Late Friday morning, Tom Renney, the former NHL coach, took his seat inside an ornate meeting room on the 19th floor of the Fairmont Royal York. He sat alone on one side of the long table, scribbled a few notes on a piece of paper, and began to speak.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been grilled like this,” he told a group of reporters on the other side of the table. “I guess it’s because I haven’t lost in a long time.”
Sixteen months ago, the 60-year-old was named president and chief executive of Hockey Canada, and quickly announced his focus would be on the grassroots. For all its visibility, hockey is facing a number of challenges to its primacy in Canada: “Activities — sport in general — have their challenges in this day and age.”
Could hockey ever really lose its grip on Canada? Here are five looming threats:
Hockey is expensive. According to a survey released last week, only 57 per cent of respondents believed “every Canadian child” should have the chance to play hockey despite the cost, down from 66 per cent the previous year. (The survey was for an education savings provider.)
“I have to admit,” Don Cherry conceded this summer, “the cost of skates and equipment and ice time is on the brink.”
“Huge threat,” Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban has said, “because you’re missing a big part of the population, in terms of being able to afford to play the sport.”
Renney conceded the point, but suggested some of the problem is “self-induced,” with parents buying a $350 composite stick when a $75 version would work: “We don’t need to buy the prototypical, Sidney Crosby-endorsed skate for $800.”
“Price is an issue for kids being active in sport, generally,” he said. “I have daughters who grew up in dance. It might have been cheaper to play hockey.”
Zach Bratina, a 19-year-old forward averaging more than a point a game with the North Bay Battalion this season, retired from the game earlier this month. Lingering, persistent concussion symptoms prompted his decision.
The long-term implications of repeated head trauma have become a front-page issue for contact sports, especially in football, where the list of broken former players has already reached a staggering length. Hockey is building its own list, with players such as Marc Savard forced from the game before their time, facing uncertain long-term prognoses.
Dozens of former players are engaged in a class-action lawsuit against the NHL relating to concussion treatment. (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said the suit is “without merit.”)
On Friday, Renney cited a study he had seen claiming more children were injured on bicycles than in hockey. “Let’s step back from the ledge,” he said, “and just understand where we really are here.”
Registration for hockey has slowed over the last decade, with some groups slowing more than others. Renney, who has placed an emphasis on energizing the game at its base, said new Canadians represent “a demographic that we have to pay attention to.”
He suggested Hockey Canada would “take the game” to those new communities, with a series of ideas aimed at making it more accessible. Renney envisioned setting up booths in a gymnasium to outline what kind of equipment hockey requires, how to put it on, and where to register. Having those “boots on the ground” would help hockey replace soccer or cricket, or the other games new Canadians might have played before arriving.
“They’ve chosen Canada for a reason,” he said. “I believe that there’s a nice, quick way to feel Canadian in a hurry, and that’s by choosing to play hockey.”
According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, Canada boasts 5,000 outdoor ice rinks, more than any other country on earth. And according to a study Damon Matthews co-authored, that natural advantage might disappear within a generation “in the absence of major efforts to de-carbonize our economy.”
An associate professor in the department of geography, planning and environment at Concordia University, Matthews suggested warming conditions could make outdoor skating almost impossible within three decades.
“Our sport can trace its roots to frozen freshwater ponds, to cold climates,” Bettman said in a report released last year. “Major environmental challenges, such as climate change and freshwater scarcity, affect opportunities for hockey players of all ages to learn and play the game outdoors.”
According to last year’s annual report, Hockey Canada had 634,892 players registered in affiliated organizations. (Not all organizations fall under Hockey Canada’s umbrella, and Renney suggested more than a million Canadians are actually playing hockey.)
More than 820,000 Canadians are registered soccer players. Canadians are also becoming more widely successful in basketball, led by Andrew Wiggins. More sports are accessible to watch online than ever before.
“I think we’re fine,” Renney said. “Fine doesn’t mean ‘great, we’re going to the White House.’ It means that we’re doing OK.”
In Ontario, which represents more than a third of Hockey Canada’s numbers, registration dropped last year, compared to the previous year — to 231,002 players from 235,945.
“We’re a pretty easy target, because we’re hockey,” Renney said. “I’m good with that. Because we’re going to do everything we can to do the right thing, better than anybody else.”