of exclusion and hasn’t acknowledged the demographic shift from white middle class to multicultural over the past decades.

“Hockey is a symbol of being Canadian,” said Jeffers, who works closely with many youth outreach programs including Hockey In The Neighbourhood.

“But it’s the very sport that through its own structure and through racism as well, where you don’t bring kids of colour into the sport and they are just left on the outside (and) you have alienation.”

NHL netminder Kevin Weekes, whose immigrant parents are from Barbados, said he was “fortunate” during his minor amateur career with the Toronto Red Wings because the club “wanted the team to have good people and good players” regardless of background.

“We had players from every background from Italian to Portuguese, Greek, East Indian, Caribbean and West Indian,” said the 32-year-old Toronto native, now backing up Martin Brodeur in New Jersey. However, Weekes admitted most of the teams he faced while growing up were filled with white players. “We had a pretty diverse organization, but that wasn’t always reflective in all the other organizations around minor hockey.”

The 2006 census results released this week show almost half the population of the GTA born in other countries, most of which aren’t rooted in ice hockey, such as India, China, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Pakistan and Jamaica. Hockey Canada is aware of the changing face of cities from coast to coast and is pumping funds and programming into outreach recruiting campaigns such as the Dreams Come True initiative and working with local hockey organizations, said Glen McCurdie of Hockey Canada.

“It’s incumbent upon us to put forward a (welcoming) product that really encourages an environment of success and I think, quite frankly, we haven’t done what we could in that area,” said McCurdie.

“If you look at the recruitment of hockey players; I think hockey is guilty of just opening our doors—for forever, basically—and expecting that people are going to stampede in. In a lot of areas (in Canada), that’s still true but in other areas, that’s simply no longer the case.”