Messier Awakens to Reality: 9 of 10 Canadian Kids Not Playing, Elite Travel Gets Too Much Focus
AUGUST 2, 2013 — BEST OF HOCKEYTALK — “Nine out of ten kids in our country are not playing hockey. That is a shock to me.”
The speaker was Mark Messier, one of the game’s all-time greatest players, during an appearance on Sportsnet Radio in Canada Thursday after the results of a survey by Hockey Canada and Bauer Hockey, Inc., were released.
The survey, taken of 875 non-hockey playing families in Ontario and Nova Scotia, showed that the top four reasons for not playing hockey were that the game A. Wasn’t fun; B. Was too time consuming; C. Safety concerns, and D. Affordability.
“It was a wake-up call for all of us,” said Messier, who is getting it, albeit a little late. But in fairness to the Great Messier, most of the hockey community is blind to just how much of a way-too-serious, expensive sport hockey has become.
“We consider ourselves the elite country in the world in the game of hockey. It’s part of our fabric, of who we are as a people. In order to sustain our position at the top of the food chain, internationally, we cannot afford to cannibalize the sport and have fewer players playing, so our talent pool is diminishing.”
Messier made some welcome and pointed comments regarding the resources necessary to play travel hockey.
“I have a good understanding of what minor hockey was to me as a kid. I never left Edmonton to play minor hockey as a kid. Everything was done in your communities. We didn’t have travel teams. We didn’t have AAA elite teams that traveled to Calgary, Red Deer or Manitoba to play. We did everything in the city.”
Most importantly, Messier–unlike so many people you encounter in youth hockey–wonders why the sport can’t serve kids who aren’t “elite” talents.
“I’m not diminishing that type of hockey because I think there’s a place for some kids that are ready for that,” Messier said. “The problem is that not all kids and all families have the resources to do that, the time commitment it takes to do that, the focus and the mental capacity to endure that at that age, starting from eight to 14 or 15, and the emotional part of it and the physical. So, where do the kids who don’t feed into that system, where do they play hockey? That’s the problem that I see.”
“It’s not that we need to disregard that part of our game,” Messier insisted re elite travel, the cost of which often runs into multiple thousands of dollars each season. However, not all kids are going to be ready for travel hockey at an early age. What of them? Do they have a place to play?
“We need to keep kids in the game who are late bloomers or are not emotionally ready to play, aren’t physically strong enough to join those travel teams. Don’t cut them out of the ability to nurture themselves along the way with a great place to play where they’re having a lot of fun. If they have the god-given talent, as they get a little older, and they love the game, who knows what will spin out of that group of kids.”
Damn good question when hockey’s been allowed to become a boutique rich boys’ sport. Nine out of ten Canadian–yes, Canadian–kids are not playing hockey.
Then, Messier hit the nail on the head, and his words should be heard by everyone who cares about hockey in North America:
“Right now, we’re kind of funnelling our kids and only the top, top, top kids are going on and the other kids are dropping out because they feel like they’re failures and aren’t good enough, and we’ve got to change that.”
As a person who has run an in-house program at a rink in Los Angeles for a year now, it is clear that there is a wide gulf between what’s available to all kids, and how much emphasis is placed on expensive travel clubs. In fairness, hockey must have elite travel available for its best and earliest-blooming talents. It’s vital. But I’ve seen with my own eyes how much less and less is available to kids who just want to play. As a youth player enters adolescence, the number of solid in-house opportunities diminishes, and as Messier points out, having an intense focus on the best of the best leads to the “cannibalization” of the sport.
To be fair to the world’s greatest game, ice time costs a lot more money than finding a backboard or a soccer net, or a baseball diamond. But despite all the try-hockey-for-free-campaigns, and they are all laudable (my son started in one), the weekly grind is mostly dedicated to feeding up to travel. The costs of travel go into the many thousands and that’s perfectly justifiable. What’s not justifiable is neglecting the needs of the kids who can pay into the high hundreds, but can’t pay into the thousands. Who can’t play four or five times a week, but can get there two or three times per week.
By identifying the fact that nine of ten Canadian kids aren’t playing hockey, the survey proves that the failure to improve the gray area between in-house and travel, devoting more resources to the late-bloomers or kids with lesser resources who Messier describes, has been an unwise choice in both Canada and the United States.