Minor hockey enrolment numbers are down both in Hamilton and at the provincial level, the city’s minor hockey council says, a trend that’s been brewing for years on local ice.

Local leagues are doing what they can to drum up enrolment, and there are some promising signs of recovery — but for a variety of reasons, there just aren't as many kids rushing out to play “Canada’s game” this season.

“We are down a bit,” said Gerry Potter, the chair of the Hamilton Minor Hockey Council. Potter estimates that enrolment levels are down about 10 per cent this year across the city – and that’s been the trend over the last few years, not the exception. “The last few years we have been on a downswing,” he said.

'It’s ridiculously expensive.' - Kalvin Reid, hockey parent

The city actually has more ice time than it knows what to do with, he says – a rarity for most rinks, where ice time is at an absolute premium (hence those 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. practice times). “The amount of ice we’re turning back is more than we’ve ever turned back,” Potter said. The city is now selling that ice time at greater than cost to try and recoup costs.

For a city so close to what’s arguably the centre of the hockey universe (unless you’re a Canadiens or Canucks fan), those numbers might seem surprising — but it’s the same at the provincial level.

According to Hockey Canada's latest numbers, there were 321,002 people playing in the Ontario Hockey Federation during the 2013 – 2014 season, which is just about 5,000 fewer players than the season before. It is important to note that those numbers do fluctuate year to year: they dipped from 2009 to 2011 before rising again in 2011 to 2013. Now, they're dropping again.

Why the drop off?

So why aren’t more kids playing hockey at the local level? The most obvious reason is cost, says Kalvin Reid, whose two daughters play hockey in the Stoney Creek Girls Hockey Association. He says he’s not surprised that the numbers are dropping. “But I am disappointed,” Reid told CBC Hamilton.

Reid’s daughters are 17 and 13 – one is playing bantam A, and the other is playing midget intermediate house league. Between registration, hotel/travel costs and equipment, Reid’s family is spending around $5,000 a year on hockey, he says.

“It’s ridiculously expensive,” he said, noting that it’s actually cheaper for him than some other parents,  as girl’s hockey is generally a little less expensive than boys, and only one of his daughters is playing at the A level. It could easily be thousands of dollars more a year.

It’s easy to see why many people can’t afford what’s looked at as our national game, which is a shame, Reid says. “It’s a great game. There are so many life lessons that come out of hockey.”

Hockey parent Pete Wiesner is certain it’s the cost that’s keeping kids away from the game, too. Costs for his 10-year-old son have gone as high as $1,500 to $2,000, depending on the level at which he plays.

“But the cost is fair,” Wiesner said. “It’s not like soccer where you can just pay $50 and walk onto the field and play.”

“That said, it’s unfortunate all kids can’t play it. It’s a great sport.”

Injuries a factor

Potter says that in Hamilton, the association’s low-income fund helps mitigate some of those costs. Anyone who can’t afford registration costs is admitted to their respective association, and the executive council is sent the bill. The fund is paid for with help from the Dave Andreychuk Foundation and charity golf tournaments.

The injuries that have become associated with the sport could also be making some kids or parents think twice about playing, too. "I'm sure that injuries and things like concussions are a factor, but we have taken steps to mitigate that," Potter said. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reported 8,000 injuries stemming from hockey that resulted in emergency room visits in Ontario in the 2002-2003 season.

For players under the age of 18, 62 per cent of those injuries were from body checking.

According to a joint study by the University of Calgary, McGill University and the University of Laval, kids between 11 and 12 who play in leagues that allow hitting are 2.5 times more likely to get hurt and 3.5 times more likely to end up concussed than those that don’t.

Numbers up nationally

Potter says demographics in Hamilton also have an impact on registration. He believes there aren't as many young children living with families in the lower city, he says, and that is impacting registration.

According to the city's most recent recreation facility studies, the number of children and youth (ages 0 to 19) will drop in the city over the next 15 years before we experience any growth in that age bracket. Over this same period, the 60+ population will increase by 64,000 and continue to grow by another 43,000 in the following 10 years.

That aging population will, over time, reduce the need for ice pads within the city, although future population growth will stabilize this impact, the reports say.

But for all the negativity, there are some bright spots, Potter says. Registration for the association’s “initiation program” that introduces four, five and six-year-old’s to the game is up 22 per cent from last season. "I believe it's a cyclical thing," he said. "I think we'll be back up."

At the national level, that's what's happening. After a few years of declining enrolment, registration is up almost 100,000 players from the 2004 – 2005 season to the 2013 – 2014 season, according to Hockey Canada.

And even with some of the detriments that have become associated with the game in recent years, it is still totally worth playing, Reid says.

“It’s social, it’s structured, and my kids are meeting good people. It’s great.”