Light At The End Of The Hockey Rink

John Berardini, president of the Agincourt Lions Hockey Club, was forced to close his hockey club due to low enrollment. Photo by Lucas Oleniuk.

In the aftermath of a turbulent two years that saw house leagues closing, a court dispute and shrinking enrolment numbers, there is finally some good news for hockey in Scarborough.The state of minor league hockey in Scarborough appears to be improving, with better house league numbers and increased enrolment. But some are still wary of growing overly optimistic.

West Hill Minor Hockey Association has bolstered its numbers by 20 per cent, from 650 players to 890, while the SHA has reported an enrolment increase of approximately 10 per cent. The SHA has also restructured its main hockey program to make game times and locations more consistent.

“The numbers for our house league are unbelievable,” said Howard Ryan, president of West Hill.

Based on this season’s registration numbers, Ryan expressed optimism for the future of hockey in Scarborough , especially for younger age groups.

“The most positive thing with the 890 is that we have 24 novice teams, with 10 six-year-olds and eight seven-year-olds.”

But Ed Wahl, president of the SHA, was cautious of attributing the enrolment increase to the recent task force initiative, and instead pointed to recent restructuring within the SHA.

Following a series of hockey clubs closing due to declining numbers, the SHA went through an amalgamation of all its clubs to strengthen its house league. This led to the formation of the Scarborough Youth Hockey League and the merger of the club’s remaining competitive teams.

Wahl says the players from the competitive program trickled into various GTHL clubs, including West Hill.

“The reason we’re up is because we closed down Scarborough Hockey Association competitive,” he said. “When you put 500 kids into a program and tell them that program doesn’t exist anymore, they have to go somewhere.”

But there’s no doubt the SHA has come a long way from neighbourhood house league programs closing in 2009. This year all teams have an average of 15 players, with some maxed out at 16.

Wahl noted that the team with the weakest enrolment, with 13 players, are his eight-year-olds, and that will have to change to ensure a sustainable future for hockey in Scarborough.

“We need to see the increase in the younger age groups,” he said. “That’s where our future lies.”

Ryan agreed that recruiting the target younger market has been his association’s biggest obstacle.

“We’ve made tremendous steps forward, I just don’t want to get on the ‘We’re all safe’ bandwagon yet,” Wahl said. “It’s very hard for me on this basis to say everything’s great.”

The SHA has also undergone some structural changes to simplify things for parents.

“Last year, this program unfortunately ran out of five different facilities,” Wahl said. “It was an absolute nightmare for parents to remember. We had parents showing up at the wrong arenas.”

The SHA has attempted to stabilize its schedule by now holding all games at Don Montgomery arena on Saturdays at periodic times, all posted on the SYHL’s and SHA’s website.

Wahl said it was easier in the second year after the SHA’s major changes to see what needed to be corrected.  Ultimately, he recognizes the changes were necessary to ensure the SHA’s future.

“What we had to do within the SHA is come to terms with the realization that we could either let our program die a slow death…or we could get pro-active,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Mississauga Hockey League recently announced a partnership with Tim Hortons for the ‘Tim Hortons Got Hockey’ Program, aimed towards kids from new Canadian families.

The program provides ice, training, and equipment for eight weeks for a fee of $35 per participant. Wahl said it could be worth it for the Task Force on Hockey in Scarborough to look at the plausibility of launching something similar in Scarborough.

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