by Richard Creaser
copyright the Chronicle 12-26-2012
STANSTEAD, Quebec — For many youths and for many years, a trip over the Canadian border to play hockey in Stanstead was a rite of winter. Over the past several years, however, fewer and fewer children have enrolled in the Border Minor Hockey Association program. The hockey association’s directors and president are trying to determine why.
Over the last few years the Border hockey program has brought in fewer children than it has graduated out. This despite an above-average rate of players advancing into higher levels of play after Border hockey.
“We have about 16 percent of our players move on into double letters,” Border Hockey Association President Dave Dubois said. “The average program has maybe 8 or 9 percent move on. This is a very solid program that prepares players to a very high level.”
The program is open to children, both male and female, as young as four and five years old, and extends usually until players depart to play at the high school varsity level. Though some players may opt to stay with the upper tiers of Border Hockey, a sharp decline in numbers often makes that difficult.
“We don’t tend to lose a lot of kids once they’re in the program,” Border Hockey board member Denis Ducharme said. “We just seem to be having trouble getting the word out, getting more kids interested in playing.”
Chief among the obstacles are some of the misconceptions surrounding the sport, its costs, and access to the home facility at the Pat Burns Arena in Stanstead. The biggest concern is about the safety of players.
“People think hockey is a rough sport and it really isn’t,” Mr. Ducharme said. “Certainly not at the beginner level. By the time contact is allowed, the players and their parents know what they are getting into. But you have the option to continue playing at the recreational, no-contact level.”
Younger players focus first on the skills necessary to playing hockey. They learn how to skate and how to fall and become comfortable on the ice.
“The biggest danger to the younger kids isn’t getting hit by the puck or other kids, it’s falling down,” Mr. Ducharme said. “The gear that we require addresses that. Falling down is going to happen, and the gear is there to make sure the only thing that gets hurt is your pride.”
In the early stages the program focuses on teamwork and the social aspects of hockey. The actual skills of hockey come later and are introduced in stages.
Not all players develop at the same rate. Some players easily grasp skills and concepts and are prepared for a higher level of play than others. Fortunately, the Border Hockey program has multiple tiers ideally suited to accommodate players of varying skill levels.
New players, or players who are slower to develop their skills, would only encounter frustration if they were forced to play with or against players with more experience in the sport. The emphasis is first and foremost on having fun, Mr. Ducharme said. The different tiers enable coaches to find the right level of play for their players. Playing with and against others of comparable skill levels provides the most enjoyable experience for everyone involved, Mr. Dubois said.
“We don’t want anyone out there feeling like they have nothing to contribute to the team because they can’t shoot as hard or skate as fast,” Mr. Ducharme said. “At this level everyone gets a share of the ice time. But at the same time we don’t want to hold players back who are ready for more of a challenge.”
The concepts of teamwork and fair play, commitment and confidence all develop from a child’s exposure to organized play. These are the qualities that coaches instill in their players and will continue to serve them well both in and out of hockey, Mr. Dubois said.
“There is so much you can learn from playing team sports and hockey in particular,” he said. “It teaches young people the kinds of qualities we’d like them to have when they get older.”
Mr. Ducharme acknowledged that the cost of enrolling children in a hockey program can be more than enrolling them in a summer soccer program for example.
“You are going to spend more on hockey gear than you would on soccer gear,” Mr. Ducharme said. “Skates and pads cost more than shorts and shoes.”
The relative cost of hockey gear and registration, when divided over the number of hours spent in practice and in games, brings that cost down considerably. In the span of an average season a Border Hockey player plays 25-30 games with up to 40 games possible. Half of those games would be played in Stanstead, Mr. Ducharme said. All told, the cost runs between $10 per hour and $12 per hour averaged over those games.
“You could easily spend that in one trip to the movies,” Mr. Ducharme said. “Can you really put a price tag on watching your son or daughter do something they love? Based on the number of grandparents, aunts and uncles that come to these games, I don’t think you can put a price on that family time.”
Though it is true that players will outgrow their gear as the grow older it’s rare that every piece of gear needs replacing at once. Players tend to outgrow certain pieces of gear or require new gear in fits and spurts. There are options to help control costs, including a strong market in second-hand gear.
“When we’ve had to, we’ve been able to outfit a kid that needed help,” Mr. Ducharme said. “If your kid wants to play hockey, we will work with you to help make it happen.”
Another concern relates to the costs associated with away games. Traveling to games does involve a commitment of time and some money from the parents. However, it’s often possible to arrange to share rides with other players and their parents, cutting down on some of the worry, Mr. Ducharme said. Likewise, by packing lunches or snacks, reducing food costs on road trips is also possible.
“Most of our games take place within 45 minutes to an hour from Stanstead,” Mr. Dubois said. “For this area that’s not an unreasonable amount of travel time. But we do attend some tournaments that are further away.”
The amount of money you could spend on your child’s involvement in the hockey program is virtually unlimited. From summer hockey skills camps to tournaments and the highest-end of gear, the sky’s the limit, Mr. Ducharme said. But that does not mean that hockey is a rich man’s sport.
“If you want to spend the money, there are plenty of ways to do that,” Mr. Ducharme said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money to give your child a quality hockey experience. They can get that with our program.”
One big change that has affected the program is the tightening of controls at the border. The changes are largely ones that affect the parents more so than the children, Mr. Dubois said. In order to cross the border, all adults require either a passport or an enhanced driver’s license. The children simply have to have a birth certificate. Recognizing that crossing the border can be more difficult during holiday weekends, Border Hockey makes an effort to avoid scheduling practices or games at those times.
Border Hockey is second only to Stanstead College in acquiring preferential ice time for its teams. As the owners of the facility, it is only natural that Stanstead College have first crack at the optimal times for its hockey players.
“Most of our practices are at 6 o’clock at night,” Mr. Ducharme said. “I remember the days when you would have to get up at dawn or play well into the night to get ice time but that isn’t the case anymore. We actually have really good times and a fantastic new facility to play in.”
There’s a big difference between the Stanstead Ice Palace and the new Pat Burns Arena. Whereas the Ice Palace was certainly icy, a palace it most assuredly was not. Seating was mean and cold, locker rooms sparse, lighting poor, and access to the arena a literal slippery slope depending on prevailing weather conditions.
The Pat Burns Arena is everything the Ice Palace was not — easily accessible, comfortable, well-lit, and with plenty of locker rooms as well as a fabulous restaurant and observation room.
“This is just a really great place to watch a hockey game,” Mr. Ducharme said. “A lot of work and effort went into making this new arena possible. Border Hockey is very fortunate to be able to call this our home rink.”
Mr. Dubois and Mr. Ducharme invite parents and prospective players to contact them or other board members directly for more information about the Border Minor Hockey Association. They are also invited to attend home games to see the kids in action.
“I think once they see that these kids are just like them, playing a game they enjoy, they will want to play, too,” Mr. Ducharme said. “We just want kids and their parents to give it a try. I think they might be surprised at how much they like it.”
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