Power: Hockey is a numbers game, especially in small towns

Ice time in larger centres across the province may be at a premium, but in smaller rural areas, hockey teams are clamouring for enough kids to compete, writes Don Power.

Minor hockey associations struggling to fill teams because of population decline

Ice time is at a premium in the larger urban centres across Newfoundland and Labrador, but in places like Baie Verte, ice time is wide open at the Tommy Ricketts Arena. (CBC)

Tommy Ricketts Arena holds its age well. The exterior has been well cared for, with what appears to be fresh aluminum siding and relatively new signage.

Even with the unpaved parking lot  a staple in many small, rural towns  you don't get the  feeling you're entering a decrepit structure.

And you're not.

Once inside, the yellow walls, a cross between mustard and gold, and high ceiling lend themselves to a bright existence. The seats, hard wooden bleachers reminiscent of rinks from this era, are all slotted on one side of the rink, with the players benches, penalty boxes and scorekeeper's area all situated on the other side. (Think Feildian Gardens in St. John's, although in much better condition!)

The 40-year-old hockey arena in this western Newfoundland town has seen its share of hockey during its lifetime. Sadly for the residents here, the halcyon days of hockey are past.

Struggling to fill spots

The town's minor hockey association has barely 100 kids this year, and generally has to travel about 60 kilometres just to play a game outside their own association. (During a conversation last week, we discovered that Northeast Minor Hockey has more kids in atom than Baie Verte has in its entire organization.)

The atom team, which hosted the provincial tournament, had travelled every weekend since January, in search of competition for their team. Every weekend! Coach Rob Robinson — himself with a strong hockey pedigree including time spent in the provincial senior league — says finding enough kids to ice a team in every division is a difficult task.

And when they do get enough to ice a squad, the ability level from top to bottom is such that it makes it almost impossible to coach.
Hockey teams in rural communities are struggling to get enough kids to sign up, turning to neighbouring associations to team up for the minimum team numbers. (The Canadian Press file photo)

Some of Robinson's players had outstanding ability, and dominated the games they played in. The other players had less ability, and at times were a little over-matched.

Atom is the only level where Baie Verte had the requisite number of kids to play as the Baie Verte Sabres. Strong enough to form a team and compete on their own. At the bantam level, Baie Verte and Green Bay South combined to play and host a tournament. In midget and pee wee, Baie Verte joined with their nearest neighbour, La Scie, to enter a team.

Hybrid teams all over the province

Baie Verte is not alone in that dilemma. Springdale and La Scie combined in bantam; Fogo-Change Islands and Bay d'Espoir did the same. In midget, it was Harbour Breton joining with Bay d'Espoir. Gros Morne teamed up with Deer Lake in an atom division.

These are the official merging of teams, and there are many more 'unofficial' mergers. Minor hockey associations all across the province are witnessing their numbers dwindle. 

At a midget tournament in Bell Island, Springdale had players from three or four different organizations and still didn't have a full roster. Churchill Falls came in with fewer than the limit. Even the championship-winning team from Gander — Gander! — only had 14 players, three below the maximum. 

Granted, it was the second midget team out of that central town, but to not be able to fill rosters is a huge concern.
The City of St. John's has agreed to give a $500,000 loan to a group that wants to buy the Rogers-Bussey Arena. (CBC)

Everywhere you look, hockey, and sports in general, in these rural towns is slowly dying.

My atom team played a tournament in Placentia one weekend, and after our Saturday afternoon game ended at 2 p.m., the ice remained empty. A Placentia coach says ice time is easy to get, and the arena is never booked to capacity.

No simple answer

Back at Tommy Ricketts, we learned that there is no minor hockey on Sunday in the building. None! On a Sunday.

When I relayed that story to some minor hockey colleagues in the greater St. John's area, they could only react with awe and state the obvious difference. Around the capital city area, ice time is at a premium, and will still be even when the new Paradise and Conception Bay South arenas are built. 

Associations like Northeast, Conception Bay Regional, Mount Pearl and St. John's are bursting at the seams, while other rural organizations are clamouring for kids.

There's no simple answer. Hockey Newfoundland and Labrador ran 48 provincial minor tournaments this spring. That's a lot of events, in a lot of towns, with a lot of kids enjoying hockey.

And if the goal of Hockey NL is to have kids enjoying themselves, and it is, then if towns can join forces to get the kids a game of hockey, then it's a good thing.

But one thing is certain. The population of these small towns isn't growing, and that means it's going to be more difficult each year to sustain these associations.

And the end result of that is old rinks like Tommy Ricketts Arena sit idle for longer periods of time.

Follow Don on Twitter @PowerPlay27.


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