Imagine a time in this city when most kids don’t start off their Saturday mornings by donning skates and taking to the ice.
A time when hockey pales beside soccer and cricket and basketball. A time when Canada’s national game is dying a slow and painful death.
Now, imagine that time is now.
Not in Toronto, you say. Not here, in the home of the Maple Leafs, the centre of the hockey universe that has raised the likes of Syl Apps, Ken Dryden and Kevin Weekes.
But what used to be a Canadian rite of passage for most Toronto boys—and, increasingly, girls as well—is in grave danger because this city’s demographics have changed and the old guard in the amateur hockey world have been too slow and set in their ways to reach out to new immigrants.
“Right now, it’s seen as a white sport,” says Ken Jeffers, manager of access and diversity for City of Toronto parks and recreation.
“When we look at kids born here from parents who come from warm countries, hockey is not part of their experience. It’s not part of their world, the players are not seen as their heroes.
“But they need to be introduced because it is the Canadian sport and it’s a great catalyst to bringing people together.”
He was instrumental in launching “Hockey in the Neighbourhood” about eight years ago, a program that each year helps several hundred kids from diverse communities discover hockey for free.
But it’s not enough.
According to John Gardner of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, only 40,000 kids are registered at some level of hockey out of the 950,000 children under the age of 14 in the GTA.
The situation is most dire in Scarborough where plummeting enrolment has seen the Wexford Hockey Association fold completely as well as the house leagues of the Scarborough Young Leafs, Agincourt Lions and Malvern Penguins.
“House league enrolment is dropping 10% a year,” says a worried John Kelloway, president of the troubled Scarborough Hockey Association. “Back in the mid-80s, we had 10,000 kids. Now we have 3,000.”
The situation is dire, he says, because it took so long for the old establishment to recognize that outreach was critical to new Canadians, especially with so many traditionally hockey-playing families moving out of the GTA. “The Scarborough Hockey Association has done a lousy job of appealing to those communities and getting them involved,” Kelloway admits. “The old farts like myself have been so set in our ways. But if we don’t change, the competitive side of the Scarborough league will die.”
Tonight, he says, they are meeting to discuss the drastic action they should have taken long ago. They plan to completely restructure so that there is just one house league, greatly reduce registration fees by as much as 30% from the current $420 and seek professionals to help them reach out to ethnic families.
“We have a selling job ahead of us,” Kelloway says.
And Scarborough is not alone. Some house leagues in North York have also collapsed and others are in trouble.
Gardner of the GTHL acknowledges the problem, but the league’s sole solution at this point is a plan to print and distribute brochures in four different languages.
The problem is that even if these kids do want to play, registration and equipment can easily top $700—out of reach for many new immigrants struggling to establish themselves, not to mention most working class Torontonians. And beyond house league, the costs soar well over $1,500.
“I’d love to let everyone come for free,” says the GTHL president, who complains Toronto hiked ice rates by 10% this year. “Unfortunately, the city does nothing to help us in that regard.”
The danger, they all agree, is that hockey is becoming only a sport that rich, white kids can afford to play.
That concerns New Jersey Devils’ goalie Kevin Weekes, who grew up near Christie Pits with parents originally from Barbados who both worked long overtime hours to afford his hockey dream.
“Costs have risen so dramatically that there’s a bunch of us who have said there’s no way any of us would be playing in the league now,” he says. “We came from working class backgrounds and it was a stretch for our parents then. Now, it’s just too cost-prohibitive and for new Canadians, it’s even more of a challenge.”
He tries to do his part—for years he ran and funded Skillz, the hockey program he attended as a teen which coaches players from diverse backgrounds. And, just this past summer, he was at the Wellesley Community Centre with Philadelphia Flyer and Regent Park-native Glenn Metropolit to donate 110 sets of kids’ hockey equipment from the NHL Players’ Association.
He doesn’t think the GTHL or Hockey Canada is doing enough to keep costs down and reach out to visible minorities. “I am definitely worried a lot of kids will say, ‘I’ll play basketball. Hockey is just a rich man’s game.’ That’s the perception,” Weekes says, “and to some degree, that’s the reality.”
With hockey days in some parts of Toronto soon to be just a memory.