It is clear that in many respects hockey has never been stronger in this country. In fact Hockey Canada should be commended for the success of the programs and initiatives they have implemented nationally. However an apparent lack of growth in new hockey participation has brought to light some worrying facts that could significantly affect the future of the game.
The numbers clearly demonstrate hockey is struggling to attract and keep new, non-traditional players, particularly the growing number of recent Canadian immigrants. Participation numbers in Cana have flat lined and could decrease by up to 10,000 players in the next decade due to changing demographics. This is not only a factor in Canada, but in other hockey playing nations as well. In the United States, it is estimated that 44% of hockey players drop out of organized ice hockey by the age of nine. In Finland and Sweden, hockey registration has been declining and the trend is expected to continue. A point worth highlighting is that in all four countries, soccer is still the number one participation sport.
Though the question remains, what can the hockey community do to solidify a stronger future position? This question was posed to Juha Mikkola, the Founder of FloorballPro Inc., who may have invented a partial solution. He relates the root of the problem to the cost-prohibitive nature of the equipment and misconceptions that non-hockey parents commonly develop.
“I believe the major challenge for hockey is the barrier to entry at the grassroots level. Hockey is expensive to play, requires facilities that are expensive to build and for parents not familiar with the game may be unfairly perceived as unsafe or violent”.
One approach to addressing this challenge, from Mikkola’s perspective, is to introduce kids to a similar sport to hockey; one that is inexpensive and will naturally generate greater interest in hockey. That new sport is floorball and he believes it could be a gateway to attracting and retaining new young hockey enthusiasts.
“Floorball is a fun, safe, inexpensive and accessible sport similar to indoor hockey played on foot in a gymnasium”.
Mikkola’s claims beg the question: How floorball can help address the negative trend in new participation hockey is facing? After giving the question a moment of thought, Mikkola breaks it down into four areas of influence. First, he points to player skill development and dry-land training.
“Floorball is excellent off-ice training for hockey players. It develops stick handling, passing and shooting skills that effectively translate back to hockey”.
Secondly the low-cost nature of floorball can overcome the barrier the staggering cost of playing hockey presents to new parents. We have all seen the participation of soccer grow in Canada, in part due to how inexpensive and easy it is to participate; Floorball presents a very similar appeal in this regard, according to Mikkola.
“Floorball is considered the soccer of hockey as players need just a stick to play and no specialized protective equipment like gloves, helmets or padding is used”.
In Mikkola’s eyes, the third appeal floorball presents to parents and the hockey community, especially for young children just starting out, is the sport’s focus on safety.
“The rules limit stick checking and high sticks so sticks stay below the waist and players do not get cut or hurt through aggressive stick play. There is no body checking, fighting or aggressive contact”.
Lastly, Mikkola points out the adaptive nature of floorball, which can be played on any gymnasium floor or indoor surface. With limited ice time available and fewer rinks being developed in proportion to our population growth, floorball can provide additional capacity.
“Floorball does not require ice rinks, as it can be played in gymnasiums or outdoor rinks which are readily available across North America for a fraction of the cost of ice time”.
In Europe, floorball has grown exponentially during the last three decades. Hockey representatives from Finland and Sweden have privately attributed their decreased registration numbers to the increased interest in floorball. For example, in Sweden, there are 60,000 registered ice hockey players compared to nearly 125,000 licensed floorball players. This is an example when hockey and floorball do not collaborate and work collectively towards a common goal. This developed into a less than ideal result for Sweden and Finland hockey Federations. However for Canada it gives them an opportunity to construct a different model that will be positive for both sports.
In these countries floorball began quickly gaining popularity in the 1990s and the hockey community largely ignored floorball instead of embracing it. Now floorball boast greater total participation than hockey and has spread to over 50 internationally recognized countries around the world. It has received provisional recognition from the International Olympic Committee and is expected to be part of the Summer Olympics in 2020.
Could our Canadian ice hockey leadership envision a partnership with floorball that leverages the sport to build long-term hockey registration and prevent the fate that’s been experienced in Europe from repeating itself in Canada?
Could local school boards across Canada initiate additional floorball programs within their communities and in turn potentially generate greater interest in hockey? Would Floorball provide an alternative to minor hockey players considering dropping out of organized hockey?
All these questions have been recently posed to Mikkola and he has captured some ongoing discussions on his website: www.floorballpro.com.
“There has been an on going discussion with teams and leagues all the way up to the NHL levels”.
Although floorball may not answer all of hockey’s concerns from a grassroots perspective, getting behind the growth of floorball could be step in the right direction.
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