LETHBRIDGE - Hockey. It's Canada's game, well one of two national sports in our country alongside lacrosse.
It's the thing that brings families together during the holidays to watch the World Junior Championships on TV, and has fans wearing jerseys well into June to support their teams during the playoffs.
But is Canada's game as accessible to working families as it used to be?
The number of kids, boys and girls, coast to coast playing hockey in 2016-17 according to Hockey Canada was 548,469 compared to 549,614 in 2015-16.
Alberta is one of the few provinces that had an increase in kids playing hockey, with 82,573 lacing up the skates last year.
So, the question is with Canada's population growing why aren't more kids signing up to play hockey?
One answer could be that sports like soccer and basketball may be more important to a lot of newer Canadians than hockey. Another answer could be the growing income inequality in this country, and how expensive it is to play hockey in this day and age.
Statistics show that income inequality in Canada has increased over the past 20 years and since 1990, the richest group of Canadians have increased their shares of the total national income, while the poorest and middle-income groups have lost shares.
In Canada, income inequality is higher than in 11 of its peer nations although the country's wealth is distributed more equally than in the U.S.
Nordic countries like Switzerland, Sweden and Finland are the clear leaders on the income inequality report card, and it's no surprise those countries are among those making big gains in the hockey world.
A study by the Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada a few years back found major cities like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary see the widest gap in wages, while it's less prominent, but still an issue in smaller centers.
With so much new money going to the well off, working families in Canada have had to make sacrifices, and for a lot of them hockey has been one of those sacrifices.
There's always been a major downside to hockey, it's expensive.
Many families can't afford kids hockey at all, or can't get their kids on the ice as often as they'd like.
Often municipalities have to raise rates on ice time rentals to deal with costs, and some parents can't afford the cost of registration or the price of equipment.
In Lethbridge, ice rental rates for youth are broken into two categories. Prime time ice, between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., which costs $112.50 and non-prime ice, for other times of the day, which costs $100.
Jason Freund, the Recreation Services Manager with the City of Lethbridge, says ice rates change on a bi-yearly basis.
"We went to these rates for the 2017-18 season, and they will remain in place for the 2018-19 season as well. In the budget process that we're starting right now, it'll be determined what the rates will look like in the future, but that hasn't been done yet."
Freund says, adding through each budget cycle the price for ice does tend to rise.
"Rates used to go up on a yearly basis by around two to three per cent depending on the decisions made at budget time. We changed it in the last budget to go on a two-year cycle, so it did take a bigger jump in that first year but the second year there's no increase at all," he continued.
"The reason for that is we felt it gave organizations at least a year to adjust and work with the prices before we may have to raise the rates again for the next two-year cycle. While they do go up steadily, I can't say what's going to happen in the future because we could be directed to leave the rates as they are," Freund added.
The reasons behind rate increases are mostly costs at city arenas, everything from running the operations, heating, and lighting.
Freund says staffing at the rinks is a major factor too, so rates have to keep pace and respond to those factors.
When rates for both prime and non-prime ice rise, minor hockey associations must adapt but Freund says any fee increases are out of city's hands.
"I'd imagine they would adjust their fees based on how much ice they have to rent for a year, and they've steadily been increasing the amount of ice time they need especially over the past few years with the new twin ice sheets at the ATB Centre."
Freund says as far as people being interested in the available ice times, the rinks in town are being used to capacity.
"Do we run a 24-hour clock? No, and while some cities do that, Lethbridge isn't there right now. We don't offer much ice past 11:30 p.m. or before 6 a.m. The hours between those two, our regular slots, are pretty much booked to capacity and used in one way or another," Freund continued. "Whether that be through the various organizations that book or through the school districts during the daytime hours. I can tell you we have very, very little free ice available."
The demand for ice has also increased over the years, and that was one of the factors behind the ATB Centre being built.
"The organizations had reached a point where they could no longer grow. They couldn't expand and offer services to more kids in the community, so the addition of more ice surfaces has made that possible," Freund said.
With a steady increase in the price for ice, what's the impact for minor hockey organizations when they have to set registration fees?
For 2017-18, the Lethbridge Minor Hockey Association offers the following registration fees for various levels of hockey:
Intro to Hockey - $255
Timbits - $470
Junior Pronghorns - $555
Novice - $665
Atom - $705
Pee Wee - $725
Bantam - $740
Midget - $745
Junior Female - $720
Registration fees remain steady for players who are good enough to play on more elite teams:
Peewee AA - $725
Bantam AA - $740
Bantam AAA - $740
Midget 15's - $745
Midget AA - $745
Midget AAA - $745
Female Bantam Elite AA - $740
Female Midget Elite AA - $745
Keith Hitchcock, the General Manager of the Lethbridge Minor Hockey Association, says just under 1,200 kids are signed up for hockey this year throughout all the streams offered.
"Our numbers are up every year. When I came on board as General Manager in 2008, we had about 760-770 kids signed up to play minor hockey. We've grown by about 400 kids a year in the nine years that I've been here."
When it comes to registration fees, there's a typical mandatory increase on insurance, ice costs and referee costs.
"Hockey Alberta has tried to maintain these fees because they've recognized that this is an economy where you can't raise a lot of fees or add any costs to doing business," Hitchcock continued. "They've helped out by freezing referee rates, and some insurance rates as well."
Lethbridge actually has one of the better hourly rates for ice according to Hitchcock, so they've been able to maintain their annual fees with small increments.
"I've noticed after the past year or two that some of the associations like us in Southern Alberta, take Okotoks as an example, have significant hourly rate costs that are more than ours. That's forced them to raise rates up higher."
If a hockey family maintains the standard of just playing the game without any cost add-ons, the cost per child for hockey usually costs about $9-10 an hour.
Hitchcock says that's basically a babysitting rate so to speak, but it's when extras start getting added on that the price increases.
"Extra flags, jackets, tournaments, hotels, gas, that's where we see the cost of playing the game really increasing. Then you look at the cost of equipment which can get expensive. I've seen kids have to pay $200-300 for a stick, or $500-600 for skates sometimes. It's those add-ons that really affect families," Hitchcock said.
"I think with hockey, parents and kids alike look at it as our national sport, so the cost of playing the game comes up in discussion, but not usually as a deterrent to playing," he added.
The LMHA offers a number of different programs, 23 different streams of hockey in total.
"We've got rec hockey, intro to hockey, and we have our first shift program offered through Bauer, Canadian Tire and Hockey Canada for kids with equipment included for $199. We have many different areas where people can pick and choose how engaged they want to get into the program," Hitchcock stated.
While the all-in people tend to write the cheques, Hitchcock says they like to offer as many affordable programs as they can for those who can't just break out the cheque book when they want.
"We've started our own even strength fund to help offset costs for families that just might not quite qualify for a Jump Start or a KidSport or anything like that. Putting fundraising money into that program will help families stay in hockey."
LMHA hasn't had large fee increases year over year, thanks to a lot of fundraising they do each year.
Hitchcock said they average between $150,000 to $160,000 in fundraising a year which helps keep costs down.
Lethbridge has an advantage over bigger centers like Calgary when it comes to registration fees for many reasons.
In Calgary, it's more expensive to play and games are shorter due to ice costs and the overall demand for ice.
"Midget kids here pay $750, but I've seen some organizations offering midget hockey for $1,200 or $1,300," Hitchcock said. "Man, that's a lot of money to play midget hockey."
Hitchcock put three kids through hockey, and says he doesn't even want to look back and see how much it cost him.
"I really don't know how some of these families do it sometimes," he added.
Overall, Hitchcock believes they have a good product here in Lethbridge, but their trend is benefitted by the growth of the city.
"We have younger families moving here which has helped grow our sport, and the new rinks on the west side haven't hurt either."
They're pleased with the growth they've had over the past few years despite the fact Hockey Canada has been concerned about numbers nationwide.
Hitchcock mentioned contact being taken out of PeeWee as something that really helped them, where they grew by a full two teams almost instantly after that decision was made.
"A lot of young families are just looking for activities for their kids, but hockey isn't like basketball. If you've got shorts and running shoes, you can give basketball a try, but hockey needs a lot more. That's why we try to help kids out by offering as many unique programs as we can," Hitchcock said.
Hockey has become a real speciality sport, with a lot of time and money going into extra training for skating, shooting, and passing.
All of that on top of spring hockey, academies, camps and yet somehow there seems to be no end to the money people are willing to pay.
"The two or three really talented kids coming out of small town Saskatchewan or smaller Southern Alberta towns just aren't there anymore because they're not staying put. The numbers in the elite programs just aren't there to justify keeping them there, so they move away," Hitchcock continued. "We see it all the time down here, communities like Warner, Foremost, Bow Island, Raymond, Magrath really struggling to form hockey teams in every age category. The good players will leave, go play somewhere else and it hurts the towns."
It's a reality many are beginning to come to grips with: Hockey has become more of a white-collar sport than a blue collar one.
The number of small town kids who come from blue-collar families and develop into elite players is on the decline, and the amount of money necessary to play the game is becoming too much for the average working-class family, and even middle-class families.
Take Lethbridge as an example, not exactly a small town having a population of 92,729 as of 2016.
Yet only 26 players born here have been drafted into the NHL according to Elite Prospects.
Since 2000, only eight players born in Lethbridge have heard their names called at the NHL Draft.
In 2001, Adrian Foster was drafted 28th overall by the New Jersey Devils but never suited up for an NHL game, and last played in the AHL in 2007-08.
The most notable player drafted into the NHL from Lethbridge is Kris Versteeg, who was selected 134th overall in the 2004 draft by the Boston Bruins and currently plays in the NHL with the Calgary Flames.
Wacey Rabbit was selected in the 5th round of the 2005 NHL Draft, 154th overall by the Boston Bruins, but he too failed to suit up for an NHL game.
Next up, a pair of Lethbridge born players were taken in the 2007 NHL draft. Nick Ross was selected in the 1st round, 30th overall by the Phoenix Coyotes. He never played a game in the NHL.
Later in the draft, Spencer Machacek was drafted 67th overall by the Atlanta Thrashers. Machacek played ten games in 2010-11 for the Thrashers, and when the team moved to Winnipeg the following season, he played 13 games recording two goals and seven assists.
In the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Patrick Holland was taken 193rd by the Calgary Flames a round later and he managed to play five NHL games with the Montreal Canadiens in 2013-14.
Brandon Davidson, was selected in the 6th round 162nd overall by the Edmonton Oilers and is currently playing with the Montreal Canadiens.
The last Lethbridge born hockey player to be picked in the NHL draft was actually picked twice. Lukas Sutter, son of Rich Sutter, was first selected in the 2nd round of the 2012 NHL draft by the Winnipeg Jets. He re-entered the draft in 2014, and was drafted in the 7th round. He's appeared in zero NHL games.
A pair of undrafted forwards from Lethbridge, Mark Hartigan and Rob Klinkhammer, also played in the NHL for a time.
With the Christmas season around the corner, many families will be ponying up to buy new helmets, sticks, gloves, skates and even shin and elbow pads. The cost for all that can run between $100-$700 depending on where you buy.
This time next year, for some it'll be rinse and repeat when it comes to buying more gear.
But for most families, this year's new equipment will be expected to last for a few seasons because the cost of getting more is too overbearing.
It's unclear what the exact impact income inequality is having on the quality of our national game, and the amount of families who can afford to put their kids in hockey in 2017, but a few things are clear.
Elite players coming from small towns are becoming rarer, as the cost of playing the game continues to rise year over year and the amount of kids playing hockey in this country is going down.
The impact on the game, more synonymous with Canadian culture than jean jackets and maple syrup, isn't something you hear discussed when people talk about the discrepancy between the working class and the rich in Canada, but maybe it should be.
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