"Respect in sport" program aims to teach parents not to put excessive pressure on their kids playing minor hockey.

GTA family fights rising costs of minor hockey

Every autumn, the Elbe family of Etobicoke goes hunting for deals on hockey equipment. The Elbes’ main stop is the “Big 60” event at National Sports Centre. It’s a 60-hour sale every November. The family never misses it.

Brian and Lucy Elbe wade through the aisles with their two sons: Gabriel, 12, and Matthew, 9. Gabriel grabs a shiny green hockey stick off the shelf.

“I want this one,” he says. “I like the colour!”

His father checks the price tag: $299.99.

“Me too!” Matthew shouts, unknowingly asking his father for an additional $300.

“You guys aren’t getting those,” Brian Elbe says, handing the boys two other sticks to try. They grudgingly accept and it’s on to the next item. “You try and spend reasonably. … For an 11-year-old or 9-year-old, the top brand or the middle, it makes no difference.”

The family budget allocates $50-$90 per stick.

The Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) has an estimated 40,000 registered players annually. It’s the largest amateur hockey league in the world. The average family pays approximately $3,000 per child just to sign up. Equipment is extra.

There are five skill levels one can play. House League and Select are recreational levels and registration runs between $450 to $1,000 per child. The three Rep levels – A, AA, AAA – balloon from $3,000 per child to $10,000 and up at the highest level.

Elbe coaches both of his sons with the West Mall Lightning, one of the leagues’ 52 organizations. Richard Ternieden is the president of West Mall and has been with the organization since 1993. He says operating costs have more than doubled over the past 10 years, largely because Toronto always increases the price of ice.

“Ice rental represents 50 per cent of our cost as an organization,” he said. “House League ice has gone up three to four per cent per year. Rep ice is up five to six per cent. Do that over 10 years and you have a serious increase.”

The threat of hockey becoming unaffordable for families has spawned a number of charities. The Canadian Tire Jumpstart program helps children participate in a range of sports. It’s the largest charity of its kind in Canada, helping more than 910,000 children since its inception in 2005. The program disburses monetary assistance based on income levels provided by Statistics Canada. It doesn’t focus on any sport specifically, but Dan Howlett, director of disbursement and operations says hockey-based applicants are noticeable.

“I see how many applicants we’re approving annually,” he said. “Hockey, specifically, has been growing steadily since 2010.”

Jumpstart has recently announced a new initiative in partnership with Hockey Canada called The Big Play. The program is hockey specific and will attempt to put 30,000 children, who otherwise could not afford to play, on the ice over the next three years. Though the goal is to help children across the country, the home of the GTHL is showing the most interest.

“So far, from registrants we’ve got, Ontario is fairly dominant,” Howlett said.

Charities such as Jumpstart primarily fund participation at the grassroots level. Gabriel Elbe currently plays A-level while his brother Matthew plays house league and select. But what if one of them, or both, want to play at a higher level next year? Brian Elbe admits that even though he and his wife work full-time, a telecommunications manager and an office manager respectively, it would be a challenge.

“It depends on what level you’re talking about,” Brian Elbe said. “I’ve heard AAA teams charging $10,000 per player. That’s probably a cost that’s not doable.”

Minor hockey organizations themselves are making efforts to offset the rising costs as well. Five years ago, West Mall introduced its Scholarship and Loyalty Program to help families at both the house league and rep levels. It takes reserve funds collected through hosting tournaments and uses them to cover half of the registration cost for selected families. It also offers reduced fees to families who stay with the organization for more than five years.

“Minor hockey registration has fallen off,” Ternieden said. “We wanted to make sure those who couldn’t afford to play have an opportunity to.”

Despite the 60-hour sale each fall, the Elbes take out a line of credit at the beginning of every hockey season to cover registration fees and new equipment. They pay it off in six to eight months, then start all over again.

“I would say that if your children have the desire and ability to play, as a parent, you figure out a way to do it,” Elbe said. “Would I ever hold them back? No.”