Hockey: Canada’s national sport?
Hockey has unofficially been declared Canada’s national sport and many Canadian children play hockey for the sheer love of the game. It’s the game their dads and grandparents grew up with. The simplicity of a sheet of ice, a stick and a puck as carefree children glide over the ice in the most carefree ways. However, it is disheartening, but perhaps not surprising that the innocence of this beloved sport for so many children has changed. Today, the promise of success, kids worried about their NHL prospects and an all-consuming focus on winning has changed the game of hockey. Today, youth hockey is extremely demanding, exceedingly competitive and a huge financial commitment for parents. The integrity of this after-school activity when hockey was just a game, to the obsessive aspiration of a career in professional hockey has changed the meaning, focus, and spirit of hockey. Hockey, for children today, has stopped being about fun and sadly, with hockey growing in popularity at the elite levels, involvement at recreational levels seems to be on the decline.
Most people in the hockey world today concur with Robert Kennedy’s belief that, “If your child is serious about playing professional hockey someday, then you need to consider a prep school” (2018). Although the dream is still viable and hockey offers the promise of success, there is an enormous price attached to this option. Depending on the hockey school, the initial cost for specialized academies ranges from $15,000 to $30,000 per academic year (Adams, J. & Johnston, P., 2018; Balderson, D., 2015, p. 28). Although hockey academies actively promote their schools, wanting parents to believe their children have an enormous advantage of making it into professional hockey, the truth is that Canadian hockey has a very narrow road to success. However, the exclusivity of the academies comes at an inordinate price tag and consequently is only available to those who have the financial means to afford the exorbitant tuition fees. Although the dream is unattainable for most, hockey will always be a major part of Canadian culture. On the other hand, the relatively new development of hockey academies has threatened the sport’s true blue-collar roots. The focus on elite athletes is pushing children from lower and middle-class families away, making the dream for them virtually unattainable. Guilty as charged, my family was part of the hockey academy experience as my brother attended several hockey summer camps and academies. I often attended his games as a spectator of the sport as well as an observer of the culture surrounding the game.
Currently, in British Columbia, there are about 10 hockey academies with parents paying extravagant fees to make their children’s dreams of playing professional hockey come true (Adams, J. & Johnston, P., 2018; Vaananen, I., & Kuorikoski, T., 2010, p. 148). Unfortunately, the truth is, only 6% of high school athletes have the skills, speed, discipline, and proficiency to play at a college level and a mere 2% qualify for a career in professional sports (Adams, J., 2018). The question can then be posed, why are parents devoting this extraordinary amount of time and money, perhaps taking out second mortgages or getting second or third jobs when, in reality, the chances of their child going pro is slim to none? Perhaps the dream of their son making it into the NHL is so prominent in their minds, that it continues to be a viable and feasible ambition for them.
French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu developed the concept of cultural capital to demonstrate the way an individual is defined by his or her assets, such as education, economic wealth and social class. It’s used as a form of distinction in a society that defines a person’s social status. As well, it’s a way social classes are distinguished through acquired taste and knowledge that tends to vary between the upper, middle and lower classes (Holt, 1998, p. 216, Bourdieu, P., 1978, p. 837). Through hockey academies, the affluent upper class is able to exercise their power and influence by dominating the academies (Booth, D., & Gruneau, R., 1999, p. 432; Corrigan, T., 2014, p. 44). Additionally, it can be presumed that the upper class is better able to enjoy expensive sports, such as hockey as they have the income and resources available to them (Wilson, T., 2002, p. 6). Hockey, traditionally a working-class sport, has been transformed into a sport primarily for the wealthy and privileged class in society.
From sticks and pucks to parents and politics
During the many hours I spent with my family at my brother’s games, I was able to observe the distinct behaviour, attitudes, and demeanour of parents that surrounds organized hockey. The moms being fashionably decked out to attend a weekend tournament, parents “buying” a spot on the team for their son, or some, who actually purchased a top hockey team to ensure their son’s spot on that team. In addition, my parents were told by coaches as well as other parents that although my brother was one of the better players, he would never make it onto a top team if they didn’t pay the price for it. This meant they were expected to provide him with extra ice time at private rinks, enrolment in skills development programs, off-season training and register him in an elite hockey academy to not only improve his all-around skills but to compete with other elite leagues with the hope of catching the eye of notable hockey scouts. All this at a minimum cost of $40,000/year. Parents who are able to pay, are also able to exploit the sport, using money as power and influence and to ensure their child secures a spot on the best teams (Corrigan, T., 2014, p. 44; O’Connor, J. & Cushman, C., 2018). Today, the cost of playing hockey sometimes goes well beyond the equipment, uniforms, and academies. That is, it involves payment and even bribery to get onto the top teams (Booth, D., & Gruneau, R., 1999, p. 432; O’Connor, J. & Cushman, C., 2018). Unfortunately, the politics and disparities in hockey today are startling and disturbing.
As a result of the cost of equipment, training, and tuition to elite academies, the sport excludes the lower and working classes as the cost is well beyond their means. Those from wealthy families who are enrolled in elite academies have the advantage of receiving the best training and coaching, as well as a great deal of exposure to scouts. Race and social status have been an enormous detriment to children from working-class families (Bourdieu, P., 1978, p. 837). Consequently, the chance of going professional is significantly higher for those who have the means to attend hockey academies. On the other hand, players from working-class families end up in regular leagues, foregoing the advantages and opportunities the elite academies provide to their members. As well, for players in regular leagues, to receive recognition, they must have a skill set that far exceeds their academy peers (Mirtle, J., 2017). As a result, hockey academies have become the major route for hockey players who hope to gain the skill and ability to reach the success they need to become professional. Therefore, their parents pay top dollars for elite facilities, training, coaches, and scout recognition (Adams, J., 2018).
The wholesome community spirit that Canadians rave about has become a capitalist business run by the wealthy (Mason, D. & Slack, T., 2001, p.169). Parents seem to have lost the meaning and purpose of playing hockey. What happened to the simplicity and wholesome approach of kids playing hockey together for the love of the sport? Its strength lies in its integrity and inclusiveness. But these values seem to have lost their appeal in the hockey world. Canadians once conveyed a sense of unity and rejoiced through the sport. However, today, hockey has become exclusive and completely commoditized from the training regimes, elite academies and the teams that only accept those with the financial stability to take part in hockey at the highly competitive level (Corrigan, T., 2014, p. 50; Friedman, M. & Andrew, D., 2010, p. 187). Freidman, M. and Andrew, D. (2010) also contend that the elitism and exclusivity in hockey today tends to reinforce, as well as disguise the inequalities and disparities that persist underneath the surface (p. 186).
While Canadian hockey has been portrayed and celebrated as an all-inclusive sport, it is troubling to note that 92% of NHL players are white (Judd, W., 2015; Kahn, L., 1991, p. 400). Thomas Wilson explains that there has been “a stark race-to-wealth differential” which he believes helps to clarify the reason there is less racial diversity in hockey (Judd, W., 2015). However, I am skeptical and disturbed that less than 10% of NHL players are person’s of color and that this inequality and discriminatory imbalance exists in the Canadian hockey culture (Kahn, L., 1991, p. 400). Canada prides itself on being a multicultural country that recognizes and accepts Canadians of all races and ethnic groups. I, therefore, question this discrepancy and suggest more open discussions about this type of inequity.
In addition to the racial inequality, It is also regretful that Canadian hockey players are no longer defined solely by their skill levels. Instead, they are recognized by their parents’ income and ability to pay top dollars to enter the world of hockey at the elite level. Hockey academies promote a top-down approach with the wealthy owners and parents at the forefront, while the coaches and trainers tend to take a back seat. Thus, I question, the future of hockey. Is it in jeopardy of losing its appeal? I think the intensity and competitive nature of youth hockey, as well as the exorbitant tuition fees, exclusivity, and selection process of elite hockey academies creates inequities on many levels. We need to create a fresh approach, one that is accessible and affordable. One that provides a level and fair playing field for all Canadians. One that attracts youths and their families. The main reason kids play any sport is for the love of the sport and to have fun. We need to recognize that youth hockey should be just that. One that is unifying, integrative and values each player. One that is based on integrity and promotes friendship, cooperation, diversity, and participation for all.
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Judd, W. (2015, June 19). Why Are Most Hockey Fans White? Retrieved from https://pmag.com/social-justice/why-is-hockey-so-white
Kennedy, R. (2018). Check out this list of Hockey Prep Schools in Canada. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/hockey-schools-in-canada-2774706
Mirtle, J. (2017). The great offside: How Canadian hockey is becoming a game strictly for the rich. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/time- to-lead/the-great-offside-how-canadian-hockey-is-becoming-a-game-strictly-for-the-richarticle15349723/
O’Connor, J., & Cushman, C. (2016). Hockey Parent Confidential: An oral history of sex, bribes and goalie moms. Retrieved from http://nationalpost.com/features/hockey-parent-confidential