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Canadian kids aren't so much into hockey, eh?

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Native Ontarian Jack Kent Cooke, who brought the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings to life in the 1960s, thought he would have a strong fan base because of the estimated 500,000 Canadians who lived in southern California. When the Kings continued to struggle at the gate in the 1970s, Cooke groused those Canadians moved to Los Angeles “because they obviously wanted to get away from hockey.”

Times have changed. Not that Canadians in Los Angeles are more into hockey. It’s that Canadians in Canada are less into hockey.

Yes, a shocking development from the Great White North. According to a study from a Canadian professor, young Canucks are losing interest in the NHL. What’s next, Canadian teens turning up their noses at poutine and backbacon?

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Poutine: the answer to the question, why does Canada need universal health care?

The study, by University of Lethbridge (Alberta) sociology professor Reginald Bibby, actually looked at Canadians teens’ interest in all pro sports, and finds it waning in a big way because of three factors: an enormous explosion in the number of entertaiment opportunities, a growing number of teens whose families emigrated to Canada from non-hockey playing regions, and the ineptitude of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Really, he said that about the Leafs, who since their 1967 Stanley Cup victory have had the resources of the New York Yankees and the management acumen of the Los Angeles Clippers.)

The results for hockey would have Canadian chauvinist and sartorial disaster area Don Cherry rolling over in his grave, if the coach-turned-broadcaster were dead.

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Don Cherry still thinks Russian hockey sucks.

According to Bibby’s survey of 5,500 Canadian teens, the interest in the NHL fell to 35 percent in 2008 from 45 percent in 1992. The decline in Ontario was 40 to 28, with only 20 percent of Toronto teens following the league. (Thus, the effect of the Leafs.) Of those teens whose parents, and themselves, were born in Canada, 40 percent followed the NHL. Of those teens who were born (and whose parents were born) outside of Canada, only 20 percent were interested in the NHL. Those non-native born teens were mostly likely to follow the NBA (31 percent) and soccer (30 percent). Programs such as Punjabi Sports have popped up in Canada to sate recent immigrants’ taste for coverage of such sports as kabaddi.

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The effort under way by Jim Balsillie, founder of Research in Motion, the makers of the Blackberry, to get a seventh NHL team in Canada is based on the idea that southern Ontario, his chosen locale, is full of hockey fans who would enthusiastically support the league. Bibby has a separate take: “These findings suggest the NHL needs to add teams in Canada in order that more Canadians – starting with young people – will fall in love with hockey.” (Emphasis is Bibby’s.)

This survey is interesting to me as a native Hoosier, what with Indiana rightly considered a place where basketball is practically in the DNA. Of couse, Indiana, whether it likes it or not, is subject to the same cultural trends as Canada, except that it’s the Indiana Pacers and Indiana University men’s basketball sucking instead of the Leafs.

In 2000, I drove my old high school buddy Mike Penn around Indiana as he reported a story for the Chicago Tribune about Indiana basketball tourism. One of the messages we got loud and clear was that Indiana high school basketball wasn’t what it used to be, and not just because the Indiana High School Athletic Association instituted class basketball in 1997.

In Anderson, the problem was that the demise of the auto industry had severed the connection between town and team, with the next generation no longer imbued in the necessity (or even around) to of fill a 9,000-seat gym, the nation’s second largest. (New Castle, Ind., is first, with 9,200 seats.) The coach said that every time he read the obituaries, there went another season-ticket holder.

In Huntingburg, Ind., a town of 5,500 with a 7,000-seat gym, a local sportswriter said the problem started with “girls’ basketball.” Beyond the crass sexism, his remark spoke to the fact that Indiana baskeball became big because it took hold in small, farm towns with nothing else to do. Once schools offered other sports and activities (heck, once cable television arrived), no longer was everything focused on boys’ basketball.

I would suspect that if Reginald Bibby polled the teens of Indiana, he might get similar results. A generation is growing up football fans, thanks to Peyton Manning, whose influence is so great he even has a children’s hospital named after him. High school basketball used to be a big deal only in Indiana, but now that so many are trying to track the top fifth-grader that someday might play for My Old U., it’s a bigger deal everywhere.

Plus, Indiana, for the first time since the Ku Klux Klan pulled the strings in the governor’s office in the 1920s (in an age where the Klan’s political influence was powerful nationwide), has had a major wave of immigration. More than 5,000 (and growing) Burmese refugees live in Fort Wayne, the highest concentration of such a population anywhere in the United States. Enough Latino immigrants have come to the state for a Mexican consulate to open in Indianapolis. Thanks to meatpacking operations and other industrial jobs, small cities like Logansport went from zero Hispanics in 1990 to having them represent more than 10 percent of the population 10 years later.

I’ve often wondered: would those new arrivals get involved in the basketball culture? Given this Canadian study, the answer appears to be, not likely.

Written by rkcookjr

August 9, 2009 at 4:12 pm

Posted in Business, Sports

Tagged with , , , , ,

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