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Is hockey still "our" sport
By Chris Lackner
Ice hockey no sport is held as close to the Canadian heart.
Our nation seems to collectively believe we are the rightful heirs to the gold medal, but questions linger as to whether we are still the best in the world. These questions find their roots in our minor hockey system and wind their way to the highest levels of professional competition.
Stan Butler, head coach of the Canadian World Junior Team and the Ontario Hockey League's Brampton Battalion, said he gives little credence to the belief that Canadian hockey talent has declined throughout the years.
"We were very lucky to beat the Russians in 1972 [the Summit Series]," he said, while noting that Finland, Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic have radically improved their play since 1980. "Other countries are [now] playing at a higher level."
However, due to rising costs, the talent level in Canada's minor hockey league system is becoming increasingly limited, Butler added, noting the future is quite ominous for our nation's hockey future. "Registration alone is $1,500 and that doesn't include equipment, travel and other miscellaneous costs."
Scott Oakman, executive director of the Greater Toronto Hockey League, said the growing cost of minor hockey is a major concern across Canada. "It costs $250 to rent ice for an hour of practice and we've seen a vast rise in the price of equipment," he said. "We've tried to off-set these costs through sponsorship."
Butler said the impact of Canada's growing multiculturalism may also play a factor in our hockey future. "As Canadian society becomes more and more multicultural, our talent will also depend on the level with which various ethnic groups embrace the game."
Oakman said multiculturalism would not play a factor in hockey's popularity across Canada. "We have the largest cultural mix of any league in Canada. Different cultures bring fresh values and perspective to the game."
Johnny Misley, director of hockey development for the Canadian Hockey Association and Team Leader for the Canadian Olympic Hockey team, said at the professional level, offensive creativity and the quality of coaching have been two areas of concern, since Canada's fourth place finish at Nagano in 1998.
Canada still has more depth than any other country, he added. "Our 100th best player is better than 80 of the top 100 players in any other country."
Some have criticized the ethics of professional hockey players who earn millions, playing in the Olympics, but Butler said he disagrees.
"Are you telling me guys like [sprinter] Donovan Bailey and [Elvis] Stojko are amateurs? You get into the definition of professionalism. It's not a hockey player's fault he makes more money than athletes in other sports."
Butler added he believes Sweden, Canada and the Czech Republic have the best shots at the gold medal in Salt Lake City.
"Canada has as good a chance as anyone else, but in one game anything can happen," he said.