The falling under-15 population in Canada means fewer potential minor hockey players. (Kevin Light/CBC Sports)In the next few years it will be wishful thinking for the folks who hire referees and book ice time in the world of minor hockey to plan for expansion. Success will be defined as keeping the status quo.
It's not that the kids don't want to play. It's just that there aren't as many of them.
The under-15 population is shrinking in the country, and the trend is only going to continue.
"What we're seeing is that simply, that age group from four to 15, the population is decreasing," said Glen McCurdie, senior director of membership services for Hockey Canada. "We're not developing as many kids as we used to."
In 1995, the county had nearly six million kids aged 14 years and younger, according to Statistics Canada. In 2005, that number had dropped by almost 300,000, to less than 5.7 million.
"Hockey's share of that group of kids is a reasonably consistent percentage of what's available, but the number that's available is decreasing. And that decrease is only going to continue," said McCurdie.
Statistics Canada projects that over the next six years, the number of Canadian children under the age of 15 will continue to decrease.
Taking the initiative
The population in Newfoundland and Labrador is expected to be the oldest in the country in a few years. But Hockey Newfoundland executive director Craig Tulk said the province hasn't seen a drop in hockey registration yet.
"We're fairly stable with our registration numbers," he said. "A lot of our associations are offering programs that are keeping players in the game, which is great."
Instead of letting the population numbers dictate where registration will go, Tulk says Hockey Newfoundland is taking the initiative to attract players to the game.
"We understand that there are fewer children available to play hockey," Tulk said. "So we do things with local communities to ensure players that are in the community have an aptitude to play the game of hockey."
But if the province starts to have trouble holding its numbers, Tulk knows exactly where it's going to hit hardest — outside the cities.
Rural areas in tough
"Our biggest challenge is going to be the rural areas," Tulk said. "And whether or not they are going to be able to keep their arenas open, if you don't have enough children in that area.
"In the urban areas, even if numbers decline, there will be enough players there to maintain programs," he said.
"We're going to have a tough time in certain rural areas continuing to be able to put together hockey programs," he said.
Tulk says that one possible option is to combine struggling rural associations to keep things afloat.
It's an opinion seconded by Bryce Kulik, president of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association (NOHA), which has the same problem among its smaller communities.
"We do what we can to help, because it's the really small communities that are being devastated," he said. "(But) a lot of them don't want to lose their identity, and that's the problem.
"But it's time to put your pride in your pocket and save your minor hockey association," he said.
'People are heading into the cities'
Kulik says NOHA numbers have fluctuated around 1,500 kids for the past 16 years, and he doesn't see a kid shortage being the big challenge for northern Ontario.
"Our winters are cold," he said, laughing.
Instead, a different trend could make things difficult for the NOHA.
"Our population is dropping up here. People don't like to admit to it, but it is," Kulik said.
"People are heading into the cities."
From 1981 to 2001, the national rural population hovered around six million people, according to Statistics Canada. In that time, Canada's urban population jumped from 18.5 million to 24 million.
"There's no question there's a little bit of a migration as a whole, from rural centres to more urban centres, and that puts a strain on urban facilities," said McCurdie.
"You can only shoehorn so many kids into those facilities," he said.
"Most cities in this country have waiting lists to play hockey. Most rural areas have all kinds of ice," he said.
More recruitment efforts needed
Canada's demographic shifts are going to make it harder for some associations to keep their registration numbers steady.
That is why McCurdie thinks that a bigger recruitment effort needs to happen, from Hockey Canada all the way through to the local associations.
"Without a commitment to recruitment efforts, I think our registrations are going to be going down across the board," said McCurdie.
"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," he said.
"And in certain areas of the country, that's not going to be much."
This is Part 2 of Our Game's series on the number of kids playing our national game, and why some are opting out. Part 3 looks at why many visible minorities are staying away from hockey.