Amateur hockey is a slick business

Hockey, once nothing more than a game, had become big business. But those who earn a living off the sport are worried about the dropping number of young people hitting the ice each season.

Hockey, once nothing more than a game, had become big business. But those who earn a living off the sport are worried about the dropping number of young people hitting the ice each season.

Increasing focus on professional training and high-tech equipment has created multimillion-dollar industry

Stories by Lisa Grace Marr

The Hamilton Spectator

Matt Clark started his private goalie coaching school On Ice in 2000. At the time, it was an innovative concept, nothing like it in the city – a place to teach kids how to play properly in a hockey net.

It was a hit.

Five years later he moved to a facility nearby on Hempstead Drive three times the size in order to accommodate demand – with three minipads, a small gym, dressing rooms, a lunch and meeting room and a store specializing in goalie equipment.

Matt Clark has run his business On Ice since 2000 when no one else was offering professional services.

Matt Clark has run his business On Ice since 2000 when no one else was offering professional services.

Today, it’s a different story. Clark is fielding shots at his business from Pro Hockey Life and Hockey World which have set up stores on the Mountain, and from at least half a dozen similar training schools in the Golden Horseshoe.

He is not alone. Many small businesses which catered to minor hockey over the years face similar competition at a time when hockey registrations in many areas is declining and other youth team sports, such as soccer, is exploding.

“Minor hockey is not a sport for youth, it is a marketplace for business,” said Julie Stevens. “Entrepreneurs all want a piece.”

Stevens is a sport management professor at Brock University, minor hockey coach, and former high performance women’s hockey player.

She said over the past few years, clear trends of increasing privatization of training and coaching, technology and growth in women’s hockey are triggering changes in the industry and it’s not clear what the future holds for the game.

What is clear is that hockey is big business in Canada.

The industry around amateur hockey has grown rapidly in the past 10 years, even as youth registrations dip amid soaring costs of playing Canada’s favourite game.

In Hamilton, registrations have dropped from a peak of 5,433 10 years ago to 3,846 in 2013/2014.

Hockey Canada estimates there are about 550,000 under-18 hockey players in Canada. The Royal Bank’s survey of hockey parents in 2011 found the average family involved in hockey spent about $1,500 a year in the sport for their kids.

That’s nearly $1 billion and doesn’t even include the adult recreational hockey industry, which Hockey Canada estimates is increasing with about 100,000 Canadian women aged 15 and older playing and 1.1 million men playing the game in 2011.

Stevens said part of the reason for some of these trends, particularly around the privatization of training and the lack of growth in registrations for programming, can be linked to the minor hockey structure in
Canada.

She points out most of the amateur hockey industry is based on minor hockey associations, non-profit, volunteer-based enterprises. But it’s Cover Story Main - Photo 3also a monopoly, one that usually gets subsidized pricing on ice rentals from municipal arenas. Over time, many minor hockey associations have adopted rigid registration systems, pricing arrangements and selection methods for its elite leagues.

Part of that is in response to the NHL and other professional hockey leagues, which pressure the minor leagues to increase skill development in a sport where most athletes don’t develop until puberty or after but are increasingly focusing on hyper skill development at younger and younger ages.

“What’s challenging is that typically (minor hockey associations) had a monopoly,” she said. “Now as the market has become more competitive, they are not equipped to deal with that. There is also a perception that minor hockey does not provide the necessary level of training and coaching. Parents are increasingly opting for (professional) services.”

But if parents don’t want that kind of hockey experience, either for themselves as adult players or their kids, they’ll turn to a private hockey enterprise, such as the ones offered by private rinks like Wave Hockey in Burlington.

Three years ago, the Hamilton Minor Initiation Program executive made the decision to hire Velenosi Power Skating and Development to train its four-, five- and six-year-old hockey players.

Ross Firmin, a director with HMIP and executive member of the Hamilton Minor Hockey Council, said the decision was made due to concerns over new hockey players not learning the basics of skating and hockey skills before going on to play novice.

The decision triggered an additional $30 cost per student – raising the cost to $420 for annual registration. Firmin said it’s hard to know if that’s the reason behind a dip in registration to 339 students in 2013. This year, for example, the number of youth registered in the initiation program rebounded to 425.

Stevens said many minor hockey teams are making the move to hire professional trainers for all levels and ages of hockey.

It’s a ‘keep-up-with’ mentality that is pervasive for all sport, but seemingly more intensively in hockey.

“You see this in soccer, basketball but hockey for some holds cultural prominence,” she said.

In October, Canadian Tire and Scotiabank released the first phase of a set of surveys it conducted to explore the role and economic impact of hockey in Canada.

It found in its survey of 2,000 people, that Canadians spend an average of seven hours a week engaged with hockey during the season.

“Among Canadian households that participate in Canadian hockey, the current involvement is greater than it was five years ago and they believe they’ll be more involved five years from now,” the report stated.

Stevens is skeptical of the report and its methodology. What is more telling perhaps is the fact corporations such as Canadian Tire and Scotiabank see hockey as a powerful marketing tool.

“It’s a complete hijack of the cultural experience of hockey for the corporate good,” she said.

“It’s pricing itself out of the market,” said Stevens.

Cover Story Main - Photo 4“The system is set up so that the professional hockey leagues can swoop in and handpick the talent it wants for its for-profit enterprises. The whole system is set up to support that small group of youth who will be (pro). Why should the whole have to cater to the few?”

Stevens and others blame that pressure, at least in part, for the lack of growth in hockey registrations.

Overall, Hockey Canada’s annual report in 2014 found there were 548,280 male and 86,612 female youth registered in all hockey programs from university, high school and minor hockey to special needs with a total of 634,892.

That’s a 10 per cent increase from 572,411 overall registered in hockey in 2011.

But in Ontario the figures have been stagnating – registrations in the OHA dipped by 5,000 in the 2013-14 season.

In addition, hockey is no longer the sport of choice for Canadian children.

A report released earlier this year by the Toronto-based Solutions Research Group found 1.1 million kids and youth are in swimming lessons, with 767,000 enrolled in soccer and 625,000 registered for dance. Hockey was the fourth most popular with 531,000 youth (aged 13 to 17). Of the 44 sports in the survey, hockey was the second most expensive (water skiing was the most expensive at $2,028).

In Hamilton, that has spelled stress for John Del Fabbro, manager at Barton Double Rink, a private rink in the lower city. In the past few years, the city has lost three leagues at Eastwood arena, Scott Park and most recently, Parkdale arena. On top of that the Hamilton Huskies and the Hamilton Hub merged, leaving a big gap in bookings at his Barton Double Rink facility.

The rink is for sale.

Del Fabbro said it’s hard to take advantage of the growth in women’s hockey as the facility doesn’t have separate washrooms. It also can’t offer other sports or training spaces because it doesn’t have the physical space to grow. It needs investment, but with electricity costs at $17,000 to $25,000 a month, it’s hard to find that money.

“I have such a passion for hockey. When this was built in 1972, it was the first of its kind, the first to have ice year-round. But there used to be 13,000 guys working in steel. Now it’s in the hundreds… Soccer’s (popularity) is part of it. It’s such a tough business to be in as a private enterprise.”

But some private rink owners are making a go of it – partly because of their new, modern facilities, and partly because of the incomes and demographics of the neighbourhood. Gateway Ice Centre in Stoney Creek recently expanded to a quad pad. And The Wave in Burlington is full and has had to book ice at municipal arenas to accommodate demand for programs.

Stevens said there is room for innovation and growth in the marketplace, but that may come at the expense of minor hockey.

“What you see is more kids getting deselected and then opting out of hockey later when they’re older. That’s unfortunate.”

lmarr@thespec.com
905-526-3992 | @lisamatthespec

 

For more on local hockey, check out these stories:

Former pro player turn energy to business

A razor-sharp twist on hockey gear

Not your traditional hockey program

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