Mark Messier knows a thing or two about the importance of lending an assist. The former NHL star is a familiar face across North America, not only for his prowess on the ice but also for his passion in addressing the concerns of the hockey community across Canada. The Hall of Famer and his sister, Mary-Kay Messier, director of brand initiatives for Bauer Hockey, were on hand at the Rogers Sportsnet studio recently to discuss their involvement with The First Shift.
A couple of years ago, Bauer Canada and Hockey Canada joined forces to commission a survey that would yield a glimpse into the challenges that Canadian families face with regard to our national pastime. A whopping 90 percent of the 875 families surveyed across Ontario and Nova Scotia admitted to keeping their kids out of hockey due to a combination of safety concerns, affordability and a noted lack of “fun” experiences it provided for their kids. And for a six-time Stanley Cup champion, it’s a hard statistic to reconcile. “It’s an alarming wake-up call,” admits 54-year-old Messier. “We like to think of ourselves as an elite hockey nation—and deservedly so, considering all that we’ve accomplished. So what do you do when you hear something like that? You roll up your sleeves and start asking some tough questions about why our kids aren’t entering our sport.”
And roll up his sleeves he did, using his celebrity for an initiative that hits close to home.
Bauer Hockey and Hockey Canada launched The First Shift initiative in October 2012 in an effort to ease the transition for families who are new to the game. The program, which is open to kids between the ages of six and 10 who have never played hockey before, hopes to see one million new players registered in hockey leagues across Canada by 2022.
Despite our national affinity for the sport and the vital role it plays in building a kid’s confidence as an integral member of a team, hockey remains a high-priced venture. Combine the financial aspect with safety concerns and the confidence-crushing pressures of trying to make it into an elite league and you have kids and parents who turn their backs on a sport often credited with consistently uniting our nation at world events. “With The First Shift, it’s a six-week program and, for $199, they’ll get all their starter equipment and our coaches are there to show them a fun time,” says Messier. “Parents don’t always know where to turn after the program [so we can also direct them to] a variety of recreational leagues that don’t carry the pressures of elite levels. We want them all to keep playing.”
An ongoing concern in the parenting community is the rash of concussion-related injuries in the NHL. “What many parents don’t realize is that 80 percent of kids playing hockey in our country play in a non-checking league,” explains Mary-Kay. “[Many] of the injuries in the news occur at the elite level of the sport—you have the game’s biggest, fastest, strongest skaters playing against one another. For parents coming into this sport for the first time, education is significant. We’re not sweeping the concern under the rug; we’re just making sure that families understand prevention and the importance of properly fitted equipment.”
When the issue of affordability came up, Messier was quick to point out the benefits of The First Shift and how it educates parents on finding a hockey league schedule that suits their priorities. “I feel like all roads tend to point to elite programs in our sport because everyone thinks that’s where they should be, which is unfortunate,” says Messier. “Parents need to know that seeing their kid in the NHL isn’t the be-all-end-all. There are other ways that their kids can play hockey without committing to a packed schedule.”
But it’s not the end result that counts. “It’s for their physical and emotional well-being,” says Messier. “It’s also about competition and interaction with the other players. That’s what I miss most about playing in the NHL. I use the example of 1984, when we won the Stanley Cup [with the Edmonton Oilers]: It was a dream come true, but I woke up the next day with an empty feeling. You’d think I’d have been excited—there was no bigger or better place to go. But the empty feeling came because I wasn’t headed to the rink anymore with a goal in mind. It’s not the end result that counts; it’s the journey.”
Quick facts about The First Shift
Open to: Kids between the ages of six and 10 who have never played hockey before
Registration fee: $199 (taxes included)
Bauer equipment: A helmet (with face mask), shoulder and elbow pads, socks, pants, a jockstrap/jillstrap, gloves, skates, a stick and a white jersey (that kids can personalize)
On-ice sessions: Six-week programs, with one 60-minute session per week
Visit The First Shift for more information.