Can a non-contact hockey league recruit and retain more hockey players? Don McIntosh certainly hopes so.
The president of Hockey Winnipeg said starting next fall, a new non-contact league will be organized city-wide for players aged 11 to 15. This is the first time Winnipeg's chief hockey governing body has offered a purely non-contact stream for players that traditionally could only play full-contact hockey.
Recent studies by Hockey Canada have identified three major issues that are discouraging many children from trying hockey, and others from continuing the game into their teenage years.
Cost and time commitment are certainly part of the problem, McIntosh said. But so too are concerns about injury resulting from bodychecking.
The results of these studies were primarily responsible for Hockey Canada's decision to ban bodychecking from pewee hockey this season.
A non-contact league will be attractive to players who simply don't like bodychecking. But it should also appeal to players who want to take time off from full-contact hockey, but still want to keep their skills sharp.
"I think it's time for us to show some leadership on retention and recruitment," McIntosh said. "If we can keep kids in the game longer with a non-contact league, then it will really help our overall numbers."
Those numbers certainly show hockey is becoming less attractive as a youth sport option.
Across Canada, there has been slow but unremarkable growth in the number of minor hockey players. However, the proportion of total children playing hockey has dropped significantly. Hockey has already fallen behind soccer as the most popular youth sport, and in a few years will likely find it is in third place behind basketball, the fastest growing youth sport.
This season, there are 22 fewer boys hockey teams registered with Hockey Winnipeg. That loss was partly offset by five additional female teams. Given exact registration numbers aren't confirmed until the end of the season, it is hard to identify the precise number of players who have dropped out of the game or never started. However, the drop in registered teams represents a potential net loss of about 250 players.
"Our overall numbers have been pretty stable for the last few years," said McIntosh. "We typically register just under 10,000 kids each year. However, it seems now we've got a problem recruiting and retaining players. We've got to do something different and I think non-contact hockey will help."
The non-contact league will attempt to provide a lower cost, lower intensity option that will appeal to youth who still want to play some form of hockey, McIntosh said. Although there will be some challenges in finding ice time and coaches, he said there is enough support in the community to make it a success.
Across Canada, non-contact youth hockey leagues have had mixed success. In Regina, non-contact loops have repeatedly failed to attract enough players to make teams.
In other jurisdictions, however, non-contact streams have been a rousing success. Saskatoon, for example, has a very popular midget-age non-contact league. Ontario for many years now has not allowed bodychecking in its house-league tiers. In British Columbia, many hockey associations have eliminated bodychecking in recreational or house league tiers, which represent as much as 70 per cent of all players registered.
Advocates point out in addition to being safer, non-contact hockey is less costly and time consuming because players practice and play less than competitive, full-contact divisions.
It has, however, been difficult to find non-contact hockey options for teenage players. Those organizers who have put the time and effort into establishing hitting-free options for teens have found success.
Bill Robertson is president of the Toronto Non-Contact Hockey League (TNCHL), one of Ontario's oldest and most successful non-contact loops. This year, TNCHL has registered eight bantam-aged teams (13 and 14) and six midget-aged teams (15 and 16).
Contrary to popular belief non-contact hockey is slower and less skilled, Robertson points out his league features many AA- and AAA-calibre players who either no longer want to bodycheck, or who are not permitted to play full-contact hockey because of repeated concussions.
Robertson said most people who come to see TNCHL games are amazed at how fast and skilled the hockey is. There are also surprised at how quickly the games are played because there are so few whistles, and how little "extra-curricular" chippiness exists.
"We see this as a hybrid of a competitive league," Robertson said. "It has all the speed and skill, but with less stress and win-at-all-cost mentality that causes people to do so many dumb things. We also demand that our players exhibit a high degree of respect for each other, the coaches and the referees."
The other extremely attractive aspect of the TNCHL is the financial and time burden. It costs about $1,200 to play in the TNCHL for one season, and that includes uniforms, games and practice ice. Players are on the ice two to three times a week, as opposed to five or six days a week in AA or AAA programs.
"Part of our mandate is to have a hockey-life balance," he said. "We organized this so that it wasn't the only thing these kids were doing."