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Photo by Chris Andreou

Ball Hockey Will Grow the Game

By: Chris Andreou

Hockey is Canada’s game. A sport so intertwined with the Canadian identity that our five dollar bill once displayed children playing it, and where two of the top ten greatest Canadians in CBC’s television series were Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry. Unlike in America where baseball and football (and increasingly basketball) vie for the nation’s attention, hockey is uniquely Canadian. And yet, there seems to be a growing sentiment that hockey’s place at the pinnacle of Canada’s sport hierarchy is in danger. Dozens of articles and even a recent book have explored the Canadian hockey landscape and questioned the sport’s future. While some are quite hyperbolic and alarmist, many provide a reasonable assessment of the many factors coalescing to make the sport’s cultural connection to Canada a thing of the past. The main crux of the argument is that ice hockey’s often prohibitively high costs will keep many children from lower-income households and newer Canadians lacking a pre-existing connection to the game from participating. Hockey Canada is aware of the sport’s intrinsic barriers compared to the likes of soccer and basketball, and has established programs to support the growth of the game among these communities. However, based on very successful initiatives in America’s southern states as well as my own personal experience, Hockey Canada is missing an incredible opportunity that is staring them right in the face - ball hockey. And yet, due to a definitional distinction, it is erroneously treated as a distinct sport rather than one that is interconnected with its ice variation.

Two of hockey’s main barriers are the need for ice and the ability to skate. There is no doubting that this is a major impediment as cities must have ice surfaces for children to learn, and even when a town has many arenas, the cost of ice time is very high. Frozen ponds where many hockey legends mastered their craft are also becoming less prevalent. I was able to get on local ponds this winter and loved seeing young kids and new Canadians learning the game, but as the impacts of climate change increase, ice conditions will reduce this opportunity. Add this to the cost of equipment that can run into the hundred of dollars (or thousands if you are a goalie), and it is understandable how many families may opt for alternate forms of activity for their children. Indeed, I have experienced firsthand how inaccessible and daunting ice hockey can feel, both to the inexperienced child playing it and to the hesitant parents footing the bill.

My obsession with hockey started when I was 10 years old. After becoming enamoured with the mask of Maple Leaf’s goaltender Ed Belfour, my dad’s first move was not to go buy thousands of dollars worth of hockey equipment and sign me up for organized hockey. Instead, he drove five minutes to Canadian Tire, bought $50 worth of street hockey pads, and ripped shots at me in the garage. Within 15 minutes on a Saturday morning (30 minutes if you include the crying and subsequent return to Canadian Tire to pick up a jock), I was able to start my hockey fantasy. Soon friends were coming over and playing with me as well. Whether it was on the street with ten kids and two nets, or one on one battles with my dad or a close friend in the garage or basement in the winter months, it was with a ball and on concrete where I played for hours and pretended to be an NHL goalie. While admittedly not the traditional Canadian experience detailed in classics such as The Sweater and Ken Dryden’s The Game, my obsession and time spent with the sport was no different. It wasn’t until two years later that I officially registered for ice hockey, and though I did not know how to skate well, the flexibility and reflexes developed on the street helped me avoid embarrassment until my skating improved. Had street hockey not been an option, the incredible years I spent playing ice hockey would have never happened.

There were almost 640,000 registered hockey players in Canada in 2019, compared to only 50,000 for organized ball hockey. When looking at the discrepancy in these numbers, it may seemingly make sense for Hockey Canada to continue to keep their attention to ball hockey limited to the margins. But the efforts by NHL teams in America’s southern states such as the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and Arizona Coyotes to place an emphasis on ball hockey and develop the sport in these non-traditional markets should give leaders of the sport up north some notice. Granted, there is significantly less access to ice in the desert than anywhere in Canada, but it is these programs' success in developing fans among the hispanic community that shows how important ball hockey is for bridging the gap. Brampton Ontario, one of Canada’s most immigrant heavy cities, has been cited as proof of hockey’s inability to develop within these new Canadian communities. Despite a huge rise in population driven largely by immigration over the last several decades, the number of registered ice hockey players has stayed the same. But while this stat is usually put in focus, the one about ball hockey is not. While only 6% of children surveyed from Brampton had played ice hockey, 36% had played ball hockey. This shows how ball hockey is the perfect activity needed to connect Canadians with the NHL without needing ice and hundreds of dollars worth of equipment. Newcomers to Canada have expressly stated that sport is a means of integrating into Canadian culture, and yet if efforts are not made to make hockey more accessible, too many will miss the chance at connecting with Canada’s game.

While ball hockey in my experience led me to playing ice hockey, this should not be the ultimate goal. For many, playing ball hockey will feel no different in their connection to professional ice hockey than actual ice hockey. It was while playing ball hockey that I was able to play while calling my imaginary game out loud, where I was able to experiment with styles and moves. As Ken Dryden presciently wrote in his masterpiece The Game,

“It is in free time that the special player develops, not in the competitive expedience of games, in hour-long practices once a week, in mechanical devotion to packaged, processed, coaching-manual, hockey school skills. For while skills are necessary, setting out as they do the limits of anything, more is needed to transform those skills into something special. Mostly it is time unencumbered, unhurried, time of a different quality, more time, time to find wrong answers to find a few that are right; time to find your own right answers, time for skills to be practiced to set higher limits, to settle and assimilate and become fully and completely yours, to organize and combine with other skills comfortably and easily in some uniquely personal way, then to be set loose, trusted, to find new instinctive directions to take, to create.“

As the youth game becomes more professionalized and global warming makes natural ice less common for spontaneous pond hockey games, ball hockey may become the only place for children to experience the pure joys of the game without the pressure and distraction of coaches, parents, and scouts. Canada as a country and society will benefit from maintaining a cultural tie that extends from coast to coast, in a vast and diverse county. Hockey Canada can do this by putting necessary attention on ball hockey, and not just on organized leagues that could fall under the same institutionalization that has befallen ice hockey. The roadmap for Hockey Canada is astonishingly simple, and relatively inexpensive. Ensure every school has sticks, goalie pads, and nets. Sponsor tournaments in low income areas. Do what is necessary to create a connection with Canada’s game so that it can be shared with everyone from coast to coast.

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