Quebec hockey bucking the trend

As minor hockey registration numbers level off across the country, and as the growth of the girls' game makes up for the decline in the boys' game in many regions, the number of kids playing minor hockey in Quebec is rising steadily. There are a lot of reasons that could explain it.

Initiation hockey is surging while other provinces struggle to maintain current numbers

When the Montreal Canadiens are winning, kids in Quebec want to play hockey.

The Habs have made four solid playoff runs in the last six seasons, and in that same time, the number of kids seven and under playing hockey in Quebec has skyrocketed. Coincidence? Maybe not.

It's one of many reasons Quebecers offer when asked why the grassroots game is growing across the province.

It could also be because Quebec hosts world-class minor hockey tourneys, while other factors could be a new program that gives first-year initiation players $25 off registration fees, or because Quebec introduces bodychecking later than any other province.

What's clear is that as minor hockey registration numbers level off across the country, and as the growth of the girls' game offsets the decline in the boys' game in many regions, the number of kids playing minor hockey in Quebec is rising.

"We don't have some magic formula here," Patrick Marineau, Hockey Quebec's coordinator of communications, said by telephone from Montreal. "But it's been a pretty steady incline since 2003-2004. It's gone up pretty much every year."

The bulk of the growth is happening at the initiation ages. The number of kids seven and younger getting into hockey in Quebec has shot up 38 per cent since three seasons ago, from 9,880 to 13,639, according to Hockey Canada. In the boys' division it's up nearly 38 per cent, and in the girls, just over 39 per cent.  

Quebec by the numbers
Division  2005-06 2006-07  2007-08  Growth 
Initiation 9,880 12,498  13,639   38.05%
Novice  12,360  13,022 14,071  13.84%
Atom 15,167  15,510  15,713   3.6%
Peewee 16,056  16,709  17,149   6.81%
Bantam  14,960  15,344 15,399   2.93%
Midget 13,611  15,278  15,884   16.7%

Across the board in all age groups, the total growth since 2003 is eight per cent, according to Hockey Canada.

"It's quite a jump we've seen over the last few years," Marineau says. "To be honest, it's more than we expected."

Ray Mason echoes that point. This season — for the first time in 14 years as president of Montreal's NDG Hockey, which serves players in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and Côtes-de-Neiges district — Mason had to turn players away. There wasn't enough ice time to accommodate them all.

"We've grown a lot, and the ice time allocated was based on last year's [registration] numbers," he explains by phone. "It's tough to manage when you get, you know, 100 more kids registering compared to last year. The last thing we want to do is turn kids away, but we didn't have any other choice."

Hockey 'a necessity' in the province

Hockey West Island is Quebec's fourth-largest minor hockey association, with a membership of more than 1,000 players near Montreal. Association president Andrew Brookman says despite overall cost increases involved in playing hockey, more kids are signing up every season.

"My feeling is that Canadians, in particular Quebecers, where we live, no longer treat hockey as a luxury, but a necessity," Brookman says. "It's become almost a necessity as opposed to a want."

The hockey dad — his sons Archer, 9, and Donald, 18, both play — says minor hockey tournaments, games and practices are part of the social fabric in the province for both kids and adults. The "Saturday night staple," he adds, is getting together with family and friends to watch the Canadiens, especially when they're winning.

Quebec's NHL team is an "outside factor" that contributes to the province's surge in minor hockey, according to a report released by Hockey Quebec.

"Hockey in general has grown in popularity in Quebec because of the Habs' popularity. If you look at the 2000-2001 season, they weren't doing so good. It wasn't the same party mode over here, really. But now, everybody watches the games," Marineau says. "We're not giving the credit to that, but basically it helped spur the growth."

This season marked the launch of a program to keep the growth going at the initiation levels. Called Dodge Caravan Kids, it gives first-year initiation players a $25 rebate after they pay for registration. Hockey Quebec credits the program for some of the growth this season compared to last, though it doesn't explain the surge in that age group in previous years.

Marineau says there's no concrete answer, no solid explanation, but points to minor hockey associations making fundraising and equipment drives a focus as another of many possible reasons for the growth.

"Basically, for people that weren't able to afford the sport, minor hockey associations are finding new ways to get them into it," he says.

"That's what it all comes down to — it's all about the people who are volunteering. If you don't have good people giving their time, you don't have much. That really does help to spread the sport."

Kids version of the Stanley cup

Next month, the province will play host to teams from 16 countries for the renowned Quebec Peewee International tournament, one Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros and a slew of other NHLers played in as kids. 

It's a huge tournament, but it's not even the most popular one in the province, Marineau says. That honour goes to the provincial championships, the Dodge Cup.

"Kids go absolutely crazy for that. It's like their version of the Stanley Cup," he says.

And every tournament hosted in the province plays by Quebec's unique bodychecking rules. While other provinces introduce checking at the peewee level (ages 11 and 12), in Quebec, there's no checking until Bantam (13 and 14). This, and the fact that referees are calling a clean game and keeping on-ice scuffles to a minimum, are also credited with growing registration in Hockey Quebec's report.

So, are these the keys to success? Give a rebate, call a clean game, focus on fundraising, hope your NHL club is winning, and organize a lot of big tournaments?

"We don’t have a secret here," Marineau says. "It's no one factor. It's everybody working in the same direction, and it seems to be working."

This is Part 4 of Our Game's series on the number of kids playing our national game, and why some are opting out. On Wednesday, Part 5 looks at the growing number of kids choosing soccer over hockey.