February 21, 2009

Hockey Day In Canada

Last week Hockey Night In Canada had an engaging two-part Scott Oake interview with Wayne Gretzky. The Great One is always thoughtful and compelling, but one particular comment that has had me thinking all week.
"It's amazing to me how big the game of hockey has gotten in our country. It's always been big but it seems to get bigger each and every day, and there seems to be more passion about sport in our country all the time."
This is a very astute observation, but I can't help but wonder how it is possible. Hockey has always been at the very fabric of our nation and of our people. So how can it be growing? Especially at this time where our general population is aging, which translates into declining youth hockey enrollment, and where our population growth is coming mainly from immigration, which translates into first and second generation Canadians more interested in traditional sports like soccer than hockey.

There are probably a number of reasons, including increased NHL exposure, six healthy Canadian franchises, and Canadian dominance on the world stage.

But the passion for hockey begins at the grassroots level. Bob Nicholson and his team at Hockey Canada deserve heaps of praise for their attention to the sport at the grassroots level. They usually only get accolades for guiding the Olympic teams and World Junior championships dominance. Hockey Canada invests much more energy and money into the game at the kids level back in the small towns and suburban arenas.

There is something else at play here, though. I sense a generational change where young and middle-aged Canadians are fiercely proud of their Canada and all of it's myths and stereotypes. We want to celebrate Canada now more so than in the past, and hockey at all levels is the great benefactor.

There are tremendous opportunities for everyone in this country to share in grassroots hockey. Hockey Day in Canada, airing today on CBC, is a humongous success, with politicians now clamoring to make it a national holiday. Tim Hortons sponsored youth level Timbits Hockey is now a Canadian experience. I have witnessed Kraft Hockeyville's powerful community drawing power first hand this year. And there's a new (actually revised) program out there called Team Up And Bring Home The Cup, where a local hockey team will get the chance to hoist the Stanley Cup on their home ice thanks to Pepsi, Lays, Gatorade and Mark Messier.

Canadians want to celebrate Canada and hockey, and there are plenty of opportunities to do so in every corner of the Great White North.

This paradigm shift may have been born during the NHL lockout in 2004-05. Canadians rediscovered that, as influential as it may be, the National Hockey League is not the be all, end all of the hockey world.

In the NHL's absence that season Canadians returned to local rinks to watch our kids, our junior teams and our senior teams. We re-embraced hockey at it's core, and re-discovered why we love hockey, not the NHL, so much. And in doing so we rediscovered what is great about our communities, about Canadians and about Canada at large.

It is hockey at the grassroots level that sustains the NHL. I hope the powers that be in the NHL can see past the piles of money and never forget that.

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