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Player numbers Hockey Canada's main concern

Head coach Gary Hunter talks to his players on Vancouver Thunderbirds Atom A2 during their game against Richmond Seafair A2 in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada September 29, 2011.

Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail/Jeff Vinnick/The Globe and Mail

The theme for Hockey Canada's 93rd annual general meeting is R and R, only it has nothing to do with rest and relaxation and everything to do with recruitment and retention – how to get kids into hockey and how to keep them there.

As hundreds of hockey delegates from across the country gather in Halifax this weekend, Hockey Canada will review its 2011-2012 season with an eye toward making the game more appealing. While exact numbers will be discussed in meetings, it has been estimated that overall registration dropped by 8,000 last year. That count, said Hockey Canada chief operating officer Scott Smith, doesn't include adult recreational hockey, which experienced an increase.

"What we're asking ourselves is: How can we provide a more positive experience in the game?" Smith said. "We're trying to raise more attention to attract and retain players."

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One of the potential ways to do so is through a loyalty card program that has been in the planning for more than a year. The card, which will be presented to some 600,000 people this September, can be used for discounts with Hockey Canada partners, and also includes a fundraising component. The concept is that parents can use the loyalty card to offset costs for hockey equipment and other needs.

Many are hoping this expands interest.

"The challenge is getting new ethnic [minority]players into the game," said Phillip McKee, executive director of the Ontario Hockey Federation, which oversees 220,000 children and 50,000 volunteers and coaches. "We need to attract other ethnicities because they're playing other sports – soccer, basketball, cricket. As a sports body, we've done a great job creating opportunities for kids to play. We need to learn from the experts how to attract kids to the game."

The other issue confronting the game is player safety. Last year, Hockey Canada implemented a rule making any contact with a player's head illegal. McKee described the rule as a positive, one that needs additional time to develop and take hold.

"Generally, we saw a year of transition [to the new rule and on-ice penalties]" he said. "There was growth and learning both for the teams and officials. There might have been a little bit of hesitation to call a four minute [penalty]or a game because of the suspension behind it, but we're saying, 'You have to call it.' "

The Canadian Junior Hockey League will make a pitch to Hockey Canada asking for a two-year extension on the pilot study it began in 2010. Using stronger supplementary discipline to curtail violence, five associations across Canada saw the number of fights decrease 35 to 40 per cent, down to an average of 0.60 fights per game.

As part of the extension, the CJHL is looking to tighten things up even further in areas involving blows to the head, dangerous hits, accumulated majors and fighting. For example: In 2010-2011, when a player had his seventh fight of the season, he automatically received a one-game suspension; when he had his eighth fight, he drew a two-game suspension and so on. The CJHL wants to see a one-game suspension take place after a fifth fight.

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"What we're taking out of the game are the gratuitous fights – the staged fights, goalie fights, guys coming over the boards," said CJHL chairman Kirk Lamb. "This is about violence in hockey and one part of that is fighting. We'd like to continue that discussion with a two-year [project]extension to examine the data."

Lamb outlined the CJHL's pilot project to an interested outside party three months ago. USA Hockey dissected the information as part of its efforts to reduce fighting and violence at its junior levels.

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About the Author
Sports writer

Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. He joined the Globe and Mail in 1997 with an extensive sports background having covered Stanley Cup finals, the Grey Cup, Summer and Winter Olympics, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, the 1989 Super Bowl riot and the 1989 earthquake World Series. More

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