Kids’ hockey too costly?

Pictou Advocate sports

I was sitting among the clientele in the pathology and laboratory medicine department at Dartmouth General Hospital the other morning, awaiting my turn to get monthly blood work done.

It’s the largest clinical laboratory in Atlantic Canada, so it’s easy to realize, after taking a number, the waiting can be a bit lengthy. Usually I have the latest issue of Sports Illustrated to pass the time. This time, I was empty-handed.

If you’ve been in such a place, you know how things can become rather informative. Conversations get kind of interesting — even if you don’t intend to listen.

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Take the other day.

Two women, seated next to each other, had a mutual topic to discuss. I couldn’t tell if they knew each other or not. They certainly didn’t notice they were sharing their chat with everyone else.

“I don’t think Adam is going to play hockey this year,” the lady in white shorts and red top remarked. “It’s just getting too expensive to keep it up.”

“Oh, I know what you mean,” replied the one in jeans and an orange sweatshirt. “My husband and I have been trying to get enough money for Mark to play.”

They had my attention.

It’s an issue that gets discussed a lot at this time of year. The cost of registration. The increasing cost for skates and other equipment. The team requirements to pay a share so the kids can travel to tournaments in every second arena in the province. The many hockey schools that make one hockey season run into the next hockey season. No summers off.

Both mothers in the hospital waiting room had the financial matters in mind.

They were both using familiar facts. Such comments are heard at the first tryouts in September, during the team selection process, on and on for months until another season is finished.

It raises the same questions wherever there’s minor hockey. Is the game becoming a sport limited to the elite? Is it getting prohibitive for average hard-working families? It could be.

New buildings keep coming on line.

The Pictou County Wellness Centre is an example in the immediate area. The multi-rink complex in Bedford is another. Coming on line next week is a modern four-rink facility in Dartmouth Crossing.

Old arenas that have opened in my generation are already being closed — John Brother MacDonald Stadium in New Glasgow a perfect illustration. I attended the opening of the Dartmouth Sportsplex and already it’s getting a multi-million-dollar renovation and expansion.

These new rinks are great. Teams are always looking for more ice time. Even as ice rentals skyrocket.

Who pays in the end? The moms and dads.

In the early 1980s, my younger son followed his big brother into minor hockey in Cole Harbour. He was four years old. A year later, at the advanced age of five, he looked like a natural when he was picked as a goaltender for one of the early tryouts. He was small enough to stand up in the net — and he looked so impressive wearing the pads that he became a career netminder.

Even then — 36 years ago — my wife and I were hit by the alarming costs of goalie equipment. It wasn’t just the pads. There were the goalie skates, the goalie gloves, the goalie everything. It was expensive, even with both parents working. But, boy, what we paid seems like a bargain in comparison to the price tag attached to a goaltender nowadays.

The early start in goal paid off. Our young fellow played the top level of novice, atom, peewee and bantam as he moved through the Cole Harbour Minor Hockey Association.

Was it worth it?

I believe it was, and not just because I was always a hockey fan, especially of hockey goalies. The routines, the dedication, the time spent at improving as a player — all those kinds of things — I feel helped him become equally committed to school studies. It was a 12-year undertaking that concluded with a degree from St. Francis Xavier University.

But you know something that puzzles me?

Why do current young players leave their hockey at those expensive neighbourhood rinks? Why do they not play and practise in driveways and on streets where traffic isn’t a problem?

Last winter, after watching a granddaughter’s game, I took a leisurely route home. It was a lovely Saturday morning as I drove around Dartmouth, through quiet areas dominated by attractive homes. Know what I noticed?

Streets were still covered by some snow from the previous day. Yet I couldn’t find even one hockey net, one boy or girl, playing hockey the way street hockey and pond hockey used to be visible everywhere.

Where were the kids? Probably in their homes, watching television or playing games on their expensive cell phones and smart phones. No time to play outdoors.

During the last few months, I’ve been writing a book on my Pictou County memories and the many Pictonians I got to know in the sports community. It was amazing, as I reviewed athlete profiles in my old newspaper stories and columns, how many of our former senior players learned their hockey skills on quiet town streets, out on a frozen East River, on the ice at what was known as Connolly’s Dam, on an outdoor rink on the west side. Those youngsters played endlessly in winter and later played for senior clubs in the region.

These decades later, kids don’t look for open areas to play after school until dark. Rather they try to convince their parents to send them to every hockey school around. Price doesn’t seem to matter.

Meantime, while I didn’t know either of the hockey mothers chatting at the hospital the other morning, I do wonder if their sons — and many other kids like them — will be priced out of hockey this winter.