As a kid in Vancouver memorizing his favorite hockey players’ hometowns and statistics, Colgate Assistant Women’s Ice Hockey Coach Stefan Decosse didn’t imagine he was laying the groundwork for a research study. Growing up, “I was a hockey nerd,” Decosse says.
But this year, he has co-published a paper with research collaborator Glen Norcliffe, geography professor of Toronto’s York University, in The Canadian Geographer, attempting to answer questions about the geography of hockey itself — how 21st-century economics and infrastructure are remapping the sport.
Prior to the 1990s, Decosse explains, nearly every ice rink in Canada was publicly owned. The rinks belonged to cities and towns, whose workers maintained them. “They were a hub for the community,” Decosse says, like rec centers. To make sure the rinks served a wide swath of the population, the facilities removed ice in the summer and let people use them for other sports.
That meant even kids from tiny, rural towns had access to ice rinks, and elite professional players could arise from anywhere. For example, a region in British Columbia called the Kootenay was dominant in hockey during the middle of the 20th century. Although the region was home to just 7.5 percent of the province’s population, it produced 22 percent of British Columbia’s NHL players between 1940 and 1979. A Kootenay team called the Trail Smoke Eaters even won two world championships. (Decosse himself played junior hockey in the small town of Trail, so he was well aware of the region’s legacy.)
But at the end of the 20th century, the landscape of hockey in Canada started to experience tectonic shifts. There was a boom in the construction of private ice rinks, especially in cities. These rinks were dedicated to hockey, and they were open year-round. Now parents who had the means — and who lived close enough to one of these centers — could enroll their children in intensive training programs, and the kids could be on the ice 12 months a year.
The end of the century also saw a general trend toward public austerity, Decosse and Norcliffe write. That made it harder for local governments to fund public sports facilities — another factor that let private facilities multiply. For hockey in particular, 43 percent of the rinks built in British Columbia since 1990 have been privately owned.
To see how these shifts were changing the stats he’d memorized as a kid — specifically, where elite hockey players come from — Decosse dug into the data. He focused on British Columbia, where he still had a network of hockey connections, as a case study. He and Norcliffe combed through books, websites, and databases to collect information on every elite hockey player born in British Columbia after 1950. The researchers also gathered data on ice rinks operating in British Columbia, both currently and historically, as well as hockey training programs.
“The data certainly told a story,” he says, “one in which hockey’s history is deeply rooted in small-town Canada.” In the middle of the 20th century, small towns were producing disproportionately high numbers of elite hockey players. Metropolitan areas produced disproportionately few. By the start of the 21st century, the data showed, that pattern had reversed.
The Kootenay region, which used to be so dominant, now produces less than 2% of elite hockey players. It doesn’t have a single year-round ice rink. Players from Kootenay who want high-level training will drive as far as Vancouver, eight hours away.
Decosse and Norcliffe write that the patterns they found in British Columbia reflect shifts across Canada, and even in other sports and around the world: sports are becoming more privatized, more metropolitan, and less accessible.
The authors call this phenomenon a kind of commodification, as if the sports and even the athletes themselves have become products for sale. Exhibition games, high-priced tickets, legal betting, TV channels dedicated to sports, and memorabilia marketing are all part of this phenomenon, the authors write. So are the year-round training regimens that push athletes to perform at higher levels — although these demanding programs may not give their bodies enough time to rest and recover. At the same time, the scale of sports is expanding. In hockey, single-rink facilities are becoming multi-rink complexes; small arenas are becoming giant stadiums.
To further illuminate what those patterns meant in real people’s lives, Decosse did a series of interviews. He chose two contrasting locations — urban Vancouver and small-town Trail — and spoke with about a half-dozen people in each place.
The anecdotes those people told him lined up with the patterns Decosse saw in the numbers. People recalled, for example, how up until the 1950s, teams in regional leagues were sponsored by local industries such as mills and smelters. These companies paid the hockey players well and virtually guaranteed them jobs for life. The employers even paid players for the time they spent practicing or traveling for hockey. Players “were all treated like gods,” one junior hockey team president told Decosse.
“I didn’t realize that I would be so struck by the hockey cultures that formed in these small communities, and how impactful they were on these young hockey players, and how it shaped their lives,” Decosse says.
As hockey has become more privatized, costs have gone up dramatically. Especially in women’s hockey, Decosse says, programs are few and far between, so the investment in travel can be significant. He estimates that some families spend tens of thousands of dollars so their teenagers can play hockey competitively. Kids whose families can’t afford that kind of investment are left behind.
“Hockey is so greatly celebrated in Canada as everyone’s sport, the people’s sport,” Decosse says. “That’s a narrative that’s widely broadcasted and believed. And it’s just not true.”
As his career progresses, Decosse hopes he can begin working with grassroots sports programs and help people who have been left behind by the shifting map of hockey. Ultimately, he wants more kids from a wider range of backgrounds to be able to participate in the pastime that he loves.
“Because the sport is just such a tremendous sport,” Decosse says. “And Canada’s quite cold! So you’ve got to do something in the winter.”