'Adults can ruin anything': Kids' hockey is facing a crisis in Canada, says author
Sean Fitz-Gerald's Before the Lights Go Out looks at how rising costs make hockey inaccessible for children
Like many Canadians, Sean Fitz-Gerald spent most of his life thinking of youth hockey the way it's depicted in the iconic children's book The Hockey Sweater — kids playing freely on a frozen pond, with few adults in sight.
But those carefree scenes are becoming less frequent, he says, as minor league hockey becomes increasingly expensive, specialized and serious, making it inaccessible to many families in Canada.
"Adults can ruin anything," Fitz-Gerald, a senior writer for The Athletic, told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.
Fitz-Gerald just published a book, Before the Lights Go Out: A Season Inside a Game on the Brink, about what he sees as a crisis facing hockey in Canada.
Pricey specialized skills coaches, clinics, and equipment like $300 sticks are all putting the game out of reach for many families, said Fitz-Gerald.
On top of those expenses, Fitz-Gerald said parents must also deal with "soft costs," like having a car or being able to take time off work to ferry kids to a tournament out of town.
In high levels of youth hockey, some parents could be paying upwards of $15,000 per year, he said.
"All of these things are barriers that we've allowed to go up around the game and are now becoming a real challenge for entry," he said.
Fitz-Gerald, a hockey parent himself, said parents who have the means to do so may feel obligated to sign their kids up for extra skill-building activities like camps and clinics, because they don't want them to be left behind.
"You don't want them to be rejected, you don't want to hear them say, 'I didn't make the team,'" he said.
'It's a job'
For the book, Fitz-Gerald interviewed Roch Carrier, the Quebec author of The Hockey Sweater, who told him he was dismayed by how serious the game has become.
"The bags that he sees these kids pull out of these SUVs to go play hockey are bigger than the ones he took to go to boarding school. And the kids are yelling at the parents and the parents are yelling at the kids," he said.
"He says that it's not a game anymore; it's a job."
It's an apt description of high-level youth hockey, Fitz-Gerald said, where kids may be playing 15 to 20 hours a week.
"If you're playing competitively, it can sometimes feel like work," he said.
Impact on enrolment
In boys' hockey especially, these factors are having an impact on enrolment, Fitz-Gerald said.
His book focused on Peterborough, Ont., where support for the local junior team, the Peterborough Petes, has traditionally been a binding force in the city.
"Whether or not you have a relative who played for the Petes or a friend who played for the Petes, maybe you had somebody billet a Peterborough Pete ... everybody in that town somehow has a connection directly to the Peterborough Petes or to the game itself," he said.
But the Peterborough Minor Hockey Association told Fitz-Gerald that they've been losing 100 players per year for three years.
And recently, when an Ontario hockey outreach program went into a Peterborough school and asked how many kids there played hockey, not one out of more than 400 kids put their hand up, he said.
Growing the sport
A growing number of hockey fans across the country are looking for solutions to these problems.
One of them is Kyle Baldwin, the president of the New Waterford Minor Hockey Association in Cape Breton, N.S.
The gutting of the local coal mine industry has meant a drop in New Waterford's population, and a drop in the number of people who can afford to pay hefty hockey fees for their kids.
So their hockey association has started a program called Everybody's Opportunity to Play, where kids starting out can play for free for a year.
"We don't have too many other things left in our community to lose, and the rink being one of them would be a big blow to our town," Baldwin told The Current. "Our rink is the heart of our town, and our hockey players are the blood."
Fitz-Gerald said some hockey associations have also discussed ideas like getting parents to donate their kids' equipment back to their local league in exchange for a discount on the next years' enrolment fees, so that other kids can use that gear for free.
Other fans are finding ways to make sure their communities feel included in the sport, like the Shinny Project in Winnipeg, which helps immigrant and refugee kids take to the ice.
Harnarayan Singh, an announcer for Hockey Night in Canada's Punjabi broadcast, told The National in 2017 that one of the parts of his job that he's most proud of is "growing the sport" by making Punjabi-speaking audiences feel included in it.
At one game, he said "some parents came up and they were like, 'Oh, we watch you all the time.'"
"And they said, 'We didn't know anything about hockey and we wouldn't put our kids in the sport had it not been for the show and what you're doing.'"
Fitz-Gerald said that Hockey Canada, the national governing body for the sport, is having conversations about how to make hockey more accessible and more attractive to people across the country, but that figuring out solutions that will work across Canada is "a massive undertaking."
"This is a big country geographically coast to coast to coast, and issues are different in each community," he said.
"Everybody I've spoken with is recognizing their challenges. It's how do you tackle them now?"
Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Karin Marley.