Like a tale of two cities, it’s been the best of times, and it’s been the worst of times for the two hockey-loving countries that share a border on the 49th parallel.
In the United States, there is a growing sense of excitement as new programs such as the American Development Model and innovative growth initiatives have put the sport on the right track for growth in the number of players and the quality of their experiences. Add to that another gold medal at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship, and things are looking up.
In Canada, the birthplace of the game, there seems to be a different feeling as countless articles have popped up in national publications bemoaning a dip in the number of players who are entering the game, to go along with the number of new Canadian families that have not embraced the game as part of their national character.
As a company with its roots firmly anchored on both sides of the border, Bauer Hockey is looking to launch a 10-year global initiative designed to increase hockey participation, with a lofty goal of adding 1 million additional players – on top of current participation growth projections – by 2022.
“As a leader on the equipment side of the business, this is something that we feel obligated to do,” said Kevin Davis, chief executive officer for Bauer Hockey.
“The objective is for us to add a million members worldwide on top of the current growth rate. We haven’t broken it out by geography … but if we can double the growth rate that would be fantastic.”
The first phase of the project, which is set to roll out with pilot projects in Ontario and Nova Scotia, will focus on youth hockey north of the border in an effort to pinpoint the reasons why nearly 90 percent of Canadian children choose not to play hockey.
According to published statistics provided by Hockey Canada, the number of Canadian male players playing hockey between the Tyke and Midget age groups appears to have peaked at slightly more than 440,000 in 2009-10. Since then, registrations have fallen two years in a row, dipping to 427,000 in 2011-12.
Bauer has also been in contact with USA Hockey to develop a similar research project in the United States to complement the organization’s successful membership development programs and the ADM, efforts that have positively impacted participation and retention rates among youth players.
“We see it as adding momentum to our efforts,” said Pat Kelleher, assistant executive director of
Development for USA Hockey. “The people at Bauer see that we’ve been working hard and that everything within the ADM and membership development is strategic and being done for a purpose. So they are looking to add fuel to our fire and help continue to build momentum for growing the game.”
When USA Hockey kicked its membership drive into high gear back in June 2008, there were almost 90,000 kids starting hockey at the 8 & Under level. Last year, those ranks swelled to more than 107,387.
“There’s some great growth happening in the U.S.,” Davis said. “The 2011-12 numbers from USA
Hockey show some solid growth among 8, 9 and 10-year-olds, so I think that’s great. Those numbers are pretty big numbers considering what we’ve looked at.”
Over the next year, Bauer Hockey expects to roll out similar programs across the globe by working with the International Ice Hockey Federation as well as other national governing bodies.
When it comes to identifying the issues impacting the growth of the game, the challenges seem to be universal, with cost, time commitment and safety concerns topping the list as to why kids don’t get involved in the game or why they leave after a couple of years.
“The objective is for us to add a million members worldwide on top of the current growth rate.
“I think the United States is no different than Canada in that there will be different regions inside the country where there will be different reasons why families and kids choose to play hockey or not,” Davis said.
“Since we do so much research for bringing great performing hockey equipment to the market, why don’t we do a similar type of research together with the leaders in our sport and try to narrow down those barriers to entry and see which ones we are able to overcome.”
By partnering with Hockey Canada and USA Hockey, Bauer looks to identify these factors, determine the necessary steps to break down the obstacles and develop strategies for growth on a regional and national level.
“We feel pretty positive that it needs to be a global effort and the key leaders in the sport to work with us to try to do this,” Davis said.
“We have a reason to grow the sport from a commercial standpoint, but I think above and beyond that it’s just a great sport.”
In addition to adding new players to hockey, Bauer Hockey is also focused on raising the overall level of safety awareness and education for everyone involved in the game.
“We are investing a tremendous amount of our research and development on the safety portion of all products, and it continues to be a driver for us,” Davis said. “This initiative will reach out to the global experts in safety but will also educate families, coaches and trainers on what it takes to make our great game as safe as possible.”
Upon completion of the research studies, Bauer Hockey will announce its findings and work closely with each country’s governing bodies to help build the necessary programs to address the barriers to entry and increase participation.
While the challenges may vary from state to state and country to country, Davis is convinced that the universal appeal of the game remains its strongest asset, now and in the future.
“We’re not trying to push a bad product when we’re talking about the sport of hockey,” Davis said.
“We’re trying to get people into the tent and show them what a great time it can be, and again from both research and anecdotally, when kids have a good time on the ice they’ll be back forever.
“As we all know, the greatest thing about this sport is that once kids get on the ice and have a good experience they will play it for the rest of their lives.”