Hockey may always be Canada’s game, but we could see our presence as a superpower fade in as soon as a decade. Player registration is declining and Canada’s international rivals are growing the sport to new levels.
Canadian hockey registration peaked in 2009 with nearly 585 thousand players, but plummeted to 572,400 by 2011. There are many possible reasons why: the game’s rising costs, head injuries escalating at the professional level, or fewer new Canadians opting to register their children in hockey. There are also fewer children entirely, a worrisome fact in itself.
While Canada struggles to recruit future Sidney Crosbys, U.S. Hockey is gradually developing a dominant future. Registration numbers are rising, especially the under-six age group that saw an increase of nearly 12 percent from 2010 to 2011.
The number of U.S. players cracked 500 thousand for the first time and that number could soon pass Canada’s, which are travelling in the opposite direction.
The registration surge isn’t due to a generous season, but a bigger plan to build a hockey superpower by first getting more kids in skates. U.S. Hockey is focussed on recruiting and retaining players under eight-years-old, proven to be a common drop-out age.
Unlike Canada’s junior hockey system, the U.S. develops players through school leagues. The goal is to cultivate talent and passion at a young age in time for high school hockey and work towards an NCAA scholarship. Potential stars are selected to the National Team Development Program to prepare them for a high-calibre career.
Junior versus college development is an ongoing dispute, and while junior leagues have worked well in Canada they could be in trouble with fewer rising stars to draw from. The U.S. has succeeded in the past by fostering their smaller talent pools with the intensive Development Program, an idea Canada should consider regardless of registration numbers.
Increased American development is already showing at the elite level as the development team has won the past four World Under-18 Championships and medalled in the past nine tournaments, while Canada has one bronze in the previous four.
Canada has also failed to collect a World Junior Championship gold medal in the past four events, and didn’t advance past the semi-final in the last two. The U.S. has two gold medals and a bronze during that time and look to have a promising future.
Women’s and girl’s registration is marginally on the rise in Canada, giving hope for continued success on the international stage. The 31 Canadian Interuniversity Sport teams are not far behind the NCAA’s league of 35, and Canada also has several of its top players competing in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
However, boy’s registration numbers continue to slide and Hockey Canada is attempting to reach out to new Canadians in hopes of attracting more youngsters to the sport. Their mail-out and season planner is now available in 12 languages and includes information on how to apply for registration funding and discounted equipment.
As the National Hockey League branches out to new markets, ice facilities also become available to more populations, especially in the southern U.S. Canada will have to strategize how to increase its registrations and development as well, or the half million Americans will not only surpass Canada in quantity, but quality too.