Children's hockey programs are winding down for the season, but the lucrative business of unregulated spring teams is just kicking off — sparking debate about whether kids should be playing year-round, and if the pricey leagues are worth it.
Most days, you can find Jaden Waddell and his dad Max on their 800-square-foot artificial basement rink, playing scrimmages and shooting pucks.
Jaden, 10, isn't shy about his goals.
"I hope it leads to a career in the NHL," he said.
His dad is doing what he can to give him the best shot at that dream. Jaden is on two elite competitive spring hockey teams.
"That's his passion to play the game. It allows him to play the game at a different level," his dad said.
But, unlike the winter season that is regulated and run by Hockey Canada and provincial governing bodies, spring hockey teams can set their own rules and charge their own fees.
They're also responsible for providing insurance.
Sometimes called "outlaw" or "pay-to-play" hockey, spring hockey can be a money-making opportunity for team managers and owners. Many encourage dozens of players to try out, charging each one for ice time, even if they already have the core of their team chosen.
'There was no accountability,' mom says
It's something Michelle Magnus didn't realize when she allowed her son, Kai Williamson, to try out for a team two years ago.
"I saw the calibre of hockey; I thought this is a really good opportunity to improve his game," she said.
After Kai made the team, she had concerns about some of the coaching, communication and finances.
'There was no recourse, and I didn't know who to go to. There was a lot of very upset parents on the team.' - Michelle Magnus, hockey mom
"I was surprised there was no accountability, no one I could go to and say, ‘I'm unhappy in my experience.’ So yes, it was a shock," she said. "There was no recourse, and I didn't know who to go to. There was a lot of very upset parents on the team."
Paul Carson, vice-president of hockey development at Hockey Canada, said parents have to be diligent in their research.
"I don't know if free-for-all is a good word, but I think parents have to be diligent in their research," he said from Calgary.
"Parents have to be aware, and they also have to understand when they register in non-sanctioned programming, it's the responsibility of the group that runs or owns the program to provide the resources parents may assume are in place,” said Carson.
“Parents still have to ask the question — is this an insured program? What is the training of your coaches? What is the responsibility of your organization to deal with things like injuries, things like discipline?"
Should kids play hockey year-round?
Hockey Canada's position is kids should be playing other sports in the spring that develop their overall athletic skill, such as baseball, soccer or lacrosse, and to avoid overuse injuries and burnout.
Meanwhile, the organization is talking about how to manage spring hockey.
"I wouldn't say [it’s] a move to put them under the umbrella, I'd say more in the discussion stages of trying to understand whether or not there's a good fit," Carson said.
Billy Keane thinks regulation is a great idea. He coaches the Winnipeg Blues Junior Hockey Team and heads the Keane Hockey School.
"I think the fact there's no rules leads you to believe there are people doing things they shouldn't be doing," he said.
"What people are doing is making a lot of money on spring hockey. It's a million-dollar business from Victoria to Newfoundland. I'm not here to slag anyone who wants to make a dollar, but their priority is making money at the expense of some hockey development, in my mind."
Spring hockey a path to NHL?
Keane also doesn't buy into the argument that spring hockey is the fastest path to the NHL, but there's no denying the success stories.
"It's the Jonathon Toews, the Dustin Byfugliens, the Andrew Ladds at 10, so when you look at the alumni that have played in[the Brick tournament in Edmonton], it's incredible," said Garth Lancaster, manager of the Winnipeg Junior Jets.
He said his parents know what they're paying ahead of time and the kind of coaching, development and ice time their children will get.
Still, he knows there will always be a few teams that give the whole season a bad rap.
"I'd love to see regulation, but I'm not sure Hockey Canada is prepared to enter into that arena. And hence, that's why you see a whole lot of summer programs," he said.