How privatization and professionalization are remaking the sport I love

The local public ice rink and the non-profit minor hockey association are fast becoming relics. Neither is likely to survive the juggernaut of a new culture of privatized minor sport administration.

The concept of the hockey “season” is also becoming antiquated. The word implies a distinct beginning and an end. But in the all-consuming world of elite minor hockey, the “season” now often runs from August to August. Even the term “athlete” will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history. Its longstanding association with well roundedness and an amateur ethic bears little relation to the hyper-specialized professionalization that today defines the training of youth hockey players and other minor sport participants.

What are we to make of these transformations?

In British Columbia, where I grew up and played competitive hockey, municipalities and regional districts owned all but four ice rinks until 1990. For decades, minor hockey seasons were decided in and across a vast network of publicly owned arenas and civic recreation centres in communities throughout the province. Non-profit minor hockey associations were often their primary winter tenants.

Public facilities have a mandate to serve their communities. The local recreation centre is where my friends and I learned to shoot and skate, to be sure, but it’s also were we attended pre-school and kicked our first soccer balls. For years, the traditional hockey season would begin in late August and wrap up by late March. In the warmer months, the ice would be removed to make room for other activities, maybe summer day camps or lacrosse.

But the old single ice-sheet public recreation centre is ill equipped to deal with the demands of today’s privatized minor hockey environment. Increasingly, the sport is played in purpose built for-profit rinks that serve their clientele on a year-round basis.

In the last 25 years, 13 of the 30 new ice rinks in British Columbia were built by or operated by private interests. As minor hockey training has transformed from seasonal youth recreation to a year-round youth vocation, new opportunities for profitable accumulation have opened themselves to corporate actors who have the wherewithal to capitalize.

The transformation of a rink in suburban Vancouver exemplifies minor hockey’s shifting environments. The Burnaby 8, now owned and operated by Canlan Ice Sports Corporation, was recently retrofitted from an aging four-sheet barn into a state-of-the-art facility. Today it’s outfitted with six NHL-sized rinks, a figure skating sheet, an indoor soccer field, a restaurant complex and cutting-edge gym facilities that include a skating treadmill.

Canlan is no mom-and-pop shop. The corporation’s assets include 18 facilities and 68 sheets of ice across North America. In the 2014 fiscal year, it generated more than $56.7 million from its rink and field activities. Twenty-eight per cent of its revenues came from third-party ice rentals (including minor hockey associations) and another 18 per cent from in-house minor hockey leagues.

Companies like Canlan not only feed on a public appetite for year-round hockey, they actively encourage and depend upon it. Their facilities are blanketed in advertisements for equipment retailers and posters promoting high-performance training companies that sell opportunities to “train like the pros.”

Year-round players vs all-round athletes

Indeed, services that offer to professionalize youth training are the stock-in-trade of private ice rinks requireing year-round occupants. Today, it is entirely likely that large chunks of family hockey budgets will go directly to for-profit training companies that offer a host of services in for-profit facilities. The market for supplementary instruction has exploded and sports entrepreneurs now offer tutelage in everything from offensive and defensive skating to tactical stickhandling to on-ice cognitive functioning and shooting.

In short, sport specialization has become the norm in minor athletics. Hockey culture is animated today by popular idioms and ideologies that tell us that the world of sport is flat. We’re told that any kid who is willing to dedicate significant time to improving their game can attain athletic expertise–and maybe even make it to the pros. Malcolm Gladwell’s popularization of the “10,000-hour rule” has only reinforced such fantasies. Today, youth sport is often less about recreation or healthy activity than about the attainment of expertise. Multi-sport athletes are rapidly being replaced by single-sport specialists.

I became a specialist myself at the age of 16. But today kids are encouraged to commit themselves much earlier. One parent of a current professional hockey player told me that, by the time his son was 12 years old, coaches were advising that he fully commit himself to a life on the ice.

The professionalization of youth hockey training has even spawned year-round academies where kids commit to their athletic development with a single-minded zeal. The Canadian Sports Hockey League (CSHL) was founded in 2009 with the promise of “enabling like-minded players increased levels of competition and exposure.”

Beyond hockey, players are enrolled in local high schools where the curriculum includes a mix of academics and on- and off-ice training. The success of these institutions is measured not in academic achievement but in the number of players that they manage to place in major junior leagues, college hockey and, most importantly, the NHL. Parents who see this as a desirable path for their children shoulder a heavy burden. CSHL academies have an average annual tuition of $20,000, nearly a third of the median family income in Canada.

Professionalization fundamentally alters the meaning of youth athletics, distorting the value of sport and competition. Rather than life lessons learned, goals, assists and competitive achievement become the indicators of money well spent. Success in the world of professionalized youth hockey is wholly oriented and defined in terms of tangible outcomes. Winning is what matters. More and more, positive lessons about sportsmanship, healthy body development, teamwork and co-operation are devalued.

To be clear, I am not a hockey dinosaur. Evolution is inevitable and I don’t long nostalgically for a fast-disappearing past. As a mentor and a coach, I am motivated by a desire to be part of reforming the game that I love, for the benefit of players themselves. At the very least, the privatization and professionalization of our sport has made us lose sight of what matters.