There has been a rash of stories lately about the problems with minor hockey in Canada. CBC recently posted an interesting interactive on minor hockey. http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/sports-junior/ The takeaway I got from the webpage, which includes a number of statements and statistics, is that minor hockey is costly and unpopular. Interesting what you can do with statistics. First, consider their opening lines:
“…for kids under 14 almost twice as many kids play soccer than hockey”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is not new. I remember hearing this statement decades ago. The statement does not mean that soccer is preferred to hockey by twice as many kids. In Manitoba, soccer (at least for the younger kids) has an 8 week season. Most kids can fit it in even if it is not their “main” sport. Also, I really wish these would be split by gender. Like it or not, hockey is still mainly a boys’ sport. Soccer is much more gender neutral.
“More adults play golf than ice hockey”. Ummm… hockey is hard and physically demanding. Golf is…not. And again, not too many 60 year old women out there playing hockey with my father-in-law.
“There are also more ice hockey participants in the U.S. today than there are in Canada. And the game is growing much faster south of the border than it is here.” Well, the U.S. is ten times the size of Canada, so the absolute numbers are obvious. The growth rate is likely due to a much lower starting point. Michigan’s population is about one-quarter the size of Canada’s, but the number of hockey players in Michigan (53,000) is less than one-tenth of the players in Canada (624,000). Starting from a lower base, a higher growth rate is not unexpected. And Michigan is a state where we would expect hockey to be relatively popular. Apparently Hawaii had outstanding 71% annual growth in hockey registrations in 2011 – Increasing from 7 players to 12.
One number often floated around the media is that only 10% of Canadian children play minor hockey. I find this statistic disingenuous, again given the gender split in hockey. Boys make up 87% of registered players nationally. It really makes more sense to split the numbers up.
I crunched some numbers using Hockey Canada’s registration info and StatsCan’s population data. CBC could have pitched the story in a much different way. Hockey is back! Hockey is growing!
While it may be true that the growth rate in Hockey Canada registration has been low for the past decade, it is positive. In contrast, the population of boys and girls aged 5-17 has been in decline. In the 2005-2006 season, 17.6% of boys and 2.5% of girls aged 5-17 were registered for hockey. By the 2012/2013 season, 20.8% of boys and 3.6% of girls were playing hockey. The growth rate is not huge, but contrary to what many believe, the sport is actually gaining in popularity.
The national numbers hide a lot of variation across provinces. The chart below shows the proportion of boys and girls aged 5-17 registered through Hockey Canada. I’ve ordered the provinces by the boys’ proportion. There is a lot of variation. In PEI, 37% of boys and 12% of girls play hockey. In BC, the proportions are 16.5% and 3%. The ordering of the provinces is interesting, and raises a bunch of questions. Certainly, immigration history will play a big role, pushing participation in Ontario, Quebec and BC down. Even still, I am surprised that Quebec is so low, but then I’m often surprised by Quebec statistics. And Alberta? With two NHL teams?
Besides immigration, the other main explanation would be costs. As the CBC webpage points out, the cost of renting ice is higher in large cities than in small towns, so we might expect the costs of hockey to be higher in the big cities (big provinces). But equipment should be similarly priced across the country, and one could argue that travel costs should be lower in an area of high density. Plus incomes are higher in these provinces.
I would argue that if costs are significantly higher in Toronto and Vancouver, compared to Saskatoon, this is largely by choice and not by necessity.
The CBC website shows the average amount it could cost to outfit a child to play hockey and argues this is high relative to other sports. Other sites note the average amount parents spend on hockey. The problem with these statistics is that a large part of hockey costs are by choice, determined by the team and peer group. In Manitoba, we pay an upfront registration cost, and then the coach (after discussions with parents) usually requests an additional amount to cover additional ice times, fancy track suits, tournament entry fees, etc. If your child is on a team with wealthy, competitive parents, you’re going to have a lot of extra practises and out of town tournaments and your additional fees will be high. If your child is on a team with less wealthy or less competitive parents, the additional fees will be low. Equipment costs are also likely to be influenced by the peer group. Ryan spends what I consider to be a ridiculous amount of money on hockey equipment, partly to keep up with the Joneses, but ultimately this is his choice and not something inherently forced on him as part of his kids playing hockey.
So while it may be the case that the high cost of hockey discourages low-income households from participation, it is also probable that as lower-income households drop out of hockey, the average cost of hockey rises. Following from that, it is likely that areas with high income disparities will have lower participation in hockey, all else equal. I haven’t tested this (yet) but the correlation between provincial income inequality and minor hockey participation looks about right. (Except, once again, for Quebec).
Hockey Canada Participation Rates:http://www.hockeycanada.ca/en-ca/Corporate/About/Basics/Registration.aspx
Statistics Canada Population: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/91-215-x/2012000/t512-eng.htm
CBC Interactive Website: http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/sports-junior/
 Different sources use different age categories as denominators. The ages included in Hockey Canada’s registration data are not clear. The 10% figure is based on a denominator of 5-19, although the CBC website information states that Hockey Canada’s registration figures are for Under 18. I use the 5-17 population as the denominator (taking 3/5 of the 15-19 category available from Statscan).