It was just over a year ago when major Toronto media outlets proclaimed with much certainty that hockey was dying in Scarborough.
On paper, the optics are grim.
The Task Force on the State of Hockey in Scarborough reported that in the past four years, the total number of Scarborough youth enrolled in hockey programs has dropped 12 per cent, and the total membership of the Scarborough Hockey Association has plummeted from its peak of 10,000 to less than 3,000.
But now the city of Toronto is working with various fixtures in the hockey community to try and kick off a series of recommendations aimed at saving hockey in Scarborough.
“A lot of work is being done by our city of Toronto staff, in terms of piecing together some of the recommendations,” said Scarborough-Centre Councillor Michael Thompson, co-chair of the task force.
“The agencies are working together, and they’re very interested in ensuring they provide a solution to the decline of hockey in Scarborough,” he said.
The task force was assembled in June 2009 in response to sinking enrolment numbers that forced a number of Scarborough hockey clubs to fold. A major discussion topic was the changing demographics in Scarborough and how to reach out to the growing ethno-cultural community.
The 22-person task force prepared a report for Scarborough Community Council, with 10 recommendations to rejuvenate hockey Scarborough. Recommendations included enhancing the Learn to Skate programs, creating an equipment “rental bank”, and getting NHL and AHL players involved in a marketing campaign.
While the process has just begun, a number of recommendations are already in the early stages of implementation.
For example, for the first time the city has begun handing out Scarborough Youth Hockey League (SYHL) registration pamphlets to participants of its internal Learn to Skate program.
Howard Ryan, president of the West Hill Minor Hockey Association and a member of the task force, hopes this will begin to bolster enrolment numbers.
“This has just never happened before,” he said. “So we’re working in conjunction with the city to funnel the kids out of the Learn to Skate programs and into the not-for-profit minor hockey leagues in Scarborough.”
The Scarborough Youth Hockey League also started sending out flyers n Chinese dialects, hoping to engage various pockets of Scarborough’s ethnic communities.
One recommendation met with enthusiasm by Ryan is the idea to launch a ball hockey pilot program in Scarborough, to introduce new generation Canadian families to hockey in an easier-to-learn format.
“I think the introduction of ball hockey in the city programs as a stepping stone into ice hockey is one of the best things to come out of this,” Ryan said.
Councillor Thompson expressed optimism in how the task force will benefit Scarborough hockey.
“In the next couple of years we should see a much stronger brand of house league hockey and growth in terms of the number of kids getting involved,” he said.
And while the prevailing sentiment of hockey’s inevitable demise in Scarborough is thinning, some are still skeptical on how the council recommendations will play out.
Ryan said the rental bank, aimed at helping low-income families deal with the game’s financial barriers, will be a major challenge. He said West Hill attempted a similar program in the past with varying degrees of success.
“I don’t know if we’d be able to get the facilities to do something larger, or if the city has the ability to clean the equipment properly,” he said. “That’s a recommendation I don’t know if they’ll be able to get off the ground.”
Ed Wahl, president of the Scarborough Hockey Association, said the idea to get NHL players down for marketing purposes seemed implausible.
“All the recommendations are great, but it’s implementing them,” he said. “We couldn’t get an (NHL) player to our league to save our soul. We’ve tried.”
Councillor Thompson said a framework for how exactly the recommendations will be implemented is being worked on.
“I think the important thing is we’re addressing an issue that has been neglected for quite some time,” he said. “We’ve gotten beyond the blaming and finger-pointing. We’re moving forward.”
A final report is expected to officially come to council sometime in the fall for endorsement.