Two recent studies that look at enrolment numbers in hockey across Canada — the Charlton Report in 2011 and a more recent parent survey by Bauer Hockey and Hockey Canada — suggest that the sport has some major hurdles to overcome to increase youth enrolment, ranging from price, to parent involvement, to concerns about head injuries.
Some changes, including a rule change that removes bodychecking from the game for kids under the age of 13, are having a positive impact, but it's too soon to know whether numbers will return.
Overall enrolment in hockey is up across Canada, but almost all of that growth is the result of more adults playing and the growth in hockey programs for girls and women.
But while Whistler isn't immune to national trends, Whistler Minor Hockey Association president Steve Legge said enrolment issues for the club have more to do with competition from other sports, ice time, the loss of the more talented players to clubs in the city and an unwillingness on the part of parents to commit.
"The rule change (on bodychecking) has helped us, I don't think there's any doubt that was a big issue for parents and kids, and we're seeing a jump in programs for our smaller kids," he said. "But we're still losing kids in the higher age groups."
Last year, Squamish and Whistler had to combine kids to field a midget house team. This year they're running a combined midget house league team out of Squamish, and have combined on bantam and midget rep teams as well.
Legge said one of the main reasons for the drop at those age groups is competition with other sports. "It's the mountain," he said. "We're second fiddle to skiing, we always will be and it's as simple as that. I'd love to say that hockey was first but it's not the case."
The fact that kids even have to choose between hockey and skiing is an issue, said Legge. He's spoken to a lot of kids that want to be able to do both sports, and believes there might be a way in the future to schedule skiing and hockey programs so that both programs benefit.
"I played hockey and ski raced as a kid and there was no problem, but that was in Ontario," he said, where more programs were available and ski programs were built around hockey.
The lack of available ice has also been an issue when it comes to recruitment. One major change that the WMHA made this year was to bump back its afternoon practices from 3:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. to give Pemberton players more time to get to Meadow Park arena. "That seems to be popular, and we're getting big numbers from that already," said Legge.