Where are the minorities?

Cost, cultural differences and, for some, an uninviting atmosphere are keeping immigrants and visible minorities from playing Canada's game.

New Canadians and visible minorities are staying away from Canada's game

Predominantly white players are often behind the bench in Canadian arenas. ((Kevin Light/CBC Sports))

Abdalhafiz Nur arrived in Canada nearly 20 years ago from Eritrea, a country bordering Ethiopia and Sudan. He grew up playing soccer, as his father did, and is raising four kids with his wife in Toronto.

His 10-year-old son plays rep soccer year-round. His daughters play sports in school. Nur doesn't know which sport his two-year-old son will try, but he is sure of one thing — none will play hockey.

"Most of the people who come from Africa, they like soccer. When they come to Canada, hockey is expensive. Then there's all the material. Everyone can't afford to buy it," he said. "Hockey, it's very expensive, and aggressive. When I see it, it seems more violent than soccer. They fight."

Nur, 44, is a trained lab technician who works as a concierge at a condo. His wife is unemployed. They're just two of many immigrants who aren't registering their kids in Canada's national pastime.

Cost, cultural differences and, for some, a seemingly uninviting atmosphere are keeping immigrants and non-whites from playing Canada's game. Some work is being done across the country to change the trend, but it's a daunting task, and efforts have only just begun.

While Hockey Canada doesn't keep race-based stats, many involved with the sport say few players are of non-white descent, and overall registration numbers are dwindling.

Hockey Canada believes there's a link between the two trends and says new Canadians must be reached for the game to endure.

"We've always just opened our registration doors and people flock in ... But we can't do that anymore," said Glen McCurdie, Hockey Canada's senior director of member services.

"We don't feel we do a good job of marketing to new Canadians whose No. 1 choice may not be ice-related sports, but soccer, cricket, or something else," he said.

Many immigrants don't put their kids in hockey because they think it's a violent sport. ((Kevin Light/CBC Sports))

It's important to reach visible minorities and new Canadians, McCurdie said, since they comprise a large and growing part of Canadian society. It's something Hockey Canada is only starting to work on.

Canada's visible minority population is growing much faster than its total population, according to Statistics Canada. Between 1996 and 2001, it increased by 25 per cent, but in the same time period, the general population grew by only four per cent.

By 2017, roughly 20 per cent of Canada's population could be visible minorities —6.3 million to 8.5 million people — with close to half projected to be South Asian or Chinese.

The numbers are especially important considering recent census figures indicate Canada's pool of youth under-15 is shrinking. With a growing number of visible minorities comprising that pool, it will be essential for minor hockey associations to connect with them to keep afloat.

Money is an issue

As Nur's situation demonstrates, doing so won't be easy. 

The cost for a child to play house league hockey can easily surpass $300. Equipment can cost at least that amount, and that's not including expenses like travel or tournament fees. Hockey at more competitive levels can cost a several thousands of dollars each year.

Lorraine LeClair, executive director of the Multicultural Association of the Greater Moncton Area in New Brunswick, said financial obstacles can be even more paramount for new Canadians.

"There could be a situation where a doctor arrives and made 'X' amount of dollars, but comes here and has accreditation that may not be recognized …So they're making $20,000 to $40,000 less because they're in survivor mode as opposed to career mode," she said.

"You can see where they wouldn't have the extra funds for extra-curriculars. You're worrying more about having a roof over your head and three square meals on your plate," she added, also noting that parents are "less likely to spend $1,500 on equipment for a sport they don't know."

For Marcelina Benites and Richard Benites, who moved from Peru to Victoria in 2004, putting their six-year-old son, Gonzalo, in hockey is impossible to consider.

"We can't do it. We are still settling. We started from zero and we had to spend a lot of money ... The price is too high. We bought a house, we had to pay a high mortgage, it's not easy for us," Marcelina said.

They came to Canada because Richard, an IT professional, was offered a permanent job. But set-up costs put them back and they had to adjust from having two incomes to one. (Marcelina worked in Peru but now stays at home because they can't afford daycare for their three-year-old daughter.)

The couple still manages to register Gonzalo for indoor soccer in the winter and swimming in the summer. Such sports are much easier to afford, Marcelina said, noting she prefers them to hockey because they're not as rough.

"I do think the game is violent," she said. "I watch it on TV and I'm kind of disappointed … It's the main sport in Canada and I ask myself why is this [behaviour] allowed?"

'She thought it was a dangerous sport'

Perceiving hockey as violent seems to be a common thread among those new to Canada.

Brian Tran, 19, who was born in Canada and raised by immigrant parents from Vietnam, said his mom didn't perceive hockey as a positive sport.

"She thought it was a dangerous sport and didn't want me to play ... I ended up in figure skating because it was less aggressive," he said, adding that his parents also put him in soccer and tennis.

But there are other reasons, as well, for new Canadians and visible minorities to turn from the sport.

Anthony Stewart, associate professor of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and author of the soon-to-be published book,You Must be a Basketball Player, says racism is also an issue in the minor hockey arena.

Stewart was raised in Ottawa by Jamaican parents and didn't want to play hockey because he didn't feel comfortable as a minority in the sport.

"I never played hockey, but just about every boy I knew growing up did. I remember hearing a few harrowing stories about black kids who played. You heard the things they were called and how they were treated," he said.

A lack of diversity in minor hockey is also reflected in the stands. ((Kevin Light/CBC Sports))

"Hockey looked very hostile for kids who are different," Stewart said, noting the tensions that also exist between English and French players.

"When you hear white guys bad mouthing other white guys, when that started happening, none of that did anything to make me think hockey culture was any more welcoming to me," he said.

He can't say if racial slurs and insults are as prevalent as they once were, but notes, "You hear the stories the Williams sisters [Venus and Serena] tell, and Tiger Woods, the list goes on. It would be naive to think hockey would somehow be exempt from those sorts of practices. You see it all the time," he said.

"Has it changed? ... Look at the Canadian junior team and [P.K.] Subban. You'd have to ask him … What I can say with certainty is it's not easy for a variety of reasons to be the only anything in a place where people who look like you aren't normally present," he said.

P.K. Subban is a black defenceman from Toronto who recently made national headlines as one of the Canadian junior team's top players. He's been called a role model to young visible minorities, and CBC News recently asked him about it.

"If I am [a role model] to black kids, that's great. I hope I am. But truly to all kids, I want to inspire all kids," Subban said.

Just how many more Subbans there will be will depend greatly on minor hockey's ability to overcome the reasons why many visible minorities stay away from the sport.

Pilot project underway

Last year, Hockey Canada launched a pilot project, one of which was set-up in Victoria, aimed at encouraging new Canadians to lace up.

For one day, children of immigrant families were provided with free equipment and given skating lessons. At the end of the day, those who wanted to sign-up for a season could do so for $50. They could also keep the equipment they had worn that day.

Despite her reservations about violence hockey, Marcelina wanted her son to have the chance to try it. Gonzalo played the season and liked it so much he wanted to register again.

But to play a second season, the family would have had to pay regular fees, which they couldn't afford.

"It's such a high price for us," Marcelina said.

Such a scenario draws attention to what some are afraid of — temporary solutions.

"It's not something can be done overnight," said John Gardner, president of the Greater Toronto Hockey League.

In effort to connect with new Canadians, Gardner plans to distribute brochures about hockey in different languages in the school system. But he knows that education isn't enough.

"Hockey today, nationally, has to develop new ways to innovate and encourage more kids to get involved in the game," he said.

Scarborough Hockey Association president John Kelloway knows what can happen if such efforts aren't made.

Over the past 10 years, the SHA has shrunk from 10,000 players to 3,000.

The organization is down to four house leagues from seven, and the hockey association in Wexford, where Nur's son plays soccer, recently folded completely.

Estimating that that less than five per cent of the SHA's players are first-generation Canadian, Kelloway said, "Hockey is just becoming too expensive."

This is Part 3 of Our Game's series on the number of kids playing our national game, and why some are opting out.