Hockey may be considered Canada’s national winter sport, but costs associated with equipment and lessons can be steep. This fall, a group of 30 children in Powell River are getting the chance to learn the game free of charge.
Canadian Tire’s First Shift program has come to the community for the first time, according to Powell River Minor Hockey Association director of operations Rick Hopper. Its aim is to make hockey more affordable for young children to try the sport and have fun.
“Normally the program costs $199,” said Hopper. “For that you get a complete set of hockey equipment head to toe, and ice time.”
However, Hopper said he was concerned that cost might still be a barrier to many families.
“If you’re really fired up about your kid playing hockey, certainly $199 is a deal,” he added, “but due to financial considerations, I felt that we may have trouble getting 30 spots filled.”
He contacted the Powell River Regals hockey club and the organization agreed to pick up the $199 fee for all 30 children, making the program accessible to everyone. Along with the Regals’ donation, the Powell River program is providing double the number of on-ice lessons.
“We’re going to do six ice times in the fall and then six after Christmas in the winter,” said Hopper.
New players will be learning from experienced volunteer coaches with a ratio of one coach per four young skaters. When the program was announced Hopper said there was no need to advertise as the response through word of mouth led to it reaching capacity within 48 hours. The hope is the program will spark interest and boost enrolment in minor hockey in years to come, he added.
“We’re opening up the door for more kids and families to be interested in playing hockey,” said Hopper. “Hopefully we get some redemption to our minor hockey registrations next year from these kids who have taken the First Shift program.”
Although minor hockey numbers have dropped in recent years, Hopper said he is optimistic this decline is stabilizing as there appear to be more younger children in town. However, he does not anticipate the sport reaching the enrolment numbers seen in previous decades.
“There’s simply not as many children in Powell River as there used to be,” he added, “so maybe minor hockey is going to look a little different in the future.”
At the First Shift welcome event last week at Powell River Recreation Complex, enthusiastic would-be players aged five to 10 were fitted for equipment. Together with their parents they watched the correct sequence for putting on the new gear demonstrated on fellow player, Declan Paul, five.
“He’s always wanted to play hockey,” said his mother Alison Paul. “This is a great way to try it out.”
Other parents said the sport was relatively new to them as well as their children.
“I’m from Ireland so there was no hockey there,” said Paula Vasseur, who together with husband Kyle accompanied son Tiernan, seven.
“His cousins play hockey but he hasn’t had the chance himself until now,” said Kyle. “This is a great opportunity.”
Starting from scratch and building a hockey player takes countless hours, said Hopper, but the learning and connections made are rewarding and can last a lifetime.
“That’s what it’s really all about: getting children engaged in the sport,” he said. “It’s not about them going to the NHL, it’s about them enjoying the sport and having a positive experience. That’s really our ultimate goal.”