There is no doubt the National Hockey League has made great strides while trying to market hockey as a sport that is for everyone.
Since the NHL started its Hockey is for Everyone initiative, it has partnered with organizations such as You Can Play and Hockey Canada and provided support for more than 20 grassroots hockey organizations across North America.
But Sean Fitz-Gerald, a leading Canadian sports journalist and author, says there is much more the sport can do to reach out to new players.
“Hockey is a game that’s supposed to be for everyone,” he told the Toronto Observer in a recent StreamYard interview.
“Unless significant changes are made, hockey is going to lose its tether and hold on our collective consciousness as Canadians.”
Fitz-Gerald has many years of experience in the sports industry, working at National Post, the Toronto Star and now The Athletic.
He has covered the Olympics, Pan American Games, Super Bowl, Grey Cup, NHL playoffs and the NBA playoffs, and was named sportswriter of the year by Sports Media Canada in 2015.
“It’s the hockey schools, it’s the cost, it’s the time commitment,” said Fitz-Gerald, describing the work hockey families have to put in to get their child to the pro levels.
Potential new hockey parents consider all of these factors. If they want their child to make a career out of hockey, there’s a lot of time spent driving around and a lot of money spent buying new equipment as your child grows, and on extra training with personal trainers to gain a competitive edge.
Fitz-Gerald published a book titled Before the Lights Go Out last fall, which examines these issues as they pertain to various levels of minor hockey. The book partially centres around the Peterborough Petes, who attempt to make hockey more accessible to new Canadians in their community by hosting Try Hockey Night.
Supporting new players
Shelbi Kilcollins, the manager of social impact, growth and alumni relations for the team, connected with the New Canadians Centre in Peterborough, Ont., which is dedicated to supporting immigrants, refugees, and other newcomers to become full and equal members of Canadian society.
“Before each game, why don’t we open up the ice for two hours, two one-hour sessions, and we’ll open it up to new Canadians who have never had the opportunity to skate, to play hockey,” said Fitz-Gerald describing the initiative.
In preparation for these sessions, Kilcollins gathered spare pieces of hockey equipment to lend to the new Canadians that attended.
“The feedback afterward was absolutely awesome,” Kilcollins said in an interview “Two of the kids who were there that night plan to register to play hockey next year.”
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Similar ideas have enticed many high schoolers to join their school’s football team. New players are often provided with all equipment necessary except for cleats.
This is the next step for hockey. If accessibility initiatives like Try Hockey Night are more widely implemented, the sport should do a better job at diversifying participation and attracting more new players.
“Hockey is plagued in a lot of ways by inertia. This is the way it’s always been, but it’s starting to change,” said Fitz-Gerald. “The issue is how to implement these substantive changes.”