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Rising costs, indoor urban rinks change the face of Canada’s game

The setting could not have been more appropriate.

A meeting room at the Château Laurier, the hotel where, 100 years ago, 21 stakeholders met and formed the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, forerunner to Hockey Canada.

To celebrate this centennial, the Royal Canadian Mint had produced a commemorative $20 coin, the familiar logo of the hockey player skating through the red maple leaf shining brightly under chandelier and television lights.

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The Minister of State for Sport, Bal Gosal, spoke about the national game and how it ranges from "a recreational pastime played on frozen ponds" to today's multibillion-dollar enterprise involving professional players and vast broadcast empires. Others expressed words of support for 86-year-old Gordie Howe, the country's "Mr. Hockey," hopefully recovering from a massive stroke suffered a week earlier.

It was all sweetness and light, if a tad ironic.

Howe, growing up in Saskatoon as one of nine children, might never even have skated had a neighbour not dropped off a gunny sack containing an old pair of skates. Gordie grabbed one, his sister Edna the other, and off they went to one of those frozen ponds. Gordie bought the other skate off Edna for a dime – and one of hockey's greatest careers was launched.

That impoverished Gordie Howe, even if his dime were now a $20 coin, could not afford to play today, not in a hockey world that includes expensive winter, spring and summer hockey, a world that has special skill camps and personal trainers for children, a world where star-struck parents line up to pay the cost of a university education to have their kid attend a "hockey academy."

Hockey was once seen as a ticket out of the northern mines and prairie pockets. Today, it is almost exclusively an urban game, played year-round on expensive artificial ice by the middle class and up, who dream of somehow becoming the far less than 1 per cent of players who will ever be in a professional game.

With costs so high and demands so intense – not to forget increasing fears of injury – it is understandable why registration numbers are down. Last year, Canada had 621,842 players, not counting older, recreational players. The United States, where registration has been on an upswing, had 519,417. If trends continue, it will soon pass us.

Hockey Canada has seen enormous success since 1998, when the NHL released its players to compete in the Olympic Games. Sponsorship has soared, the logo on the coin has become a huge money-maker, pun intended, and the men's and women's Olympic success has been duly celebrated by the country.

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But what of the next 100 years?

"Good question," says Tom Renney, the new president of Hockey Canada, who is barely 100 days into the job. And it's one the cerebral Mr. Renney, a former junior and NHL coach, intends to answer.

"We want to increase the numbers," he says. "We want to identify with the reasons why we play the game – and it's not just about high performance and gold medals and the National Hockey League.

"I can identify with high performance and those championships, but none of that exists without grassroots development."

Mr. Renney says that, as head of Hockey Canada, he has to "accept responsibility" for rising concerns over cost and injury in the national game. "We have to pay attention" to such issues as head injuries and fighting, he says, and "be able to make a stand on how we would like this game to go forward."

As for costs, Mr. Renney points to sponsorship programs with the likes of Bauer and Canadian Tire aimed at getting lower-income children involved in the sport for less money and even no cost.

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One program outfits more than 1,000 children ages 6 to 10 in full gear and includes six weeks of fall instruction and another six weeks of practice and play in the new year – all for a registration fee of $199.

Mr. Renney says the organization has to concern itself with new Canadians "who want very badly to be Canadian in every way imaginable. Well, what better vehicle than hockey with which to do that?

"We have a daunting task ahead of us. But we have to grow the game. And if that's my legacy, that we improve the numbers and participation, then I'm a happy man."

And in doing that, should you happen to find a Gordie Howe in the next 100 years, you'll have a happier national game.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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