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(Kevin Light/CBC Sports)

It’s our national game, and it’s been that way for the better part of a century. Kids and adults alike flock to arenas, outdoor rinks, ponds, and streets to play hockey.

You could say hockey’s become so ingrained in our culture that we haven’t even had to think about a time when it may not be Canada’s most played sport.

But now is the time to start paying more attention because there’s a good chance a lot of kids could fall out of the game if we don’t.

An Our Game analysis of minor hockey registration in Canada shows there are bumpy times ahead for our national pastime, and people involved in hockey across the country are going to have to work a lot harder if they want to keep the numbers where they are, let alone see them go up.

"Our share of the pie is reasonably consistent with the numbers that are there," said Glen McCurdie, senior director of membership services for Hockey Canada  said by phone from Calgary. "But the numbers are decreasing overall."

National hockey registration numbers by year
Years Male Female Total
1997-98 489,982 29,031  519,013
1998-99 470,666 37,748 508,414
1999-00 461,946 43,421 505,367 
2000-01 469,546 51,105 520,651
2001-02 477,872  54,563  532,435 
2002-03 476,975 61,177 538,152
2003-04 489,409  63,640  552,049 
2004-05 475,992 60,250 536,242
2005-06 482,483 69,557  552,040 
2006-07 471,572 73,791 545,363
2007-08 480,656  77,461  558,117 

Registration in boys' hockey dips

Hockey Canada’s registration reports from the past few years show the totals hovering around 550,000 registered players from the Timbits initiation programs all the way to the senior levels.

"Part of that is because of the increase in female hockey players," said McCurdie by telephone from Calgary. "The marginal decrease in male numbers is being offset."

Nationally, women’s hockey has added 17,000 members to their ranks from 2004-05 to the 2007-08 seasons, raising their numbers to about 77,500 players. Boys’ hockey registration has fluctuated between 470,000 to 480,000 in the same time frame.

But it won’t stay that way, especially in the boys’ game, if more effort isn’t put into recruiting boys.

"I don’t think we’ve done a good job of recruiting male hockey players in this country, and I don’t think we ever have," said McCurdie. "And I think that’s a scenario we’re getting into here now." The focus over the past decade or so has been on growing the girls’ game, a long untapped market. Hockey Canada hasn’t been focusing on the boys’ game simply because it hasn’t had to.

"We’re victims of our own success there," McCurdie said. "When we’ve opened our doors, people have flocked to them, and that’s all we had to do. We’ve never got into a situation where we’ve needed to start looking for [male] hockey players."

But they have to start because in some areas, kids have stopped breaking down those doors to sign up. Some just don’t want to play, and in other places, there just aren’t as many kids.

"What we’re seeing is that simply, that age group from four to 15 or 16, the population is decreasing," McCurdie said. "We’re not developing as many kids as we used to."

Hockey not part of new Canadians' culture

Other factors are coming into play as well. McCurdie and others in the hockey community say that many new Canadians are struggling to find their way into the sport.

"For a lot of new Canadians, hockey is not their national pastime," said Richard Ropchan, executive director of the Ontario Minor Hockey Association, based in Richmond Hill, Ont. "So introducing them to a new sport, unless they’re encouraged to do it, they don’t do it."

Hockey’s price tag doesn’t help matters.

"We’re told in Canada one-third of our population cannot put their kids in team sports," said John Gardner, president of the Greater Toronto Hockey League. "That’s a pretty sad commentary — one-third’s a pretty high percentage. There can be an awful lot of kids out there that need help."

It only gets worse when you think about the current economic turmoil.

"If economic situations are very severe, parents need to make cuts in certain places," said Hockey Canada’s McCurdie. "I would see that having an impact [on hockey], no question." People won’t see the effects the recession has had on registration until next year, when the 2008-09 numbers are out.

All these factors add up to lower registration numbers, especially for boys’ hockey, if more programs aren’t put into place to attract people to the national game.

"Without a commitment to recruitment efforts I think our registrations are going to be going down across the board," McCurdie said. "Unless we change our thinking, accommodate the changing demographics in this country, we’re going to be getting what we’ve always got, which is kids choosing to come to registration that day and that’s it.

"I think it’s our job to change the way we do things, and start to go out and espouse the virtues of our sport."

This is part 1 of Our Game's series on the number of kids playing our national game, and why some are opting out.