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The problem isn't so much with registration fees at the house league level. But some teams at the rep level charge the equivalent of $5,000 or more for a season. ((Kevin Light/CBC Sports))

Ask 17-year-old Dyllon Gibblett why he isn't playing midget AAA in North Battleford, Sask., and he snaps back an answer without hesitation: "Why do we want to shell out $10,000 for a season of hockey?"

"If he had wanted to play AAA, it's a lot of money, but I would have made it work," says his father, Dalton Gibblett.

But as a single father of three, Gibblett is "making it work" as it is. He still pays more than $3,000 for Dyllon to play AA in Estevan. His other sons, Ryley, 12, and Joshua, 10, also play competitive travel hockey — or "rep" hockey as it's known in some parts of the country — with the Estevan Minor Hockey Association. Registration fees this year cost nearly $2,000 each. Their equipment is worth at least $1,000 a set.

Then there are travel costs — and in relatively rural regions those costs can really mount up. Some weekends, Dyllon, Joshua and Ryley all bus to different cities to play games. It means three different hotel rooms, plus meals and the other costs that come with a weekend away. And it happens throughout the winter.

"Since they're travel teams, we travel everywhere," Gibblett says.

"The Visas are [tapped] out. It's not easy, and you spend all year paying it off. I'm lucky that I'm in a position where I have a pretty good job and I'm able to make it work. A lot of people aren't able to do that."

Cost could be the most pressing problem facing hockey at the grassroots level countrywide. Ask officials involved with minor hockey across the country to explain why registration is down in many provinces, and cost comes up as a factor. Some say it's the key factor keeping kids out of the game. 

'The one-income family kid is not playing hockey, generally speaking. They can't afford it. That's the bottom line.—Jack Casey

"The one-income family kid is not playing hockey, generally speaking," says the president of St. John's Minor Hockey Association, Jack Casey. "They can't afford it. That's the bottom line.

"Most of the parents of kids who play hockey, and particularly the kid who plays all-star hockey, the parents are all professional people, they're doing very well. They have to be doing well."

Hockey Canada's senior director of insurance and member services, Glen McCurdie, says cost "plays a significant role" in the stagnant or declining registration numbers many minor hockey leagues are facing.

"There's no question that hockey is an expensive sport," McCurdie says. "If economic situations are very severe, parents need to make cuts in certain places. I would see that having an impact [on hockey], no question."

Low-cost soccer outdrawing hockey

Often it's not a matter of kids dropping out of the game because their families can't afford it — but whether they start playing hockey to begin with, says the president of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, John Gardner.

"It's not a case of bringing kids back in. It's a case of can some of the parents afford it," Gardner says. "Hockey Canada wants to encourage more youth to get involved in the game, but the thing is here, how can you encourage people with some of the costs that some parents might have trouble meeting?"

Poorer kids are much less likely to play organized sports in general than children from richer families, according to a Statistics Canada that looked at sports participation among children ages five to 14. About 68 per cent of children from high-income families play sports as opposed to 44 per cent from low-income ones, according to the study, which looked at 1992 to 2005.

Outdoor soccer is one of many cheaper option among organized sports — and it now draws more players than hockey. A Canadian Soccer Association report in 2007 shows 867,869 players were registered across the country, nearly 310,000 more participants than were in minor hockey.

The problem isn't so much with registration fees at the house league level. For example, a season of peewee hockey costs $635 with Lancombe Minor in Alberta, $360 with the Whistler Minor Hockey Association in Vancouver and $540 with Saskatchewan's Lloydminister Minor Hockey league.

But when players get into rep hockey, they discover some teams charge the equivalent of university tuition fees and more for a season.

In St. John's and area, registration for major midget AAA costs $6,000 a season.

In the Greater Toronto Hockey League, Gardner says, the average registration fee for AA and AAA teams is from $2,500 to $3,000, with $5,000 being "the high-end."

Soaring ice time fees blamed

The average and high end used to be significantly lower.

"The last two years, the increase has been ridiculous," Gardner says. "Is cost keeping kids out of the game? Most certainly it is."

Both Gardner and Casey point to escalating ice time fees as the culprit for soaring registration costs.

In Toronto, an hour of city-owned ice costs $170, up eight per cent from last season. Private ice in St. John's costs $200 an hour, while Gardner says it's about $270 in Toronto. The influx of more private rinks to take care of the arena shortage, he notes, "could price the game out of business."

The good news, the long-time GTHL president says, is that there is a solution to this problem, one he's seen first-hand. While on tour with an elite team in Europe over the Christmas holidays, Gardner met a team from Stuttgart, Germany, that charges each player 150 euros — about $250 Cdn — for the season. Why so cheap? Porsche is footing the bill.

"They sponsor this organization, in excess of 750,000 euros a year, which is over $1 million a year. You don't see this kind of stuff happening over here," Gardner says. "You need corporate Canada to get a little more involved at the grassroots level. You can't do it only at the elite [levels].… Hockey Canada has to get more active in working on federal and provincial bodies to see if they can do something to provide some relief."

For their part, minor hockey associations across the country are doing what they can to lower fees through fundraisers and other initiatives to help kids in need.

In St. John's, the city's minor hockey leagues are partnered with the government-run Recreation Experiences and Leisure (R.E.A.L.) program, which helps families cover costs for a whole range of sports.

Hockey R.E.A.L.'s most expensive sport

Of all grassroots sports the program offers, none are as costly as hockey, says the city's special projects coordinator, Karen Sherriffs. It's also one of the least popular sports kids apply to, she says. 

"I think it's because there's the stigma that's attached to hockey. Most people go, 'Oh, hockey's way too expensive, I can't even think about getting involved in that: I won't even apply.' I think that's why it's not very popular," Sherriffs says. 

"It is very expensive, but once the kids realize it's possible, that we cover registration, we give them equipment, and even in some cases we cover the travel expenses, they jump at the opportunity to play."

West Vancouver Minor Hockey Association partners with a similar organization called Athletics for Kids, which helps families in need get into sports. League president Nancy Lloyd says West Van Minor helps out where it can, holding back $2,000 of lottery fundraising money each year to defray costs for players in need. They also subsidize registration for kids ages five to eight, and they accept credit card payments so families don't have to pay registration fees all at once.

It's the credit card payment that helps the Gibblett family cover three registration fees at the start of every season with the Estevan Minor Hockey Association. Dyllon, Joshua and Ryley also make sure they secure jersey sponsors, and sell ads in the league's program to help bring costs down.

'I know hockey's costly, but it's worth it. The boys love it.'—Dalton Gibblett

"It's possible to do this, to manage the costs," says Gibblett, a former player and coach who now sits on the board of Estevan Minor. "It has never crossed my mind that my sons wouldn't play hockey because it's too expensive. When I think back, it was hockey when I was growing up that gave me the best experience."

The boys play football and baseball in the summer, but the cumulative cost of those sports "isn't even close to what we pay for hockey," says Gibblett.

"I don't know how, but you just make it work. I don't think about it, I just do it. I know hockey's costly, but it's worth it. The boys love it."

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