Against the backdrop of what’s happening on Wall Street, hockey moms and dads on Main Streets all across America are sharpening their budgetary pencils as well as their kids’ skates in preparation for what promises to be one of the most challenging hockey seasons in history.
Although the full impact of these turbulent economic times has yet to be felt, hockey families, local associations and rink owners across the country are already addressing the situation with creative solutions to keep costs down and kids on the ice.
Those who are proactive understand that, by finding creative ways to keep hockey affordable and accessible, they have the potential to weather the storm while creating programs that can benefit the sport in the long haul.
Creativity On Ice
Growing the game in tough economic times requires creative thinking on the part of associations and rink owners. Considering the rising cost of energy and its impact on the cost of ice, many programs have become more resourceful about the amount of time teams spend on it.
The Mite-level teams within Minnesota’s Osseo Maple Grove Hockey Association, for example, have seen the benefits of holding cross-ice practices that provide teams with more ice time at a reduced cost per player.
This year, with the addition of a new sheet of ice, the association also hopes to lengthen practices, allowing teams to maintain their total practice hours while cutting the amount of trips to the arena each week.
According to OMGHA President Mike Urquhart, it’s important for associations to be aware of economic stressors and come up with ways to combat them. Whenever possible, his association tries to build teams geographically to promote carpooling. It has also found ways to cut jersey costs by downsizing at the Mite level and extending the life of older players’ jerseys, replacing them every two or three years instead of on an annual basis.
Rinks Go Green
Hockey moms and dads aren’t the only ones feeling the squeeze these days.
“Rink owners are really feeling the energy cost increases,” says T.C. Lewis, owner of the Houston Aerodrome, who acknowledges that fellow rink owners are doing what they can to control costs.
John Monteleone, general manager of the Taylor (Mich.) Sportsplex helped spearhead several cost-saving initiatives this past summer. By changing to “stack scheduling,” the arena was able to pack as many events as possible into a day to control downtime and maximize building efficiency. Rink hours decreased from seven to five days a week while maintaining total operating hours of past summers, resulting in payroll and energy savings.
The Sportsplex also eliminated some traditional programming with low attendance and encouraged salaried employees to work hourly employee shifts to reduce payroll impact.
With the buy-in of the staff, Monteleone was able to achieve further cost savings by turning off office lights, computers, the marquee sign and other electrical equipment when not in use.
On The Road Again?
When it comes to assessing the impact of high gas prices on tournaments, many are taking a wait-and-see approach. At least at higher levels of play, most assume there will be few changes to tournament schedules and few protests from parents. Others, like John Coleman, president of the Potomac Valley Amateur Hockey Association, are not so sure, particularly when air travel is involved.
The Southeast District Tier I/Tier II Tournament will be held in Huntsville, Ala., this year, making air travel a must for most qualifying teams in the District.
Coleman wonders if airline cutbacks and higher ticket prices will cause resistance from parents.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” he says.
Fortunately, many tournaments have shifted their scheduling philosophy to minimize overnight stays. Teams that travel the farthest, for example, may not be scheduled to play their first game until Saturday morning instead of Friday night.
Attitudes about tournament play are shifting in Florida, where it’s not unusual for traveling teams to play in tournaments every other week during the season. Leagues are now structuring tournaments so that teams can play all of their games in one day, instead of requiring an overnight stay.
By eliminating the accompanying hotel, food and entertainment expenses, it’s conceivable that families could save $500 monthly, says Rick Ninko, owner of the Space Coast Iceplex in Rockledge. A good thing, he adds, considering “that money was never benefiting kids with their hockey skills.”
Closer To Home
As much as a teetering economy and the pain at the pump are negatives, hockey warriors like Ninko see the silver lining.
“What it’s really done is make the ‘market’ correct itself,” he explains.
As a rink owner, coach and hockey dad, Ninko has witnessed the shift from localized, recreational hockey to travel programs spiraling out of control.
These days it’s not uncommon for parents of young players to shell out big money to participate on elite travel teams, racking up additional expenses on tackle twill jerseys, matching hockey bags, embroidered sweat suits and other bells and whistles. Still, those costs may pale in comparison to the amount of money spent and miles logged shuttling players to and from long-distance tournaments and practices that might be held hours from home.
While Ninko is quick to praise the benefits of competitive travel programs in the development of top athletes – particularly as kids get older – he believes most young players are best served by keeping the focus on the fundamentals.
“Hockey is all about the experience that happens on the ice and in the locker room,” says Ninko. “Kids don’t learn to play hockey in a minivan.”
Ironically, tough economic times might be just the key to attracting new players to the local rink – and keeping them there longer. By providing cost-effective ways to join at the house level, some associations and rink owners are witnessing a resurgence in interest from parents and kids.
In Lancaster, Penn., where Ray Ferry owns a rink, a local high school league and three area rinks initiated an elementary school program designed to attract young new players.
During the inaugural session last spring, eight area high schools provided coaches and high school players who assisted with instruction. They also worked to get the word out to elementary schools that might be reluctant to promote the program if approached by the rinks only.
“Even before gas prices went up, we realized a program like this could work in our favor,” says Ferry.
Rink owners who normally competed against each other now found themselves collaborating to make it work, equally dividing the eight participating school districts by rink.
To make the program as affordable as possible, Ferry and the other two participating rink owners pooled their resources and bought 60 OneGoal starter equipment kits, each including a bag, helmet, pads, gloves, pants and stick, to share between rinks. Going forward, the program will charge between $8 and $10 per player, including free use of equipment and skates until parents are assured of their kids’ interest.
“Our potential is strong,” says Ferry, who credits much of the success of the program, which drew 160 participants last spring, to the efforts of the participating high schools.
Although the elementary school program is geared for spring, Ferry runs a free pond hockey session for kids ages 12 and under every Saturday during the fall and winter as a fun way to attract new players with no instruction involved. He freed up an additional hour immediately after that as an instructional “learn to skate and play hockey” program to build interest and give the elementary school program a head start leading into spring.
Ferry realizes that more localized hockey will be a tough sell for those already enmeshed in the culture and competitiveness of travel hockey programs. But for young new players interested in the sport – and families interested in finding more affordable ways to make it work – creating grassroots opportunities such as this one could open new doors.
“The theory is, let’s let the kids fall in love with hockey first,” says Ferry. “As they do, USA Hockey offers all the opportunity they can dream of to advance to higher levels.”
It’s a philosophy that can serve others at rinks across the country.
“Overall it’s going to be good for the game and bring more people into the program,” Ninko says. “Kids who become passionate about hockey will carry it with them all their lives.”
And that’s something you take that to the bank.
Nancy Pias is a freelance writer and hockey mom based out of Minnesota.