TOP Sports: the alternative to traditional youth sports

min - read
Tom Sychterz
min - read
If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Youth hockey across Canada is perceived as expensive and challenging for the work-life realities of parents.
The whole youth hockey space is also considered to be a monopoly where only a few people wield power at the top and control the whole structure.
TOP Sports is an alternative programming option for hockey that is making hockey more accessible, affordable and manageable for parents while increasing the services rendered and the impact for the kids involved.

Youth Hockey today

Youth Hockey is broken. Plain and simple. Current professional players say it, parents say it, organizers say it: things are out of control.

Too expensive. Too intense. Too much cronyism. Unhealthy for the parents. Even unhealthier for the kids.

So, what are the options?

Well, we've uncovered a team that's implementing an alternative solution successfully, but they're being roadblocked by the powers that be.

Our words, not theirs.

Let's jump in.

The Cost of Youth Hockey

The cost of playing youth hockey is enormous.

Even players who end up making millions in the NHL recognize that. Future Hall of Famer Joe Thorton says when he was growing up, he’d buy sticks made of wood for $20, and now kids use composite sticks for more than $300. Colorado Avalanche defenceman Samuel Girard says his family had to pick between him and his brother, which is part of why he made it to the NHL.

Former NHLer Akim Aliu is also quite vocal about what it's like when a player can’t afford to keep up. He points out that other players used to make fun of him because he couldn’t afford thousand dollar skates every year.

Stable Diffusion AI hockey net with dollar bills

Digging into the numbers

  • A 2018-19 report from Hockey Canada recorded four straight years of dropping registration, and much of that is likely because of costs. Consider that the number of girls playing hockey is dropping by 18%, according to that same report.
  • The average Canadian family will spend over $1,700 total per year on all hockey-related fees ( equipment, registration, tournaments, etc), according to another survey. It gets even worse when players get to an elite level because elite technology changes year-over-year, and that equates to more costs.
  • A week of private hockey camp can cost up to $1000 per week. Some sport schools in Ontario, like Hill Academy or Canadian International Hockey Academy, can cost as much as $70,000 annually.
  • Hockey Canada charges a registration fee of $3 per player. The organization waived fees for this year due to the ongoing controversy it is facing regarding its handling of previous and current sexual assault, harassment, and bullying cases involving the organization over the last several years.

During that same time, basketball registration was up because the Toronto Raptors were busy defending their first NBA championship. The same was true for tennis, as Canadian star Bianca Andreescu competed in major championship finals, resulting in Tennis Canada reporting a 32% increase in participation from 2016 to 2018.

Hockey Hustle: Financial, Physical, Mental and Scheduling nightmare for parents

Playing youth hockey is no doubt a huge financial commitment for parents and their children. 

It costs hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to outfit one player with equipment and skates. If that player is seven years old, they’ll grow out of their equipment regularly, which means multiple upgrades to equipment every year.

Then there is the cost of ice time. In the Greater Toronto Area, ice costs can range from $227 an hour during primetime, up to more than $500 an hour. 

Imagine driving to and from a hockey rink every Saturday and spending two hours commuting. Then spending thousands of dollars per year to outfit your child, paying for registration costs, gas, equipment, and ice time, before realizing that your child only touched the puck for 15 seconds of in-game action, and you spent many hours getting ready for that game and then coming home. That’s why many parents and players are getting tired of the archaic structure of Hockey Canada and youth leagues like the Greater Toronto Hockey League, or the North York Hockey League.

FInancial aid is now necessary

KidSport Canada is a non-profit organization that helps families pay for registration fees and equipment related to youth sports. In 2019, the organization raised $8.7 million to pay the fees and expenses of 40,000 youth sports participants across the country.

Over the past five years, the organization has helped over 188,000 children and raised over $40 million. Those numbers will have to increase because of the rising costs associated with economic inflation. 

Yes, there was a bit of a downturn in requests during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic. But now with the cost rising and parents itching to get their kids back into sports programs, not only will the demand for support from organizations like KidSport Canada increase, but the demand for more flexible options that save parents time and money will also increase.

After all, not being able to afford the cost of youth sports programs is one thing. Having to work a side hustle or overtime hours at your job to keep paying your mortgage and put food on the table is another.

Monopolization of hockey

Youth hockey programs in Canada are heavily monopolized.

Although this might be considered a controversial viewpoint, Hockey Canada and its sanctioned youth leagues are the owners of this monopoly.

The teams themselves are valuable from a financial standpoint. They regularly fetch price tags of six or even seven figures. Many parents and players push themselves not only to the brink of financial hardship, but also to the point of bullying other players and parents, and that’s partly because of the pressure and money that goes into playing the sport.

Alternative options are available, but Hockey Canada chooses not to include those programs or sanction the events of those programs.

Hockey Canada’s negative publicity, however, is finally opening doors for alternatives, and parents are finally realizing that being tied to a hypercompetitive, expensive, and time-consuming hockey league just because it’s sanctioned by Hockey Canada, is no longer a must. 

Ai Stable Diffusion
monopoly hockey

Enter TOP Hockey

TOP Hockey, the hockey division of TOP Sports, is committed to changing the landscape of youth sports for good. The acronym TOP stands for “The Other Path.” TOP Sports, launched in 2017, is an organization that allows athletes to gain exposure to several different sports, organize their schedules in advance, and get more time with the puck (or ball).

Former athletes and current youth sports parents Luke Earl, Ian Mackenzie, and Kevin Shier came together to found TOP Sports looking for a better, healthier way to keep kids involved in sports, avoid the perils of early specialization and high-pressure competition, and also keep sports affordable for both athletes and their parents.

As Earl said, “One of the competitive advantages we have at TOP is that we’re not looking to make the best seven-year-old hockey team. We hear parents say, ‘hockey trumps everything else in your life’. That’s not how it should be, and our sports programming reflects that.”

Earl is clearly looking to do something different, and over the last five years, he and his co-founders are proving that what they’re doing is working, but it was his reason for launching TOP Sports that speaks volumes.

In an interview with CTV News, Earl described the hockey schedule and demands of his son’s program as one that took over ‘not only his life but the family’s life.’

“My seven year old son played 60 hockey games and had 40 practices when he played in the traditional hockey system here in Toronto,” said Earl. “ These games were all over the city, and extremely time consuming given the fact that each game on average only equated to 10 minutes of ice time and 15 seconds with the puck for my son, in exchange for 3 hours of his life.  On top of that, game days were inconsistent and changed from week to week to different days randomly, making scheduling any other sport or family activity near impossible during the 8 month long hockey season.”

Co-Founder Ian Mackenzie noticed the same trends as a coach. After his playing career finished and he got beyond playing beer league hockey, Mackenzie became interested in coaching. He noticed early on the same trends that Earl spoke of, a lack of time with the puck, pressure on the players to win, and not enough focus on skill development and fun.

“Starting out as a coach, I worked as a coach and  a skills instructor,” said Mackenzie. “It was then that I started to see a lot of the issues and flaws with the current system. It became a lot more apparent to me as I coached in the GTHL that the environment was toxic, focused on winning and success, statistics, and the time spent playing games and didn't have the best interest of the kids and their development at the forefront.”

Mackenzie pointed out the intensity of parents and their attitudes toward winning, even when very young children were involved.

“Parents would want to have a meeting because the kids were on a three-game losing streak or would call to yell at me about their kid’s linemates. It was crazy.”

The TOP Sports model

TOP Sports’ model features a high level of feedback and a focus on building enthusiasm for the game of hockey. It’s not limited to just hockey though. TOP also offers soccer, lacrosse programs as options to players who want to play more than one sport.

One of the best parts about choosing to play sports with TOP is that athletes can participate in all three sports simultaneously if they want to without any of the sport’s schedules conflicting with each other. The goal is to make sure that parents can help their kids engage in all of these sports without having to drive long distances or worry about overlapping schedules. That’s why TOP sets all of their schedules well in advance for the whole season. Athletes and parents know exactly when practices and games will be played at the start of the season.

TOP Hockey player
courtesy TOP Sports

TOP Sports Is Making An Undeniable Impact

TOP Sports’ more inclusive model integrates multiple sports and schedules while keeping in mind the priorities of both parents and players. The TOP program offers advantages that traditional programs like the GTHL and most other hockey organizations operating under the Hockey Canada umbrella simply don’t.

With the TOP Sports program, players get access to paid professional coaches, an organization  overseeing and fine-tuning the programming constantly, and a smaller player-to-coach ratio, which means each individual gets more attention.

Ice times are booked far in advance so that players and parents can organize their schedules without having to play hockey their entire life.

TOP also caters to many athletes who like skiing and participate in that sport on the same day every weekend. They will work around the schedules that athletes have with other sports so that anybody looking to be a multisport athlete can still enjoy each of the sports they play.

Players and parents are beginning to notice, as evidenced by. TOP Sports’ 99% retention rate, and overflowing registration numbers. Most of that momentum is being built off word-of-mouth and reputation. That shows just how much the kids and the parents actually love what choosing “The Other Path” is all about.

Changing the future of youth hockey

The fact that hockey is Canada’s game is something drilled into the minds of Canadians from the moment they are old enough to comprehend. This cultural tie makes it difficult to convince large organizations with control over the grassroots levels of hockey to welcome alternatives.

Factors like insurance, safety, and proper registration are often held against newer organizations looking to build alternative programming from the ground up. It’s for that reason that the founding team at TOP is focusing on getting sanctioned in other sports.

This February, TOP Soccer achieved just that when they were accepted by The Ontario  Soccer Association and given club sanctioning to participate in games and tournaments.

TOP Sports Soccer Player

This highlights a massive difference in the governance of youth soccer versus hockey in Canada. Within Hockey Canada, there is no such process to integrate a new, innovative program trying to take an alternative approach to developing competitive, well-rounded athletes. In hockey, any alternative league or team cannot even play exhibition games against the hundreds of teams in their immediate community. 

As Luke Earl put it, “The difference is that soccer doesn’t have an ‘our way or no way mentality’.”

In sport, there are many ways to do things, and nobody is arguing that we need to sacrifice the competitive elements of the game. However, families need a more practical way to manage schedules, while embracing multi-sport athletes. 

“Over time, it is essential to the creation of a well-rounded and successful athlete,” said Kevin Shier of youth playing multiple sports. “As kids mature and grow, we think the most versatile athletes become the best players in each individual sport.”

Programs like TOP Sports show that many traditional sports programs with large budgets have focused on politics rather than participation, and although hockey has been governed by one group for many years, it is not necessarily the right way, or the only way to provide youth athletes with an opportunity to play.

“We need to grow and evolve with the times, and we understand now, more than ever, that there are detriments to the way things are being done in the current system which lead to burn out (both mentally and physically) in kids, and ultimately dropping out of the game around the age of 14,” said Shier. 

Alternative programming with an athlete first and long-term development focus is an answer to many of the problems, including decreased participation and a toxic environment, plaguing hockey in Canada today.

Pro Players